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Leong Mun Wai

Rebalancing the Foreign Talent Policy

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FOREIGN TALENT POLICY: That this Parliament calls upon the Government to take urgent and concrete action to address the widespread anxiety among Singaporeans on jobs and livelihood caused by the foreign talent policy and the provisions on Movement of Natural Persons in some free trade agreements like the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement.

  1. Mr Speaker Sir, it is a shame that this Government has persistently tried to link the public discourse on CECA to racism. I hereby state categorically that PSP is against linking the public discourse on CECA to racism.  It is confusing Singaporeans and even dividing Singaporeans.  All that Singaporeans want to know is why the jobs and livelihood situation for many Singaporeans has worsened over the last twenty years. Give me the data, give me the answers.  Singaporeans are crying out and PSP is responding to their calls when we accepted the invitation from the Law Minister to do this debate.

    The Singapore-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement or CECA is not a race issue but a trade agreement issue.  The FTAs and CECA are part of the equation when we evaluate the costs and benefits of past and present immigration and employment policies so they have to be part of this debate.

    As of today, the information disclosed by the Government is not convincing enough to prove that CECA has not affected Singapore’s ability to manage immigration and that it has generated net benefits for Singapore.  As a result, the PSP is strongly against the Government from shutting off further discussion on the matter.
  2. Mr Speaker Sir, our motion today is about the jobs and livelihood of Singaporeans, not xenophobia or racism, nor is it directed at any nationality or race.   In order to achieve greater economic success, Singapore always needs the right foreign talent to complement our Singaporean Core.  The PSP is pro-Singaporean and welcomes foreigners to work with Singaporeans for mutual benefit.

    Let me be clear: The PSP is pro-free trade but NOT “free-for-all-trade”.  Free trade must benefit ALL our people and not just some people.  We want the benefits of free trade to be shared equitably with foreigners here, and among all Singaporeans. However, when there is an imbalance of interests, we would need to redress the situation.  In seeking to rebalance our Foreign Talent Policy, we are not advocating a closed Singapore nor blaming the foreigners, because we are responsible for our own policy.
  3. The Government has been grappling with the Foreign Talent Policy for the last 20 years.  We take the Foreign Talent Policy to mean all the immigration and employment policies which the Government has implemented since the late 1990s for attracting foreigners. Actually there isn’t a Foreign Talent Policy defined by Government and debated in Parliament at the beginning.

    The concept of Foreign Talent however, was mooted in the late 1990s in line with the idea of competition for global talent in the new knowledge-based economy. Initially, Singaporeans largely did not react negatively to it, because we are basically industrious and pragmatic and ascribe to learning from others.

    However, the Government opened the floodgates for relatively low-wage work pass holders instead of attracting foreign talent. While work permit workers like the construction workers take jobs that Singaporeans generally do not want to do, the work pass holders are the employment pass (EPs) and S-pass (SPs) holders who are collectively known as foreign PMETs because they take up jobs as professionals, managers, executives and technicians in our job market.

    The speed and size of the immigration due to easy immigration policies, and unfair wage policies, forced many Singaporeans out of jobs and then into long term underemployment.

    The angst among Singaporeans reached a high in 2008 when in that year alone 80,000 PRs were awarded to work pass holders.  As a result, the large displacement of Singaporean PMETs became a major issue in the General Election 2011.

    It is unbecoming of this Government to have touted Foreign Talent as the reason for relaxing the immigration policies and bring in the average work pass holders instead.

    Singaporeans would like to ask the Minister for Trade and Industry to clarify the definition of Foreign Talent and whether the hundreds of thousands of work pass holders in our country are all considered foreign talent.

    Singaporeans welcome all foreigners to complement us for mutual benefit. However, because of the potentially large numbers of average work pass holders who want a job in our country, we should have been more careful in managing the “quality, number and concentration” of these workers from the beginning. The crux of the matter is that we should have been selective in taking in real foreign talent. The failure to do so was a policy failure.

    By the time the Population White Paper was released in January 2013, our population had already grown by 40% since the late 1990s.

