What does ‘Foreign Talent’ mean…?

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The term ‘foreign talent’ (FT) is often used loosely during public discourse in Singapore, often being misunderstood or coined inappropriately.

Make no mistake about it, Singapore needs FTs. With our open economy and a continuous commitment to upgrade and hone our skills, there is no denying that we need foreign expertise to fill talent gaps and to help cross-fertilize ideas with our local citizen core. These talents are by definition highly skilled or highly experienced. They are needed to complement our workforce and not to replace them. The current Employment Pass and S-Pass schemes are not designed as such to categorise PMETs by this definition of real talents.

So therein lies the problem we are faced with. We want genuine FTs but these are brought in through floodgates that inevitably also let in the not-so-talented, displacing our local talent on many fronts in the process.

We have to be very clear on our FT policies in order to attract them, then regulate and manage this symbiosis with our local core. This is all the more needed now to prepare the ground for our economic resurgence post-Covid.

Hence if we recognize that many of the so-called FTs are really just ordinary foreign workers (FWs) competing with our locals, often on an unlevel playing field, then we must institute clear directives on hiring practices to manage this quandary.

In this regard, and especially under our current situation, our locals must be given precedence on hiring and retention, all things being equal. Jobs that can be performed by locals should not then be given to foreigners without strong justification. Policies should be deliberately put in place to drive this behavior instead of depending on market expedience and individual companies’ interests. Relying on low-cost FWs should not and cannot be a long-term solution to grow the economy nor to develop bench strength for our workforce.

It is not about being xenophobic when steps are taken to give local talents a chance to take on senior executive positions. Neither are we being protectionist when we limit FW numbers in our workforce. It is about having a clear strategy of where we want our country to head towards and how government policies can help channel local PMETs to take on the right jobs to help bring us to the next level.

This will necessitate a comprehensive review and possible revamp of our FT and FW situation in light of how Singapore is to rebuild its economy. We cannot over-emphasise the need for transparency and impartiality in this regard if we are to harness the collective wisdom and advice of those inside and outside parliament.

Let us start with mapping out a blueprint on how to bring Singapore forward under the new normal. Next, look at the available resources including human capital that are needed. Then determine the gaps of talent we need to bridge and set efficacious policies to attract and harness genuine FTs, while reducing excessive FW numbers to free up employment opportunities for our locals.

At the end of the day, FTs are here to stay and FWs are still needed. But if these requirements are determined through a transparent process, we can avoid unnecessary speculation and emotionally charged discussions which are both unhelpful and unhealthy.

There are close to 400,000 foreign PMETs now in Singapore. For sure, not all of them are FTs. We have to be clear what FT means to us. We should revisit this byword and not be confused with that of FW.

Singaporeans Deserve Better!

Francis Yuen
ASG, PSP

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