Some bosses of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have had to turn away business or rope in family members to help, as they deal with the curbs on foreign worker inflow and the lack of locals for hire.
But the Government cannot ease up on the limits, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, even as he acknowledged the tight situation and calls for a loosening of the limits.
"We have to manage the inflow, we have to manage what we can accommodate in Singapore," he said yesterday at a conference attended by about 400 Malay/Muslim entrepreneurs and delegates from Singapore and the region.
Singapore has been tightening the foreign worker tap for a few years to help ease the strain on infrastructure.
The measures, PM Lee said, have caused pain to all SMEs, not just Malay/Muslim businesses, whose plight was highlighted last week in a Berita Harian article on their difficulty in hiring Singaporeans with the right attitude and skill sets.
But he pledged to help SMEs lift their productivity and make jobs more attractive to locals.
For instance, a new SME talent programme, started last year, will see the Government paying the course fees of talented polytechnic and Institute of Technical Education students.
It will also work with SMEs to give the students jobs and sign-on bonuses after graduation.
The Singapore Malay Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which organised yesterday's event, will partner trade associations and Mendaki to promote the programme by matching the relevant Malay/Muslim SMEs with the suitable talents.
Meanwhile, the Government is doing its utmost to raise SMEs' productivity, said Mr Lee.
For instance, the Productivity and Innovation Credit scheme gives companies tax deductions for investing in equipment that boosts productivity.
The twin thrusts of hiring better workers and raising productivity will put SMEs in a stronger position to venture overseas, Mr Lee added.
Government grants which offset upfront costs of market research and setting up overseas businesses are available.
One overseas option he highlighted is Johor's Iskandar zone.
"You can take advantage of lower costs there, you can take advantage of more space there... and at the same time stay close to Singapore," he said.
Mr Mohd Fazuly Mohd Yunos, a participant at the conference, has set his sights farther afield.
The managing director of a construction engineering company did a recce trip to the Middle East last year.
"Since there is support for us and demand for services in the Middle East, I intend to expand into that region after more planning," the 40-year-old said.