During his closing speech in Parliament on Tuesday (Sep. 14), Finance Minister Lawrence warned members of the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) not to draw "simplistic policy conclusions" from data alone, as Singapore's workforce situation is far more complex than it may seem.
The Parliament session was unusual due to its length; it lasted over 13.5 hours, with the bulk of the time spent on debating a motion about securing Singaporeans' jobs and livelihoods, which was tabled by Wong.
This motion was tabled after PSP's Leong Mun Wai's motion on Singapore's foreign talent policy, with a particular focus on the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA), Singapore's free trade agreement (FTA) with India.
Jobs vacated by foreigners may not automatically go to Singaporeans
Wong began by responding to some of the points that were brought up earlier by the two PSP members, Leong and Hazel Poa.
He summarised their general argument as such: Singapore has too many foreigners, so it is imperative to squeeze these workers out of Singapore, so local workers can take the vacant jobs and enjoy higher wages.
However, Wong said this was merely "simplistic and wishful thinking", pointing out that when Singapore reduces the jobs of foreign professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs), they will not automatically go to Singaporeans.
When foreign companies set up offices in Singapore, they aren't necessarily catering only to the Singapore market, as many of them use Singapore as a base to serve the region.
Such companies will not find Singapore to be an attractive option if there are hard caps on the number of local workers required in a company, as proposed by Leong in an earlier speech, and may leave Singapore altogether.
"So to assume that by squeezing the foreigners, all these jobs will go to Singaporeans, I think it is being very simplistic about the argument," said Wong.
Not enough Singaporeans to support workforce
Wong also pointed out that Leong had previously blamed the education system for not ensuring that Singaporeans have the capability of taking up jobs vacated by foreigners.
Wong criticised Leong's argument, describing it as "completely disingenuous" and "a great disservice" to Singapore's teachers and educators.
He also said that Workers' Party (WP) MPs Leon Perera and Gerald Giam had similar variations of the same argument, although he noted that their stance did not extend as far as Leong's.
Wong said that many of these criticisms missed out a very crucial point: that there are simply not enough Singaporeans to support the needs of the economy in Singapore.
"If only. If only you did better with training. If only you taught all the kids coding from a young age, 20 years ago. If only. Sir, we will continue to improve our education system. But I think all of these arguments miss out on the most important point. And that's the stark reality that Singaporeans are great in the workforce, but there are just not enough of us!"
Where are we going to find more Singaporeans?
He said that many industries are in need of more manpower, bringing up examples of how additional doctors and nurses are always in demand in Singapore.
Wong also said that when he was still Minister for Education, members of the PSP had recommended recruiting more teachers, in order to help improve the education system.
"Where are we going to find all of the Singaporeans? Everybody wants more!" exclaimed Wong.
He said that most employers are keen to hire students from local universities, polytechnics and Institutes of Technical Education (ITEs), although there are never enough graduates for the needs of the economy.
Wong followed up by saying that if an industry attracts more Singaporeans, this would mean a shortage of Singaporean workers for another industry, and that this was merely the "stark reality".
Warned against making simplistic conclusions
Wong also brought up a point mentioned earlier by Poa, when she showed statistics in the past 10 years that showed a correlation between a tight labour market and wage growth.
A tight labour market refers to a situation where demand for labour is as strong as supply. In such a labour market, employers compete for workers, and wages generally increase as a result.
He did not argue with Poa's statistics, saying that "the data is quite clear", although he warned against drawing "simplistic policy conclusions" from such data.
Wong shared that in 2011, when the government originally began implementing on controls on foreign workers entering Singapore, business leaders were not keen on the idea, believing that the restrictions on foreign workers were a detriment to business growth.
He said that the strong wage growth experienced in 2011 and subsequent years can be attributed to two main factors working in tandem with one another, above-average economic recovery after the 2008 recession, coupled with the tighter labour market due to new restrictions on foreign workers.
Tightening labour market may not always lead to a positive result
However, Wong also warned against making simplistic conclusions based on this data, saying that tightening the labour market may not always lead to positive results.
"If we make that simplistic conclusion that tight labour markets, just tighten, just tighten; wages will automatically rise. I think we might be going down a very dangerous path," he said.
Wong said that while wage increases are certainly positive, if such increases are not paired with a corresponding increase in productivity, Singapore will lose its competitiveness.
This would not only lead to a loss of foreign jobs, but also foreign investment, after which the number of jobs available to Singaporeans will also decrease, explained Wong.
Wong said that such a line of thought was "not just simplistic, or wishful, but fatally flawed".
Taking such a short-sighted approach will lead to companies leaving Singapore, and Singapore's reputation as a business hub will be impacted as well, leading to a decline in the local economy, which will ultimately lead to Singaporeans suffering as a result, he said.
Nobody owes Singapore a living
Wong also said that the PSP's recommendations have hinged on a core assumption: that foreign companies will always want to invest in Singapore, and that they will put up with increased restrictions by the government in order to stay in Singapore.
He described the assumption as "complacent", and said that nobody owes Singapore a living.
"Global competition for investment is relentless, and more intense than ever. It took many decades of hard work to get to where we are today. Please have a care about what we say or do, because things can fall apart very easily," said Wong.
Follow and listen to our podcast here
Top image via MCI/YouTube.