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From The Gallery

The House keeps its eye on the economy

The extension of Question Time by an hour at yesterday's sitting was an apt illustration of how Parliament, aside from being a law-making institution, is a chamber where the real and everyday anxieties of residents, as told to the MPs, get full airing.

That no less than three ministers responded to concerns about what the gloomy economic outlook holds for employment and the jobs market reflected another reality: that it's not in isolation that policies are made and solutions found.

Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say rose to respond to 12 questions to do with stagnant employment rates, retrenchment numbers and retraining and career options.

Responding in calm and measured tones, Mr Lim acknowledged the reality that the growth of the local workforce was slowing, but also outlined how the inflow of foreign manpower was being calibrated, and the steps being taken to help retrenched workers find new jobs.

One new initiative, for instance, was to reposition the National Jobs Bank as a one-stop centre for new job searches and career planning without having to wait for the next job fair to come around.

That no less than three ministers responded to concerns about what the gloomy economic outlook holds for employment and the jobs market reflected another reality: that it's not in isolation that policies are made and solutions found.

 
 

The Government was also considering a partnership with private placement companies to help retrenched workers find the best match for their expertise.

The two Ministers for Trade and Industry, Mr Lim Hng Kiang and Mr S. Iswaran, also weighed in with assurances that even though the outlook for the global economy remains uncertain, Singapore will continue to generate good jobs for those who are willing to upgrade and switch industries.

A recession is not imminent - Singapore is still projected to grow between 1 and 2 per cent this year - but the Government stands ready to step in, in the event of a downturn.

But even as such responses went some way towards addressing the concerns that were raised in the initial questions, the MPs sought more details. For instance, would the drive to retrain retrenched workers for a different industry inadvertently cause them to lose the skills and experience they picked up over the years?

Or is Singapore at risk of losing certain core capabilities if too many companies in key industries are unable to weather the impending economic headwinds?

The discussion also fleshed out how immigration and productivity - twin issues that Singapore continues to grapple with - are inextricably linked.

Mr Patrick Tay (West Coast GRC), for instance, asked if it is possible for locals to continue to make up one-third of the overall workforce in Singapore, given that local workforce growth may stagnate in the coming years.

It was a stark reminder that if Singapore fails to reach the targeted 2 per cent to 3 per cent productivity gain, the pressure to inject foreign manpower into the workforce will increase.

It was left to Mr Lim Swee Say to remind the House of how Singapore rode out its previous economic challenge and its lessons can be applied this time around.

"The last time round, during the global financial crisis, we cut costs together, we saved jobs together, and upturned the downturn together," he said. "This time round, our challenge is: transform together, adapt together, and grow together. Working together, we can succeed once again."

Another topic that generated considerable interest was the Government's decision to allow two local lottery operators to offer online betting.

MPs pressed for assurances about safeguards to prevent an uptick in problem gambling, and asked if the authorities were sending mixed signals by discouraging gambling and yet opening up a legal avenue for it to take place online.

Social and Family Development Minister Tan Chuan-Jin and Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Lee made clear that even with an outright ban, online gambling will still occur as punters will find ways around blocked sites.

Better then to create a regulated space that can be monitored, and with strict safeguards imposed.

The spirited questioning of the Government's stance showed that the issue of how best to control gambling remains divisive.

While Mr Lee acknowledged as much, he said the Government had to consider the subject from a viewpoint of national policy.

The Government's repeated arguments of its approach to gambling may not change minds.

But the debate, along with the earlier exchange on handling economic challenges, is a reminder that regardless of the intensity or direction of the debate, workable solutions have to be reached.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 11, 2016, with the headline 'The House keeps its eye on the economy'. Print Edition | Subscribe