The Straits Times
Published on Feb 13, 2013

Businesses addicted to quick-fix drug of foreign labour


I CANNOT agree more with MP Inderjit Singh, whose call to take a break from the relentless drive for growth and fix problems first was echoed by some of his party members ("Delay population growth for 5 years: MP"; last Wednesday).

Bear in mind that corporate managers do not make the rules. The Government makes the rules and the managers operate within them to produce the best outcomes for their own performance appraisals and resultant bonuses.

For example, it takes at least two years to turn an apprentice into a competent technician. Many local apprentices are school dropouts. They are accepted for training by big corporations at the age of 16. Just when they become productive, they get called up for national service. After that, some may not return to the employers who invested in their training.

However, so-called engineers from India, Pakistan and the Philippines may have qualifications not recognised in Singapore. But they speak English, comprehend technical manuals and are more than capable of understanding and doing the jobs of skilled technicians. And they work for the same salaries as what technicians get.

At higher grades, they could even be hired more competitively, since they neither suffer Central Provident Fund deductions nor receive CPF contributions.

If the employment of these foreigners were banned, local managers would have no choice but to train and upgrade the skills of our own citizens.

But this takes time. Managers are assessed every year. Their bonuses and promotions depend on the productivity and profitability of their divisions for that year. Why should they handicap themselves with local trainees who do not produce immediate results, when they can get foreigners who hit the ground running?

The use of foreign workers is a quick-fix drug to which Singapore businesses have become addicted. When threatened with withdrawal, businessmen complain and say that they have to close down. There is no doubt that the restructuring of various businesses will be as painful. As in the case of curing drug addicts, some may not survive.

But unless the Government lives up to its constant claims of being able to make hard decisions, and forces Singapore businesses to stand principally on the strengths of its native sons, the nation we grew up to know may not survive.

Lee Chiu San