    I quote the then Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean at the White Paper debate on 4 February 2013, (quote) “Singaporeans have expressed concerns over job competition, having too many foreigners and overcrowding… We faced a series of unprecedented crises in the past decade: 9/11 in 2001, SARS in 2003, and the global financial crisis of 2008…. the (policy) responses we took threw our planning out of gear….. In particular, the growth in foreign workforce, total population, infrastructure and housing were not aligned. This contributed to the anxiety, crowdedness, integration issues and the daily inconveniences faced by Singaporeans today.” (unquote)

    This was in February 2013 and is about the closest you can get from a minister in admitting policy failures that have caused widespread hardships to many Singaporeans and Singaporean workers.

    The issue of jobs and livelihood resurfaced as a major issue during the General Election 2020 as the finances of many Singaporeans deteriorated into severe situations because they did not have the savings to cope with an emergency like the Covid-19 pandemic, since many were displaced prior to the pandemic.

    We noted more committees and task forces were set up to look into the work pass holders issue after I accepted the invitation to have this debate in May.  The Prime Minister has spoken on the need to manage the quality, numbers and concentrations of foreigners in Singapore.  So the issues I have raised are legitimate and it would be unfair if the Government continues to label PSP and me as xenophobic.

    However, so far the Government only talks about tackling discrimination with legislation and does not display a full appreciation of the severity of the problem.  Legislation may not be effective because a displaced Singaporean will be in a vulnerable position and may not want to go through a long arbitration process. Priority should be given to preventing displacement. We look forward to the Government coming out with concrete measures to tackle the quality, number and concentration issues identified by the Prime Minister.
  4. To begin with, the Government must listen to the affected Singaporeans more patiently and then recognize the serious shortcomings of its current policies.  PSP has listened to the people and has condensed their feedback into the following 7 questions which should provide invaluable insight into how we can craft the new policies.
    • Question 1: Why so many Singaporeans have difficulties in finding good jobs when there are so many work pass holders in Singapore.

      There is a big imbalance in the job market. On one hand, Singapore is hosting 400,000 work pass holders and 250,000 PRs accounting for about 25% and 15% of its PMET workforce respectively.  On the other hand, Singapore has 500,000 lower-wage workers who need government financial aid to live decently; more than 100,000 gig workers deprived of basic employment benefits and future job prospects; hundreds of thousands of Singaporeans under the various job support schemes; and many more underemployed including the increasing number of self-employed workers. Are there not enough Singaporeans or are they not given the opportunities by employers?
    • Question 2: Are there really more jobs created for Singaporeans if underemployment is a growing problem.

      The Government has maintained there are more jobs created for Singaporeans than for work pass holders.  However, many Singaporeans doubt whether there is net job creation for Singaporeans after stripping out the immigration effect from the employment statistics.  The statistics which lump Singaporeans and PRs together in a category called residents.

      Singaporeans would like to clarify with the Manpower Minister whether the 380,000 PME jobs supposedly created for locals from 2005 to 2020 represent a net job creation for Singaporeans during that period.

      If there are insufficient jobs created, a portion of Singaporeans will become unemployed or underemployed.  Underemployment can be defined in two ways.  The first type of underemployment is when a Singaporean is doing a job that does not fully utilised his most valuable skills.  For example, a displaced senior vice president of a bank may not be able to find the same replacement job and end up being a Grab driver.

      The second type of underemployment is when a Singaporean cannot work for the number of hours or days she plans to do. For example, a Singaporean may want to work for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week but can only find enough work for 4 hours a day, 2 days a week.   She is still considered employed, as a person is considered employed as long as she has worked for at least one hour during the reference period under our employment statistics.

      So the low unemployment number that the Government is touting may be masking a deepening under-employment problem.  New graduates and the 40 to 50 year-old local PMETs are the most vulnerable to the under-employment trap because the former does not have work experience and the latter needs to keep working to pay the bills.

      Singaporeans would like to confirm with the Manpower Minister:  (a) whether there are not enough Singaporeans to meet employers’ demand or employers prefer work pass holders; (b) is the MOM monitoring underemployment; and (c) is it the objective of the Government to protect jobs for Singaporeans or just protect jobs.
    • Question 3: If there is a large pool of underemployed Singaporeans are available, then the shortage of talent is not due to numbers but skills mismatch. In that case, what happen to our education system, world-class universities and polytechnics.

      Singaporeans are disappointed that our world-class universities and polytechnics were not able to produce enough talent for our key industries throughout the last twenty years.

