A sobering picture of job insecurity was painted during the Budget debate when labour Members of Parliament spoke of displacements precipitated by sluggish markets. Of the 15,000 workers retrenched last year, 71 per cent were professionals, managers and executives, with older workers often facing the brunt of the hardship. MPs were not short of suggestions to assist workers, like a support network for white-collar workers who have been laid off, more apprenticeship programmes, and tougher enforcement of the Fair Consideration Framework, which requires employers to advertise vacancies on the Jobs Bank before submitting employment pass applications for foreign workers.
Certainly, the plight of the jobless cannot be ignored, with redundancies exceeding last year's figure - but far short of the 23,430 jobs lost in 2009 when simultaneous recessions struck all major regions and did not spare Singapore either. If it is just a matter of cyclical developments, one might hope to wait out the present global slowdown. But Singapore has to now contend with structural issues like demographic pressures, change in the nation's drivers of growth, and new patterns of competitive advantage. This lends urgency to the task of preparing the labour force for the new economic environment, while helping them cope with immediate needs.
Heeding both the exigencies of survival and the demands of long-term viability might seem a tall order for employers and employees alike when the future economy remains something of an abstraction for now. Acknowledging the current state of transition, the Budget provides a balance of measures with an eye on both the present and future. More will have to be done after concrete recommendations emerge from the Committee on the Future Economy at the end of the year. Naturally, the House should not lose sight of the balance as well in debating the supply-side thrust of the Budget and the direction of current policies.
One should not underestimate the challenges posed by a transition to a renewed economy. Technological innovation is often cited as a key driver of change, accounting for an astounding half of historical economic growth in the United States, according to some theorists. This would make it "a far more significant factor than capital and labour supply", as an analyst noted. But it can't yield benefits in isolation, it must be tied to effective business models and a versatile workforce. It's in this context that labour issues should be largely framed. Jobs are changing quickly as they have to be in sync with the dynamics of innovation-based growth. MP Desmond Choo called for the Education Ministry to partner the labour movement in getting that message out to the young. That would be useful if it is fleshed out with real-life examples of new jobs awaiting.