PM Lee: With major foreign investments in the pipeline, Singapore cannot turn inwards and harm its reputation

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong revealed in Parliament that several Fortune 500 companies and a pharmaceutical company are looking to invest in Singapore during the pandemic-triggered economic downturn. — TODAY pic
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong revealed in Parliament that several Fortune 500 companies and a pharmaceutical company are looking to invest in Singapore during the pandemic-triggered economic downturn. — TODAY pic

SINGAPORE, Sept 2 — Even though Singapore is “under stress” now, it cannot afford to turn inwards and must show confidence that Singapore can hold its own in the world, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said today.

This is especially important at a time when some companies have expressed interest in investing in Singapore during this time of the pandemic-triggered economic shock. 

Offering a sneak peek, Lee told Parliament that a pharmaceutical firm is planning to build a facility to manufacture vaccines here. 

Another company specialising in pandemic risk insurance wants to set up operations in Singapore. Major financial institutions want to expand their operations as well.

Several Fortune 500 companies are also considering moving their regional headquarters to Singapore because of political uncertainties elsewhere, Lee said on the third day of the debate on the President’s Address. 

However, he warned that these investments could be scuppered if Singapore gave the impression that it no longer welcomes foreigners.

Despite the depressed economic climate, investors are turning to Singapore for a “safe harbour”. 

This is because other countries are undergoing stress and political instability, and investors with regional projects are looking to relocate.

“Investors starting new projects are also anxiously scanning the globe, searching for the right place where they can safely make a commitment now,” Lee said.

“Companies are seeking a safe harbour, where the politics is stable, there is rule of law, the people are hardworking and united, and where the country will come through the pandemic safely and have a bright future.”

In this regard, Singapore remains one of the few “trusted countries”, with companies such as South Korean carmaker Hyundai Motor announcing plans to set up facilities here for research and development and to develop technologies, including electric cars.

Lee said that the projects that could flow into Singapore would create good new jobs for Singaporeans.

“But for them to come here, they must feel welcome and be allowed to bring in the talent they need,” he added.

At present, he noted that Singapore does not have the full complement of specialist engineers and other expertise for these types of work yet. 

Regional and global headquarters of companies naturally run international teams. Even as they employ Singaporeans, they cannot be staffed by Singaporeans alone, he said. 

“Once these companies establish themselves here, more Singaporeans will be able to take advantage of the opportunities they create, pick up the skills and knowledge and rise up the ranks.” 

Staying open to foreigners, while protecting Singaporean jobs

Ultimately, Lee said that even as Singapore tweaks its work pass policies to limit the influx of foreigners, Singaporeans must be careful not to give the impression that it no longer welcomes foreigners.

“Such a reputation would do us great harm.” 

“And we have to watch this, because we are being watched,” said Lee, who referred to a recent report in the Financial Times newspaper that said Singapore’s mood was turning inwards.

Lee acknowledged that some companies could have an overconcentration of employees of the same foreign nationality, which, if unchecked, could cause resentment among Singaporeans.

The government, for its part, works with firms to relook their hiring practices and ensure a diverse workforce.

But this issue can easily be played up, said Lee. He cited the example of a viral photo of DBS bank’s chief executive officer Piyush Gupta posing with Indian employees at an India-based office. 

The caption asked viewers to look for Singaporean and Chinese employees in the photo and misled Singaporeans into thinking that the office was based in Singapore.

“The person who put up the post surely knew this, yet he irresponsibly misuses the wefie to insinuate that DBS in Singapore was not being fair to Singaporeans,” said Lee.

The prime minister gave the assurance that the government would always be on the side of Singaporeans and creates jobs for foreigners only if it benefits Singaporeans.

“Ultimately, our aim is to grow the economy, create good jobs for Singaporeans and raise our standards of living. Foreign workers and work pass holders help us to achieve this,” he said.

Urging the public to remain welcoming to foreigners, Lee reminded Singaporeans that it was Singapore’s “history and ethos” as an open port and immigration nation to be open to the world.

“We will adjust our policies to safeguard Singaporean jobs, but let us show confidence that Singaporeans can hold our own in the world.” — TODAY

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