SINGAPORE: The Government will “always be on the side of Singaporeans”, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday (Sep 2), as he addressed concerns about job security in an economy battered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Speaking on the third day of the debate on the President's Address in Parliament, Mr Lee acknowledged the anxiety that Singaporeans are feeling about their jobs and the “palpable” sense of competition with foreigners.
These feelings are “completely understandable” given the economic downturn, he said, noting that anti-foreigner sentiment is on the rise around the world as people worry about their futures.
However, he also emphasised that ultimately, the Government is on the side of Singaporeans and wants to create good jobs for them.
“What is the point of creating jobs for foreigners if it doesn't benefit Singaporeans? Why would we want to do that?” he said.
Watch: PM Lee addresses Parliament on Singapore's response to COVID-19, post-pandemic challenges, jobs
To ensure fairness in the job market, Singapore has made several adjustments to its foreign workforce policy, most recently raising the minimum qualifying salary for Employment Passes and S Passes for the second time this year and introducing a higher salary requirement for Employment Pass holders in the financial services sector.
But even as the Government makes such adjustments, it has to be careful not to give the impression that it no longer welcomes foreigners.
“Ultimately, our aim is to grow our economy, create good jobs for Singaporeans and raise our standards of living. Foreign workers and work pass holders help us to achieve this,” he said.
“By being open to talent from around the world, we create more opportunities for ourselves.”
READ: Singapore has done well so far in fight against COVID-19, but must learn from errors - PM Lee
MUST “ADJUST AT THE RIGHT PACE”
The issue over competition for jobs from foreigners has been a hot topic during the debate so far on the President’s Address.
While the perception of foreign competition has sharpened during a downturn, Mr Lee said the reality was that number of Employment Passes and S Passes “have come down” since the COVID-19 pandemic this year.
Manpower Minister Josephine Teo in her speech in Parliament on Tuesday said that the number of Employment Pass and S Pass holders dropped by 22,000 between January and July this year.
READ: MPs call for firms to be more transparent on foreign hiring, make push to prioritise Singaporeans
Mr Lee continued: “But we still have to make adjustments to our work pass schemes because there is now more slack in the job market but also because over time, the education levels, capabilities and incomes of our local workforce have risen.”
More Singaporeans are now ready to take up PMET jobs, with more having done so, he noted, pointing to a steady rise in the proportion of PMETs in the workforce from 40 per cent to almost 60 per cent over the past 20 years.
Given how the purpose of the Employment Pass scheme is to “top us up at the higher end of these PMET jobs”, there is a need to tighten the qualifying criteria for this set of work passes now, said Mr Lee.
Last week, the Ministry of Manpower announced that the minimum salaries for new Employment Pass candidates would be raised by S$600 to S$4,500, while the salary criteria for S Pass candidates would go up by S$100 to S$2,500.
For the first time, the Manpower Ministry is also setting higher qualifying salary requirements for a specific sector, with the financial services industry having to meet a higher floor of S$5,000 for Employment Passes.
“We have to pay attention to market conditions and adjust at the right pace, but this is the correct long-term direction,” said Mr Lee.
READ: Singapore seeks ‘quality rather than quantity’: Chan Chun Sing on changes to foreign work pass policy
TAKES ISSUE OF FAIRNESS SERIOUSLY
Singaporeans are also concerned about fair treatment in jobs, promotions, or retrenchments, said the prime minister.
“There is no comfort in knowing that the total numbers are not too many if personally we feel that we have been discriminated against at the workplace, or that the EP holder working beside us somehow has an inside track because of old-school ties or some other personal connections," he continued.
Meansures are in place, said Mr Lee, pointing to the Tripartite Alliance for Fair & Progressive Employment Practices for Singaporeans to seek redress, and the Fair Consideration Framework which will be tightened further.
Work is also under way with unions to make sure retrenchments are done fairly and that no company is retrenching a Singaporean only to fill the same post with a foreigner "without very good justification".
“The Government takes this issue of fairness very seriously,” he said.
