Foreign workers should complement & not displace local workforce: Tan See Leng

Tan also highlighted that there were not enough Singaporeans to go around for vacant jobs, especially in the infocomm sector.

Matthias Ang | Kayla Wong | July 06, 2021, 04:31 PM

The government is of the view that foreign manpower should not come to Singapore simply because they are cheaper to hire and displace the local workforce, Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng said in Parliament on July 6.

Rather, they should complement the local workforce by bringing in extra skills to help companies and create more Singaporean jobs, he added.

In his Ministerial Statement, Tan added that the fundamental question underlying the discussion surrounding the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) was how a balance could be struck between ensuring that businesses have access to manpower to grow and succeed, while creating opportunities for Singaporean workers to grow and progress.

Tan: "Important that we go into the root cause of the problem"

The minister further highlighted that he understood what displaced Singaporeans were going through and that the government was keen to help them.

However, he added, "it is important that we go into the root cause of the problem" and that the situation is diagnosed correctly.

Tan then noted that it was not surprising that an increasing concentration of Employment Pass (EP) holders had caused some social friction and anxiety to Singapore, and that such issues were expected, given the transient nature of such a demographic.

As such, the work pass policies are constantly updated.

"Indeed, when a single nationality becomes too prominent, that can have a disproportionate impact on our existing culture, our beliefs, it can cause our fellow Singaporeans, ourselves included, to feel less at home, in our workplaces, and in our neighborhoods," he pointed out.

Such a situation had occurred in the early 2000s, Tan noted, when the share of foreign workers from China increased significantly, before tapering, thereby creating frictions within Singapore's communities.

Tan highlighted:

"We have to bring in the talent and the skills to keep our economy growing, while tracking that the number of foreigners in our midst stays at a level that we are able to cope with, and manage the social frictions that will arise from time to time. Now this is a series of trade-offs. It is not going to be a one-off adjustment. It will be a constant balance that we have to continuously monitor and get right."

Increase in Indian EP holders is reflection of global trend

With regard to Indian EP holders, Tan said that their proportion had increased from about one-seventh (13 per cent) in 2005 to about a quarter (26 per cent) in 2020.

This increase, he clarified, is not the result of more favourable treatment due to CECA but a reflection of the global trend in the demand and supply of tech talent.

Within Singapore, part of this trend has been driven by the need for every sector to be digitally enabled, he highlighted.

He elaborated, "The larger increases in Indian EP holders compared to other nationalities, is driven by a result of rapid growth and choices of growing our digital economy and finance."

There are not enough Singaporeans to go around

Tan also pointed out that there were not enough locals to fill vacant positions, with 6,000 jobs in the infocomm sector alone remaining unfilled, and around 22,000 PME jobs in general that stood empty.

He elaborated, "The simple point is that while we have a good Singaporean talent pool, our pool is not large enough to fulfil all of the needs, the breadth and the depth of these enterprises."

As such, while companies are keen to take on Singaporeans, given that the local workforce is more productive, they can also decide on which overseas countries they want to bring in their manpower from based on their needs and the availability of the required talent.

He added in Chinese that it was also inevitable for foreign enterprises, especially firms from specialised or emerging sectors, to employ foreign talent in order to make up for the lack of technical expertise that locals may not have acquired yet.

With regard to tech talent, Tan noted that both China and India, over the last decade, had been two of the largest suppliers of tech talent.

However, many Chinese tech talents have since decided to stay home to work, as a result of the number of unicorns that had sprouted up in the PRC, leaving India as the only country where tech talent has continued to look outwards.

Tan also noted that India is currently the largest country of origin for international migrants. In 2020, it accounted for 18 million international migrants, up by 10 million from 2000.

New jobs created have exceeded the jobs lost

Tan also highlighted that jobs for Singaporeans had been preserved amidst the pandemic, as a result of policies that had the support of employers and unions.

In giving figures, he said that total employment in 2020, excluding migrant domestic workers shrank by 166,600. Meanwhile, foreign employment was the most severely hit, shrinking by 181,500.

As for resident employment, this increased by 14,900, in spite of the downturn.

In addition, from 2005 to 2020, a higher number of local PME jobs was created for Singaporeans compared to that for EPs.

During this period, the total number of EPs increased by around 112,000 while the number of local PMEs increased by more than 380,000.

Within the finance sector, the number of EPs increased by around 20,000, while the number of jobs created for local PMEs was even greater at around 85,000.

As for the infocomm sector, the number of EPs increased by around 25,000 while the number of jobs created for local PMEs at 35,000

Tan then said:

"When a company decides to come into Singapore to invest and they need about 3,000 people, they may be able to find about 2,500 of these talents in Singapore, but they still need to supplement that 2,500 with the other additional 500 from overseas. Now if we object, and we insist that the balance of the 500 must all come from Singapore, irrespective, then how do we expect the investment to take off? How do you expect the investment to come in? These 2,500 jobs for the locals would be compromised greatly."

Screenshot from CNA YouTube