      Even if there are skills that Singaporeans are lacking initially, it is the responsibility of this Government to ensure that enough Singaporeans are being trained by our world-class universities and polytechnics.   Shortage in the first five to ten years is acceptable but not twenty years.

      Singaporeans would like to ask the Minister for Education: (a) what has gone wrong in the last twenty years in terms of not producing enough local talent for the finance, infocom and professional services sectors; and (b) what is the strategy to train Singaporeans to meet future industry needs.
    • Question 4: But by the way, what kind of skills do the average work pass holders possess that Singaporeans do not have?

      We have been attracting mainly the average work pass holders judging from the low qualifying salaries for EPs and SPs.

      Even with the latest revision in late 2020, the respective qualifying salaries for EPs and SPs are at $4,500 and $2,500 only, not to mention the much lower levels in the earlier years.

      Many Singaporeans believe the work pass holders are here to compete for our jobs.  They do not necessarily possess unique skills let alone create jobs for Singaporeans.

      Singaporeans would like to ask the Minister for Trade and Industry how the average work pass holders create jobs for Singaporeans as claimed by the Government.
    • Question 5: If the work pass holders do not possess unique skills, then why are they dominating some of our key sectors.

      The finance industry is a good example.  Singapore has long been the financial centre of this region and we have very conducive tax policies to promote this sector.  As we have grown with the sector, Singaporeans do not lack the skills to grow this sector further.

      Yet the EPs occupy 57% of the senior positions in the finance sector and even in the domestic retail banking sub-sector which serves essentially the local customers, they occupy 30% of the senior positions.  This situation is a far cry from what the Monetary Authority of Singapore has done for Singaporean PMEs prior to the 1990s when localisation was the norm.

      Singaporeans would like to ask the Minister for Trade and Industry whether foreigners are still supposed to complement us or to take over from us.
    • Question 6: Why the Government has allowed unfair wage competition against Singaporeans while talking about fair consideration for all.

      Many Singaporeans believed that we have arrived at our current predicament mainly because the Government has turned a blind eye towards unfair wage competition and discrimination.

      In addition to the low qualifying salary described above, the EPs enjoy an advantage over their Singaporean counterparts because their employers do not have to pay the 17% employer’s CPF contribution.  On top of that, Singaporeans have to do in-camp training. Thus, overall, it is more cost-effective for an employer to hire a foreigner even if there are relocation and housing costs for the foreigner.

      The unfair wage policies are the single most important factor behind the problems we are facing today because employers after all are profit-seekers.

      This has a very debilitating effect on our Singaporean Core because with competition and wage depression, many Singaporeans have made the rational decision to avoid sectors that have competition with foreigners like the engineering and infocom sectors.

      As a result, the number of Singaporeans available to work in these sectors declined significantly over time, allowing foreigners to take up even more positions in such sectors.  This is the mechanism that has likely caused the rapid rise in EPs in the infocom sector and not because of the growth of the digital economy per se.
    • Question 7: Why did the Government continues to consider discrimination confined to the minority of employers despite seeing the high concentration of EPs in certain sectors.

      The ineffectiveness of the Fair Consideration Framework as a form of labour market testing is obvious as the work pass holders were seen concentrating themselves in certain sectors.

      When Singaporeans become a minority in certain sectors, Singaporeans will not be the first to be considered when new opportunities arise.  The infocom sector is a case in point where many new jobs have gone to more newly arrived work pass holders each year.

      Based on feedback from many Singaporeans, the number of work pass holders is large enough and they have been here long enough to have formed networks among main contractors, outsourcing vendors, recruitment agencies, HR managers and even top managers which discriminate against Singaporean workers in their hiring practices.

      Senior Minister of State Chee Hong Tat shared an episode recently,  (quote) “A Singaporean who attended a job interview at a MNC was asked by the foreign HR manager, “You wrote in your CV that you spent two years with the SAF; what is SAF?”” (unquote).

      This HR manager exemplified all that is wrong with our immigration and employment policies for allowing a foreigner who has little knowledge about the local job culture to be in a decision-making position.  No male Singaporean job-seeker should be made to go through this kind of insult.
  5. After all has been said, this Government needs to remember that having a job that commensurate with one’s ability, is the foundation of human dignity.  And income stability is important for families to give a conducive environment for the children. If a breadwinner is out of job or doesn’t earn enough, a host of social problems will arise.

