SINGAPORE: The issue of work pass holders competing with Singaporeans for jobs could become a divisive issue and will be addressed, President Halimah Yacob said in Parliament on Monday (Aug 24).
Mdm Halimah was speaking at the opening of the first session of the 14th Parliament, after the swearing-in of Members of Parliament who were elected at this year’s General Election.
“Another potentially divisive issue closely connected to our Singaporean identity is the sense of competition for jobs from work pass holders,” she said.
“This has become a major source of anxiety, especially among mid-career Singaporeans. We understand these concerns. They not only touch on matters of livelihood, but also on our sense of identity and belonging. They will be addressed.”
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Job competition from foreigners emerged as a topic of debate during campaigning for the Jul 10 election, with several opposition party members bringing it up in their party political broadcasts.
On Aug 14, Temasek slammed "racist" and "divisive" Facebook posts aimed at its Indian employees that questioned why the investment firm was hiring foreigners instead of locals. DBS and Standard Chartered have also been similarly criticised on social media.
“We will work with employers to further strengthen the capabilities of our workforce in every field, and ensure that firms treat Singaporeans fairly when they recruit or retrench workers,” Mdm Halimah said in her address.
“In all that we do, the interests of Singaporeans are always paramount.”
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Singapore’s “strong” education system and training pathways have produced a workforce that can compete against the world’s best, Mdm Halimah noted, adding that Singaporeans as masters of their own land must have confidence in the “rights and privileges” of their citizenship.
Nevertheless, Mdm Halimah said Singapore must not turn inwards and away from the world, stating that it must keep hearts open to those “who come from beyond our shores”.
“We should continue to welcome and integrate those who can contribute to Singapore, and improve our lives and our children’s future,” she said.
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MULTIRACIALISM IN SINGAPOREAN IDENTITY
Mdm Halimah said multiracialism will always be a “core element” of the Singaporean identity, stressing that everyone, regardless of race, language, or religion, must have an equal place in society.
“Here in Singapore, we embrace our plurality and diversity, even as we continue to develop a stronger Singaporean ethos, and strive together to become more than the sum of our individual parts,” she added.
Mdm Halimah acknowledged that multiracialism in Singapore is still work in progress, with each generation bringing different life experiences and perspectives.
“In each generation, some will want to discuss sensitive issues afresh. Younger Singaporeans prefer talking about these issues more candidly and openly, which is a positive development,” she said.
“But the conversation needs to be conducted with restraint and mutual respect, because race, language and religion will always be visceral subjects. If each group pushes its own agenda to the extreme, we risk eroding the common space, and fracturing our social cohesion.”
Mdm Halimah said these emotive issues can evoke strong reactions, with debates easily becoming polarised.
“So as we open up more areas for meaningful discussion, Singaporeans must work even harder to listen to and understand one another,” she said.
Singapore must also recognise that “larger forces” that test its solidarity and pull it in different directions are at play, she said pointing to social media that has amplified contending voices and views.
“We are more exposed than ever to causes, attitudes and values from other societies that may not be relevant to our social context, but will influence us nonetheless,” she said.
“Economic distress arising from COVID-19, or social inequality, can breed a sense of insecurity among different groups of Singaporeans.”
In the longer term, Mdm Halimah said the key to Singapore’s success lies in its shared sense of identity, pointing to how it has gradually built a distinctive Singaporean culture and identity.
“You see it in the way we can gladly identify one another in an unfamiliar foreign land, and the way we have each other’s backs in a crisis,” she added. “These are emotional ties that are strengthened over the years.”
Still, she said there remains “much more to do” to strengthen the sense of togetherness in society, adding that parents should shape children’s multicultural instincts early on and evolve approaches and methods with the outlook and attitudes of the young.
“We must then sustain this mindset across our communities and workplaces,” she stated.
Mdm Halimah said Singapore must break out from the echo chambers that form so easily online, and make “genuine attempts” to bridge the gap with those who think differently.
“We must strive to obtain greater insight, build shared understanding and use our diverse perspectives and ideas to achieve better outcomes for all,” she said.
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GOVERNMENT OPEN TO NEW WAYS OF DOING THINGS
This will also apply to Parliament, Mdm Halimah said, as she called the designation of a Leader of the Opposition a “significant change” that reflected the larger number of opposition MPs.
“The Government and the opposition both have roles to play to build trust in our public institutions, and achieve good outcomes for Singapore,” she added.
Mdm Halimah said the Government must expect to encounter more differences in views and interests among Singaporeans given the magnitude of current challenges and uncertainties.
“We must learn to handle these differences constructively. On some issues, we can agree to disagree,” she said. “But on issues core to Singapore’s survival and future, we must do our best to find common ground and build a broad consensus.”
Mdm Halimah said the Government will be open to constructive criticism and rational debate, and to new ways of doing things. But she said the Government must also govern for everyone.
“It cannot shy away from taking difficult and tough decisions in the national interest, or shirk the duty of winning support for such decisions,” she said.
“The opposition too has its part to play. In Parliament, besides raising questions and criticisms, the opposition should also propose policy alternatives to be scrutinised and debated.
“And when the situation demands, both the Government and opposition should set aside differences and work together to secure the safety and future of our nation.”
Mdm Halimah said Singaporeans’ expectations and choices will determine what kind of politics Singapore will have, with the key question being how the country can forge a common cause together, regardless of political inclinations.
“We need to base our rhetoric on a responsible sense of the realities, and come to a shared understanding about our goals and constraints,” she added.
“Our public debates should be honest and open about the trade-offs of different options, and what they will cost society. Only in this way will our system continue to encourage able and committed individuals to step forward to serve.”