SINGAPORE, Sept 14 — The Progress Singapore Party’s (PSP) thinking that jobs taken away from foreigners will automatically go to Singaporeans is “fatally flawed”, said Finance Minister Lawrence Wong today, as he pointed out that the data and evidence are clear — the government’s economic policies have helped to raise standards of living across the board and to create “many more good jobs for Singaporeans”.

“Our children — fresh graduates from our Institutes of Higher Learning, polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education — are benefiting. They are doing the jobs of the future, not the past — which would have disappeared in any event if we had stood still in the 1990s,” said Wong in his opening speech on a Parliamentary motion which he tabled on securing Singaporeans’ jobs and livelihoods.

Nevertheless, he acknowledged that there are downsides to an open economy which must be attended to. But the right approach — which has been adopted by the ruling People’s Action Party and the National Trades Union Congress labour movement — is “not to impede progress by holding on to every job even as they become obsolete; but to work hard to protect every worker and help those who are displaced”, Wong stressed.

“In this way, we can grow the economic pie for everyone, and ensure that the cost of globalisation and openness does not fall unfairly on the displaced workers,” he added, noting that Singapore will “stagnate and atrophy” if the desire is to have an economy “where nobody will ever be displaced”.

Price to pay if foreigner numbers reduced

Wong had filed the motion in response to a separate motion filed by PSP’s Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Leong Mun Wai to explain and reiterate the government’s position on the matter.

The government, he said, could not accept Mr Leong’s motion as it falsely attributes the challenges faced by Singaporeans in securing jobs to that of free trade agreements and foreigners, despite an earlier parliamentary debate on the matter in July this year.

“The PSP assumes that if we reduced the number of foreigners here, then all their jobs will automatically go to Singaporeans,” said Wong, who also criticised the “strong racist and xenophobic undertones” of PSP’s stance on the issue. 

Wong pointed out that there are more than 25,000 professional, managerial, executive and technician (PMET) vacancies currently, with many companies still looking to hire.

“With so many companies having difficulties filling these vacancies, how would we find people with the relevant skill-sets to take on the additional ‘tens of thousands’ of jobs that Mr Leong thinks can be created by getting rid of the foreigners?” he questioned.

If the country’s policies become overly-restrictive, companies will just find other places to operate in where they can be more competitive and Singapore would lose all the jobs that these companies had brought in, he added.

He warned that if the government is not careful, decades of effort to build Singapore’s reputation as a business hub would be wasted, with Singaporeans ultimately paying the price.

Wong said that those who are calling for fewer foreigners in Singapore may be feeling a sense of nostalgia of how Singapore was like in the past.

However, in the 1990s, Singapore was not as developed as an economic hub with foreigners only accounting for about 10 per cent of the PMET workforce.

Singapore’s overall standards of living was also much lower then, pointed out Wong.

The gross domestic product per capita was around S$35,000 (RM108,318) then, compared to the S$80,000 now and the median salaries of residents were less than S$2,000 compared to around S$4,500 now.

“Is that what we want? Stagnate in the 1990s, while the rest of the world progresses around us?” questioned Wong.

“Remember how Lee Kuan Yew once said, “never fear, 10 years from now, this will be a metropolis”. What do Leong and the PSP promise: ‘don’t worry, 10 years from now, we will go back 30 years’?”

As a business hub, Singapore cannot escape global competition but by combining and complementing foreign and local professionals, the nation will be able to attract more investments and create more good jobs for Singaporeans.

He pointed out that over the past decade, nine in 10 local graduates were employed within half a year of graduation and the resident PMET unemployment rate remains low.

The IT sector, for example, has grown with a huge demand for tech professionals in every sector despite computer science being one of the least popular courses in universities 20 years ago.

“Computer science is now an extremely popular course and its graduates are in huge demand. The median starting salary of a computer science university fresh graduate is around S$4,000 to S$5,000 a month,” added Wong.

However, he said that relying on local talent alone will not be enough as the government needs to balance the needs of other sectors.

Wong also pointed out that career choices have expanded with Singapore becoming a more vibrant hub.

For instance, the financial services sector has grown significantly, said Wong, with local banks having a good overseas footprint and locals appointed in new leadership positions in various international firms such as Deutsche Bank.

“As we anchor more businesses here and as they expand their footprint, there will be more opportunities for Singaporeans as well,” said Wong.

He added that these are the lived experiences of the vast majority of Singaporeans and are not just “abstract figures”.

‘The right approach’

In his speech, Wong also acknowledged the downsides to an open economy, noting that the rapid pace of change and the “creative destruction” that takes place in any vibrant economy means that there will be people displaced from their jobs

He stressed however that the issue was not about foreigners working in Singapore.

“Even if we got rid of ‘tens of thousands’ of foreigners, locals will continue to be displaced — because of technology, because of innovation, because of the changing nature of work over time,” he said.

It is easy, however, for politicians to blame someone for these job displacements, said Wong.

“Far easier to point fingers, make one nationality or another the scapegoat, and blame them for all our troubles, rather than work on reskilling our workers,” he said.

He stressed that the “right approach” is not to impede progress by holding on to every job even as they become obsolete but to work hard to protect every worker and help those who are displaced.

This is the approach the ruling People’s Action Party and the National Trades Union Congress have taken.

“In this way, we can grow the economic pie for everyone, and yet ensure that the cost of globalisation and openness does not fall unfairly on the displaced workers,” said the minister.

Wong added the government will continue to take proactive steps to deal with the downsides.

This includes continually updating the government’s manpower policies and rules to manage the flow of workpass holders, and to ensure that they are of the right calibre and upholding fair employment practices.

To this end, the government’s move to enshrine the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices practices in law is “a major philosophical shift”, said Wong.

While the government had initially been hesitant to do so as it might lead to a more litigious and confrontational process, Wong said that it had gone ahead with the change after consultations with various stakeholders as it felt it could manage these concerns.

Wong said that the government will also “do everything it can” to help those who lose their jobs.

It is doing so through investing heavily in SkillsFuture to help Singaporeans stay employable in a competitive environment, said Wong.

While some temporary incentives for jobs will be tapered down as the economy requires, Wong said that the government will not go back to the “pre-Covid status quo ante”.

“After the crisis, we expect a permanent shift in support levels with more help for our workers, especially as we enter a period of greater volatility and disruption. The Ministry of Finance is working through these details carefully, to make sure that the changes we make are financially sustainable,” he added.

“I promise all Singaporeans — especially those who are displaced: you will never be alone.

“We will continue to invest in your capabilities and skills; help you stay competitive; and walk this journey with you through the rest of your careers.” — TODAY