READ: Union leader urges tougher measures to tackle hiring bias, including EP quotas and ending tax breaks
When evaluating applications for Employment Passes and S Passes, factors such as whether the employer has kept up support of local PMETs in their employment or discriminated against qualified Singaporeans are taken into account.
“This has always been government policy. But we particularly want to emphasise these considerations now in these uncertain times to remind all employers to play their part in building up their Singaporean workforce, the Singaporean core."
One specific "red flag", according to Mr Lee, is when a company has an "over-concentration of a single foreign nationality in its ranks, especially when compared to other companies in the same sector".
This concentration, if left unchecked, can cause social resentment and workplace problems, he said.
Mr Lee noted that most companies are “responsive” and have worked with the Government “in good faith” as they understood that having a diverse workforce is to their advantage.
That said, the issue of concentration can “be easily played up and (it knows) there are some people who are stirring this up”, said the prime minister.
He cited the example of how a wefie featuring DBS CEO Piyush Gupta “with a room full of Indian employees” taken in September last year was posted on a Facebook page with the caption “Eye sight test: Find a Singaporean or Chinese in this DBS photo”.
“The picture resurfaced recently and went viral which just shows that during tough times, this subject is more neurologic … Many people took offence, got worked up and berated DBS ... but it was fake news,” said Mr Lee, noting that the photo was actually taken in India where DBS opened a new office.
“The person who put up the post surely knew this, yet he irresponsibly misused the wefie to insinuate that DBS in Singapore was not being fair to Singaporeans. And damage was done.”
CAREFUL NOT TO GIVE WRONG IMPRESSION
Mr Lee pledged that the “Government will always be on the side of Singaporeans”. But even as adjustments are made to foreign work pass policies, Singapore “must be careful not to give the wrong impression that we are now closing up and no longer welcoming foreigners.”
“Such a reputation would do us great harm,” he added.
READ: Open mind needed to improve on social safety nets, as greater challenges lie ahead for Singapore in post COVD-19 world - PM Lee
He added that even in the current depressed economic climate where companies are consolidating and laying off workers, there are many investment projects that want to come to Singapore.
All over Asia and in the world where societies are under stress and politics is in flux, companies are seeking “a safe harbour where the politics is stable, there is rule of law, the people are hardworking and united and where the country will come through the pandemic safely, and have a bright future".
Said Mr Lee: “We take no joy in the troubles around the world but it is a fact that in a troubled world, Singapore is one of the few trusted countries that stand out and we must guard that reputation zealously."
Some of these companies include Hyundai Motor, which just announced plans to set up a major facility in Singapore to undertake research and development, and develop future mobility technologies.
Others that remain under wraps or still being discussed include a pharmaceutical company that is planning to build a facility in Singapore to manufacture vaccines and a company specialising in pandemic risk insurance.
These are opportunities arising out of the pandemic, said Mr Lee.
Several Fortune 500 companies are also considering moving their regional headquarters to Singapore due to political uncertainties elsewhere, while major financial institutions want to grow their operations here as well.
These projects can create "good new jobs" for Singaporeans but for these companies to come here, "they must feel welcome and be allowed to bring in the talent they need", said Mr Lee.
This is because Singapore does "not have the full complement of specialist engineers and other expertise for all these types of work yet".
Regional and global headquarters, by design, also need to draw talent from around the world and be run by international teams, he added. “They will employ Singaporeans too, but they cannot be staffed by Singaporeans alone.”
Once these companies establish themselves here, more Singaporeans will be able to take advantage of the opportunities they create, pick up the skills and knowledge and rise up the ranks, he said, noting that this was done previously when Singapore attracted investments in other sectors like pharmaceutical and financial services.
Meanwhile, local companies also need access to global talent to grow and develop, he noted.
"We have always been a people open to the world, welcoming others who can add value to our society, and bring out the best in us. This is our history and ethos, from our beginnings as an open port and immigrant nation.
"We may be under stress now, but we cannot afford to turn inwards," said Mr Lee.
"We will adjust our policies to safeguard Singaporean jobs, but let us show confidence that Singaporeans can hold our own in the world," he added.
Watch his full speech: