Labour policies a work-in-progress but ‘muddle-headed’ ones will lead Singapore to path of ruin, says finance minister

Finance Minister Lawrence Wong (pictured) said that global businesses are not in Singapore to serve its market, but they are here to serve the region and the world. ― Picture courtesy of CNA via TODAY
Finance Minister Lawrence Wong (pictured) said that global businesses are not in Singapore to serve its market, but they are here to serve the region and the world. ― Picture courtesy of CNA via TODAY

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SINGAPORE, Sept 15 — The government will continue working on improving its labour policies, but objects to “muddle-headed policies” such as those proposed by the Progress Singapore Party (PSP), which would lead Singapore to a path of ruin, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said.

Speaking past midnight during a marathon debate in Parliament that ran for 11 hours and ended at 12.30am today (September 15), Wong was responding to PSP Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) Leong Mun Wai’s closing remarks to two motions, one on the country’s foreign talent policy filed by Leong and another on jobs and livelihoods tabled by Wong.

Leong asserted that Singaporeans had time and again provided feedback on their predicament in having their jobs displaced by foreigners, but the government had insisted that all attempts to curb workforce growth would end up hurting Singaporeans themselves. 

This, and other points, drew rebuke and responses from nine Members of Parliament (MPs) and Nominated MPs (NMPs). In all, 20 MPs and NMPs — including four political office-holders, the two PSP NCMPs and five Workers’ Party (WP) MPs — delivered full speeches on the two motions.

The nine included Wong who stood to point out that it was not right for Leong to conclude that the government’s old policies will remain. 

“My position specifically states that the government will continue to update and improve our policies. Our policies are not static. They continue to be improved,” he said.

“What we object to are muddle-headed policies that will lead us to the path of ruin. And what Leong, what the PSP suggested, in our opinion, will get us there.”

Wong also said that he is “flummoxed” to hear Leong say in his speech that if Singapore does not change course, the country will remain a low value-add economy. 

“Really? Low value-add economy today? Leong, have you seen the economic data in today’s economy? I think if we change course to adopt your policies, we will truly be a low value-add economy,” he quipped.

In his own closing speech, Wong said he understands the arguments of Leong and his fellow PSP member, NCMP Hazel Poa, as this: There are too many foreigners in Singapore. Let's squeeze them out of the country and these jobs will go to Singaporeans. Even better, wages of Singaporeans will go up.

“But this is simplistic and wishful thinking,” added the minister.

First of all, jobs would not automatically go to Singaporeans when foreign professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) are squeezed out, Wong said.

“Just think about this. Global businesses are here to play the global game. They’re not here to serve the Singapore market. They are here to serve the region and the world.

“And here in Singapore, they want to bring together an international team. That is our value proposition to them. That's why they find Singapore attractive.

“Imagine if you tell them, ‘Look, you can only be here if you fulfil 90 per cent of your staff being locals as the condition’, why would they find that attractive anymore?”

Then turning to Leong’s argument that it is the failure of the education system if foreigners go and Singaporeans cannot take the job, Wong said: “Really? I think that argument is completely disingenuous and does a great disservice to our educators and teachers in our schools and institutions of higher learning.”

Pointing out that Workers’ Party MPs Leon Pereira and Gerald Giam had variations of the same argument, although they did not go as far as Leong did, Wong added that all these arguments missed out one “most important point” — the “stark reality” that there are just not enough Singaporeans.

“We have (manpower) needs in information technology. We have tremendous needs in engineering. Look at the services sector — healthcare is growing, we need more people to look after our elderly population. We need more doctors, nurses, we need more physiotherapists,” he continued.

“Oh, by the way, low-income issues are a problem. Don’t we need more social workers, too?”

On PSP’s claim that tightening labour markets would lead to higher wages for resident workers, Wong reiterated that Singapore will be going down a “very dangerous path” that way.

“Beyond a point, if wage increases are not matched by productivity increases, we will lose our competitiveness. And when that happens, we are not just squeezing out foreigners, we will be squeezing out investments and jobs will go with them.

“This thinking is not just simplistic or wishful, it is fatally flawed.”

‘No one owes us a living’

Wong said, too, that PSP’s assumption that Singapore has “arrived” and companies just want to be here is “complacent”. 

“Let's get real. No one owes us a living. Global competition for investments 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,” Wong pleaded.

He gathered that after all the “fire and brimstone from Leong”, all that the NCMP has asked for — as far as foreign manpower is concerned — are three adjustments to existing policies.

They are raising Employment Pass (EP) and S Pass qualifying salaries, imposing a levy on EPs and imposing a cap of 10-per-cent nationalities in any company. 

“These proposals have nothing to do with Ceca (the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement between India and Singapore) and free trade agreements,” Wong noted.

That said, he pointed out that the government knows that there are downsides to being an open economy. That is why it worked hard to manage the flow of foreign work pass holders, uphold fair employment at workplaces, and help every displaced worker to get back into jobs.

After a vote, Parliament passed Wong’s motion, but rejected PSP’s. 

The WP MPs did not support both motions and had their dissent recorded for Wong’s motion because they had wanted amendments to be made to it.

Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh said before the vote that WP does not align itself with PSP’s motion because it holds different views on free trade pacts and Ceca.

NTUC: ‘A weak link’ or not

In his closing speech, Leong said the new policies that the Government will come up with “will (probably) not solve problems thoroughly”.

He added that there were many differences between PSP’s position and the government’s, including the government’s belief that the displacement of workers is due to globalisation and a fast-changing world. PSP believes that a large part of the problem comes from the work pass holders here.

Another is that the displacement problem is “not serious” for the government, while PSP sees it as a serious one.

Leong also singled out the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) as the “weak link” in the tripartite partnership, which refers to the Singapore style of negotiating labour issues by having the labour movement, businesses and Government collaborate with each other. 

“NTUC needs a lot of soul-searching if it still wants to be relevant in representing the interest of Singaporean workers,” he said. 

Leong’s points on NTUC, unsurprisingly, drew a rebuttal from Desmond Choo, MP for Tampines Group Representation Constituency who is also in the labour union. 

“The best thing we need to do for workers is to care for them in the long term,” Choo said. ”We seek to protect workers. We care for their jobs. But protecting workers does not mean a zero-sum game. We are worried if investments go away, companies suffer. And if companies suffer, then there will be no jobs for workers.”

In response, Leong said that NTUC has done a “tremendous job” for workers’ welfare but there is “room for improvement” for issues relating to wage policies.

He then said that not all fault lies with NTUC because there is an overarching foreign talent policy. 

Choo cited the Progressive Wage Model as an example of NTUC’s contributions to improving workers’ wages sustainably. It sets out minimum pay requirements for workers in selected sectors in tandem with their training and skills.

He also referred to the many arguments that NTUC has had with businesses and government agencies in formulating the best wage policy. 

“I do not want what (Leong) has said today to stand as a record for the generations of unionists before me who have dedicated their time, their blood, their sweat to better the lot of workers in Singapore,” Choo said. ― TODAY

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