Panellists largely agreed that Singapore faces a serious labour crunch without foreign workers, despite attempts to offset the problem through automation and the retention of older employees.
United Overseas Bank economist Francis Tan brought up what he has dubbed the "trilemma" of Singaporeans' preference for fewer babies, lower immigration and less taxes. "If you have all three, the Government can never receive enough revenue to fund all the expenditure, especially for the ageing society," he said. "So we need to really relax some of these."
One approach in the Budget is a pilot Capability Transfer Programme, which aims to transfer skills from foreign specialists to Singaporeans.
The initiative was hailed by panellists, with Singapore Business Federation chairman Teo Siong Seng saying that while more details have yet to be released, the scheme "highlights getting the right people, including foreign talent, to come and help us to digitalise and go international".
Businessman Ernie Koh advocated extending the benefits of skills upgrading to rank-and-file foreign workers as well, citing his experience with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
He noted that a foreign worker arriving here to perform construction work may have been a farmer in his own country not that long ago.
TIME TO TALK ABOUT POPULATION AGAIN
We should really talk about the population again, revisit that, because of the slower pace of increase in the assimilation of foreigners into our population... You go to Tokyo, you go to Osaka, you go to Kyoto - these are places where it's economically active, big cities. You get to see a lot more young people. But the older people, they are all in the suburbs. Now, in Singapore, where is our suburb? So we'll be likely seeing a very different landscape, cityscape compared with Tokyo, London, or some of the major cities in the world. Should we continue the slow pace of immigration into Singapore. At the end of the day... we talk about this trilemma the Government has in terms of increasing their revenue. Singaporeans need to choose, okay?
MR FRANCIS TAN, United Overseas Bank economist.
SMALL FIRMS NEED HELP
(Budget 2018) is very forward-looking, very strategic. But don't forget today's SMEs. Some of them are also struggling... How are you going to address these companies?As an SME, to go into Asean, you have to choose one or maximum two countries, which one do you choose and which country do you think that the cultural differences will not be affecting your business. If you were to go to India or you go to China, you are faced with this massive market, but if you get the right partner and you are able to work your way through, a small little part of the Chinese market is a huge part of your business.
MR ERNIE KOH, executive director, sales and marketing, Koda.
CLEARER DIRECTION FOR 'DOUBLE M' GROUP
I think the Capability Transfer Programme is definitely a good initiative, but it's really about operationalising it. We really need companies to ensure that the foreign talent they bring in do transfer the knowledge and skill sets to our local workers... What we call the "Double M" - the middle-income, middle-aged - this group will really be most pressured by disruptions, changes. I think the Industry Transformation Maps do provide a clearer direction for this group of workers on how they can identify new jobs that they can take on and then go for the relevant training, so they can then transit should their current jobs be disrupted.
MR MELVIN YONG, MP and director at NTUC .
A BUDGET WE CAN ALL WORK ON
It's a balanced Budget with a vision, and I think so far the feedback from my members is that they are quite all right.I think it is quite a welcome Budget. Really, it's something for us to work on, not just the Government to work on. We have to work on it so that we ensure we have a better standard of living for our people.
MR TEO SIONG SENG, Singapore Business Federation chairman and managing director of Pacific International Lines.
"Productivity is calculated by innovation plus worker," said Mr Koh, executive director of furniture company Koda. "You train a lot of Singaporeans, you innovate. There are about 900,000 foreign workers in Singapore. But as an SME, I don't train them."
Why? Mr Koh said it becomes costly to train them as there is little funding. In addition, as employers have to pay a foreign workers' levy, they can't afford to pay their foreign workers a premium. "If you are able to put something into here to train this up, perhaps your productivity can skyrocket," Mr Koh said.
But he added that such a move would be politically tricky "because the Singaporean will say, 'Why are you training these people?' "
Mr Teo echoed Mr Koh's suggestion, while acknowledging that employers may fear a foreign worker would jump ship after acquiring more valuable knowledge.
"I look at it the other way," he said, citing findings from a business mission to Bangladesh and Myanmar, where he noticed that some Singapore companies were hiring Bangladeshi nationals who had previously worked here.
"They're half-trained already," said Mr Teo, calling this practice an "advantage" for Singapore businesses abroad. "It may look at first that we're actually spending money on foreigners. But if we can train them to be more focused, these people can in fact help Singapore companies to go international because they have more affinity for the Singaporean culture, the Singapore company, whether it's Vietnamese workers (or) Indonesians."
Mr Teo suggested that "it's also about time that we actually have another discussion on population and immigration", after the Government's unpopular Population White Paper in 2013.