There is a limit to how far Singapore can go in reducing the need for manual work, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said. "We still need to rely on a significant proportion of our foreign workers to do very difficult jobs which many Singaporeans will not want to do," he told CNA in an interview.
He noted that the use of digital technology could make Singapore's built environment sector more efficient and productive as it grapples with a shrinking local labour force. "For us, a combination of men and machines will be a very powerful one, and therefore we must make the best use of how digitalisation can enable us to be more productive and more efficient," he added.
The recent outbreak of Covid-19 among migrant workers in dorms has seen calls for Singapore to rethink its reliance on such labour.
Asked during the interview if there are plans in the pipeline to review the structure and reliance on foreign workers, Mr Heng said the key issue is Singapore's domestic labour force is "insufficient", and will decline as the population ages.
"We are going to put our focus and effort on how we can revamp the built environment (sector) to create better jobs for our people, and to see how we can reduce the manual portion," added Mr Heng, who is also Finance Minister.
"Still, I must caution that there is a limit to how far we can go."
Asked if there were plans to bring forward large-scale projects to boost the economy, he said "certain projects, particularly infrastructure projects, they will have to be built".
"We are hoping to carry on with these projects, if not bring (them) forward. But the critical issue here is, are we able to reopen safely?
"That is why there is a lot of work that is going on to look at how we can manage our foreign workers in the dorms well, and how we can reopen safely."
Public infrastructure projects can also be brought forward, he added.
Yesterday, several business groups and trade associations criticised the calls to reduce the number of migrant workers, saying this could hurt the economy.
Mr Thomas Ang, president of the Specialists Trade Alliance of Singapore, suggested that higher costs and inconveniences would result.
Singapore Contractors Association president Ng Yek Meng said transforming the construction industry, so that it can build more with less labour, "will take time".
Less foreign labour would mean higher construction costs, and make it more difficult for companies to compete for strategic projects, such as building new manufacturing facilities, energy plants and tourist attractions, he said.
He added that higher construction costs would also cause housing prices to rise, and these homes would take longer to build.
Trade associations and chambers issued four statements on the issue of migrant workers in Singapore yesterday. Here are extracts.
COMPETITIVENESS AT STAKE
"Given Singapore's limited workforce, we would not be able to stay competitive in certain sectors if not for migrant workers. We are an ageing society with no hinterland to draw workers from. Migrant workers take on many of the lower-end jobs in Singapore. This allows the vast majority of Singaporeans to take on PMET jobs, and help in creating an innovation-based economy as well. Thus, we urge the Government and Singaporeans to carefully consider the next steps on migrant workers."
THE SINGAPORE INDIAN CHAMBER OF COMMERCE AND INDUSTRY, SINGAPORE MALAY CHAMBER OF COMMERCE AND INDUSTRY, AND SINGAPORE CHINESE CHAMBER OF COMMERCE AND INDUSTRY, in a joint statement.
"Labour is required in numerous stages of the manufacturing process. A large number of these roles are supported by migrant workers.
In the marine and offshore sector, Singapore shipyards are able to compete internationally for marine and offshore and oil and gas projects because we have the technical competencies and manpower resources to do so... With the support of these migrant workers, our marine and offshore sector has been able to contribute to the construction and maintenance of vessels to sustain sea trade and oil and gas exploration and production globally."
THE SINGAPORE MANUFACTURING FEDERATION, ASSOCIATION OF SINGAPORE PROCESS INDUSTRIES AND ASSOCIATION OF SINGAPORE MARINE INDUSTRIES, in a statement.
CONSIDER THE IMPLICATIONS
"We hope the Government and Singaporeans will consider the very real implications of these suggestions (to reduce migrant worker numbers) carefully, and in the longer-term interest of Singaporean jobs and the economy. One important question is whether Singaporeans can accept higher costs and inconveniences if many of the rank-and-file jobs that keep our industry running are hard to fill. There would be further strains on the maintenance of our network of lifts and escalators if we had fewer migrant workers working alongside our locals in this line. Apart from costs, there would be spillover effects on the safe operation of buildings that other industries and workers rely on."
MR THOMAS ANG, president, Specialists Trade Alliance of Singapore.
BEWARE OF IMPACT
"There have been calls by some non-governmental organisations for a reduction in the number of foreign workers. These workers contribute significantly to Singapore's construction industry and development. They support the creation of our housing, transport infrastructure and overall landscape. Reducing the number of foreign workers would hamper the current speed at which Singapore continues to grow and redevelop. This will inadvertently impact Singapore's economy and business viability.
Today, we have approximately 300,000 foreign workers in the construction sector. They form the backbone of the construction industry (which currently employs close to 100,000 locals)."
MR NG YEK MENG, president, The Singapore Contractors Association.