No U-turn on tight foreign worker policy: Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say

Mr Lim Swee Say says he has had "no personality crisis" in switching from labour chief to Manpower Minister.
Mr Lim Swee Say says he has had "no personality crisis" in switching from labour chief to Manpower Minister.

But some other manpower policies will be reviewed

COMPANIES looking for relief from the tight foreign worker policy, now that a new minister is in charge, will be disappointed.

There will be no U-turn on the tight lid on foreign worker numbers in Singapore, said newly minted Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say.

But he did promise to review some of the other manpower policies in place, such as the national jobs bank, because policies are "never static", he added.

Speaking to the media for the first time since he moved from the labour unions to be Manpower Minister, Mr Lim set out four broad areas in his new role.

These are: to boost competitiveness, keep the workforce lean, nurture a core group of Singaporean workers, and use the foreign workforce as a complement to the local workforce.

These strategies will help businesses to grow and workers to pursue their careers, while achieving "quality growth" for Singapore, he said.

Mr Lim, who turns 62 in July next year, stepped down as National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) secretary-general last month as part of a self-imposed leadership renewal plan, where union leaders voluntarily retire at age 62 to make way for new blood.

He had spent 13 years at NTUC, with eight years at the helm.

And although it has been just about a month since he moved, Mr Lim has hit the ground running and spent an "active and fruitful month" meeting industry associations like the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry and several foreign business chambers.

Mr Lim acknowledged that firms face growing uncertainty over the business environment. "Some wonder whether their sectors are still important and how they can attract Singaporean workers," he said.

But it is "not viable" for firms to keep asking for more foreign workers, and they should instead work with unions and the Government to boost productivity, he said.

He added that the lid on foreign worker numbers will have to stay because it is neither

sustainable nor desirable if the proportion of foreign workers rises.

"(Otherwise), one day, Singaporeans will wake up to find ourselves as a minority in our Singapore workforce," said Mr Lim.

But he acknowledged that the Government can do more to explain its foreign worker policies to firms. "There is a greater need for us to explain to the business community why there is no easy way out of this present tight labour market," he said.

Turning to other policy areas, Mr Lim said policies, such as the Fair Consideration Framework, are under review to strengthen employment support for local professionals, managers and executives.

The details of the review will be made known in about a month's time, he said.

The former labour chief said that he has had "no personality crisis" in moving from his role as union chief to labour policymaker because of the strong three-way partnership between the Government, unions and employers.

"To me, it's a seamless transition. Why? Because we've always been striving for this win-win outcome," he said.

For smaller firms, the restructuring message has sunk in, said Association of Small and Medium Enterprises president Kurt Wee.

"SMEs are not really investing in expansion," he said, adding: "They are already restructuring in response to the new (foreign) labour ratios."

tohyc@sph.com.sg

joseow@sph.com.sg