    There is a Japanese saying, “Every child grows up while watching the back of his father”.  What this means is that if the father is doing well, he is likely to stand tall and look confident and that will have a positive influence on the child.  On the other hand, if a father is unemployed, his posture is stooped and self-assurance is low and that will have a negative influence on the child.

    Every time a resident relates his displacement story to me, my initial response is one of anger, but later I would cry when I saw the effect on his family and children. Each such encounter stiffens my resolve to make Singapore a more compassionate society and to give each child a good childhood.
  6. Mr Speaker Sir, so there is a huge divide between the Singaporeans’ real-life experiences and the Government’s narratives.  We have debated the same issues in Feb 2013 at the Population White Paper debate but Singaporeans’ jobs and livelihood did not improve after that.

    This Government says we have not enough talents but there are many underemployed Singaporeans and we have a world-class education system with world-class universities and polytechnics.  This Government says the jobs required skills that Singaporeans don’t have but you mean so many Singaporeans cannot do the jobs of those relatively lowly paid average work pass holders? This Government says discrimination is confined to a minority but are you blind and not see the concentrations in companies, industries and workplaces?  The whole situation gave the impression that this Government is not well coordinated within itself. Each Ministry may be trying its best but the whole Government is not aligned to achieve the best outcome.  The misalignment that Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean spoke of at the Population White Paper debate in 2013 is still not resolved.

    Today’s debate continues to be handicapped by the Government’s unwillingness to give full disclosure on immigration and employment data to the 23 parliamentary questions that the PSP has tabled.   The debate was further hindered by unnecessary distractions like comments about racial undertone.

    The Motion tabled by the Government did not reflect a full appreciation of the severity of the problem arising from the over-presence of work pass holders.   Neither does it contain substantial and concrete ideas to resolve the problem.   If we pass this Government’s motion, the debate today will very likely become another Population White Paper debate of 2013.

    So the PSP calls for urgent and concrete measures to be implemented immediately to restore balance in our job market.   We recommend the following 3 measures.
    1. First and foremost, in order to raise the quality of the work pass holders, we should increase the qualifying salaries for EPs and SPs to $10,000 and $4,500 respectively in stages over the next 3 years. In addition, a standard monthly levy of $1,200 on all EPs should be introduced immediately to reduce unfair wage competition.  This will create a better chance for our new graduates of getting good jobs and older PMETs of retaining their jobs immediately.
    2. To break up concentration and to eradicate discrimination, we should impose a cap on workers from a single nationality based on the percentage of a company’s staff strength in each of its business functions.  We think new laws may not be effective because a displaced Singaporean will not be in a strong position to go through a legal or arbitration process.  In the long term, we should aim for a 10% single-nationality cap to ensure diversity in our workforce and seek talent from different parts of the world instead of predominantly one country or region.  We also aim for a 25% to 30% combined PMET cap on work pass holders and PRs in the long term.

      New companies can be allowed to deviate from the cap provided they can prove there is a genuine shortage of such skills in Singapore and they have concrete and committed plans for localisation including transference of knowledge and skills within a stipulated time.
    3. The number of PRs and new citizenships awarded to work pass holders each year should be reduced to be in sync with the overall tightening of foreign manpower to foster a longer period of social integration in order to reinvigorate our national identity.

      We also recommend the creation of Standing Select Committees for every Ministry in Parliament, with representatives from different parties to enable more informative exchange on policies and monitor the implementation of new policies until the anxieties of our Singaporeans are completely relieved.

      We should not forget those Singaporeans who have been displaced too.  We should not only help them look for a good replacement job but also give financial help for the healthcare and education needs of their family during the period when they are underemployed.  Especially we should not allow a problem of this generation to have a long term negative effect on the next generation.
  7. Mr Speaker Sir, despite the pressure on PSP, despite the tone of the Law Minister’s challenge to file a motion, despite the underlying suggestion in the Government’s motion that PSP is trying to fan anti-foreigner sentiment (all of which my party denied), the PSP has given careful consideration and felt it is our duty to raise the issues, file this motion and have it fully debated. And Singaporeans can see that the Government is taking this issue more front and centre in its public pronouncements including in the 2021 National Day Rally. The debate must not end here. This must be the start of a healthy and proper dialogue. Singaporeans deserve better. For Country, For People. Sir, I beg to move. Thank you.

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