Swee Say defends Govt's track record on foreign workers

PAP's East Coast GRC candidate Mr Lim Swee Say speaking during an election rally at Bedok Stadium on Sept 3, 2015.
PAP's East Coast GRC candidate Mr Lim Swee Say speaking during an election rally at Bedok Stadium on Sept 3, 2015. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Manpower Minister and former labour chief Lim Swee Say defended the PAP Government's track record on foreign labour at last night's East Coast GRC rally, citing figures to show that local workers have benefited.

Immigration and foreign labour have been hot topics, cropping up in all the opposition parties' party political broadcasts last night.

But Mr Lim said the earlier high manpower growth and recent tightening measures were for the sake of Singaporeans: "I want to assure you, we did it for you."

He noted unhappiness over "too many foreigners", with some thinking it was a mistake "to let so many in". But the high manpower growth of the past was in the context of economic instability, from the 1997 Asian financial crisis - with 29,000 workers retrenched - to the bursting of the bubble, Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on America and Sars in 2003.

"We had no idea how many more ups and downs were ahead of us... We decided we must find ways to provide better protection to our Singaporean workers."

Hence the policy: "Whenever the wind blows, catch the wind."

Firms with good projects that required more workers could bring them in. And these workers were a buffer in downturns, he said, citing some "concrete outcomes".

From 2001 to 2003, the number of local workers with jobs rose by 35,000 - but the number of foreign workers fell by 70,000.

In the global financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, foreign worker numbers fell by 4,000. But local worker numbers rose by 40,000.

That policy was thus good for workers, but had to change because the ratio of Singaporeans to foreigners was falling. If it continued, "Singaporeans will wake up one day to find ourselves among the minority in the workforce".

"So, as the Government, we said 'No, that is not the way to go'."

The slowing of foreign labour inflows was announced in the 2010 Budget, he said, adding that anyone claiming the policy changed because of the outcome of the 2011 General Election should "check the record in Parliament".

He also stressed that the change has been real. For instance, annual growth of foreign professionals, managers and executives fell from 45,000 a year to 13,000 last year.

But with workforce growth slowing, this is just the beginning of Singapore's challenges, he added. To stay competitive, Singapore must create "jobs of the future" and retrain workers.

Earlier, his fellow candidate Lee Yi Shyan pledged to "champion the cause of SkillsFuture initiatives" - government moves to encourage workers to develop skills.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 04, 2015, with the headline 'Swee Say defends Govt's track record on foreign workers'. Print Edition | Subscribe