Commentary: Coronavirus: Jobs/Cases

Skilled Singaporean core and staying open to talent matter


The biggest casualty of the coronavirus pandemic is the job market. Around the world, tens of millions of people have lost their livelihoods this year.

In Singapore, by some estimates, up to 150,000 Singaporeans and permanent residents could be out of a job by the first half of next year if the economy continues to shrink at about 5 per cent on a quarterly basis.

Thousands of workers from various sectors have either suffered pay cuts or been forced to go on no-pay leave, or have been laid off altogether. As the crisis rolls on, the numbers will keep rising.

While Singapore has faced numerous crises in the past, there is something ominously different about the current one. For the first time in a generation, there is a real fear that many jobs which are disappearing will never return due to technological changes and offshoring.

This has set off heated discourse about foreign workers and foreign talent.

Many fear that the shrinking pool of jobs - especially among professionals, managers, engineers and technicians (PMETs) - has been disproportionately taken over by Employment Pass and work pass holders.

This anxiety is also fuelling the narrative that too many foreign companies and foreign bosses favour foreigners over Singaporeans at the workplace. There is also suspicion that many of these jobs - especially at the PMET level - can be done by Singaporeans, and that some of these foreign hires do not really possess the requisite qualifications to be classified as foreign "talent".

The truth and veracity of all this have yet to be proven. Many of the calls to cull the foreign workforce have been emotive and supported by hearsay and weak anecdotal evidence.

So let's examine some facts first.

First, Singaporeans simply are not attracted to some jobs, no matter what the salary is.

Jobs in cleaning, construction, waste management, gardening, healthcare, general maintenance, food and beverage, and various other blue-collar work fall into this category.

Second, there are some very specialised jobs - such as in information technology, advanced biomedical sciences, complex risk management, and other highly specialised global roles - where there is just not large enough a pool of local talent.

Not long ago, Foreign Minister and Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan said that in its push towards digitalisation, Singapore would need some 66,000 IT professionals. While the various universities, colleges and polytechnics here produce some 50,000 graduates every year, barely 15 per cent come with deep technical skills. And many technical graduates choose to work in non-technical fields.

Then there is the issue of PMET jobs.

Yes, there is no doubt that Singaporeans would qualify for many of these jobs, especially in the financial sector. So there is a justification for putting in place effective mechanisms to ensure fair hiring practices.

One way might be to ensure all human resource staff - and especially the heads of human resources - in these companies are exclusively Singaporeans. And in the case of the financial sector, perhaps the Monetary Authority of Singapore could hold quarterly evaluation meetings with the management.

But in trying to fix these trees, Singapore should not lose sight of the forest.

Singapore owes its success to its openness to foreign capital and talent.

Xenophobic rants create negative optics which can drive away global companies that can offer quality jobs.

The recent heated conversations about foreign talent have already hit the headlines of international newspapers. One in The Financial Times last week read: "Singapore seeks to cut number of expatriates as recession bites: Asian financial hub tightens regulations on employing foreign professionals."

The article went on to say: "International businesses in Singapore are facing increasing barriers to hiring expatriates as the Government seeks to assuage domestic political concerns over soaring unemployment in the Asian financial centre. Despite increasing interest among global companies in using Singapore as an alternative regional base to Hong Kong, authorities in Singapore last week tightened criteria for hiring foreign professionals."

Not exactly the right message for a small, open economy.

As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong put it, Singapore must continue to welcome talent and investment that creates opportunities for its people, and maintain its reputation for openness.

While measures must be taken to mitigate the bias in hiring, one must also be aware that the world is borderless to talent.

Today, an international company with operational headquarters in Singapore, Shanghai or Sydney can employ thousands of specialists, technologists, designers, marketing executives and others in Bangalore, Bangor or Baguio.

The impact of this can filter down to all segments of the local economy.

For now, the Republic is still attracting tens of billions of dollars of investment commitments.

This year alone, the likes of Hyundai, Tata Consultancy, ExxonMobil, Micron Technology, STMicroelectronics, Rakuten Mobile, Twitter, Thermo Fisher Scientific and BASF are among the global giants expanding or establishing regional headquarters and recruiting here in Singapore. Meanwhile, e-commerce platforms Lazada and Shopee are hiring for roles in data analytics, business development and product development to cater for the rise of online shopping.

Singapore must produce enough qualified people to take up roles at all levels in these international companies. And foreigners who do come to work here must be those who are able to add value to Singapore and its business proposition.

But the bottom line is that Singapore cannot do without foreign workers.

The reality is that Singapore will always need a sufficient pool of foreign talent with specialised skills. But they should supplement a stable local core comprising Singaporeans and permanent residents.

Nativism is not what a small economy which is highly dependent on foreign investment, free trade and open borders needs right now.

Pandemics pass. Reputation lingers.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 07, 2020, with the headline Skilled Singaporean core and staying open to talent matter. Subscribe