SINGAPORE - Should Singapore turn away investments that would bring in more foreigners, including some who would earn more than Singaporeans working in the same company?
It cannot, said Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, as such investments will create higher-paying jobs for not only the current generation of Singaporeans but also the next.
He made the point in Parliament on Monday (Jan 6) as he sought to allay concerns about foreigners taking away better-paying jobs from Singaporeans, especially in the current climate of economic uncertainties.
In his detailed response to two MPs, he assured Singaporeans that the Government understands their worries. "We will walk this journey together with you. This Government will always have your back."
There are difficult trade-offs to strike the right local-foreign balance in the workforce, but Singapore needs "above average" foreigners to build a more competitive economy even as it provides "some safeguards for our people", he said.
To drive home his point, he gave the illustration of a new investment creating two new jobs - one paying $7,000 and the other $10,000.
A Singaporean who is earning $5,000 today can only get the $7,000 job because he "does not yet have the skills or experience" for the $10,000 job.
While the Singaporean may feel he is being unequally treated, not accepting the investment will mean both the $7,000 and $10,000 jobs disappearing, he said.
The Singaporean will have fewer opportunities to rise to a higher-paying job and, more importantly, his children will not be able to aspire to those jobs either, he added.
Every generation since independence has faced this dilemma, Mr Chan noted, citing how the first three semiconductor companies in Singapore - National Semiconductor, Fairchild and Texas Instruments - created more than 7,000 jobs in the 1970s.
"But our people did not get the best-paying jobs immediately... because they lacked the skills or experience," he said.
But in time, many of the early engineers and technicians became senior executives in the sector, and mentored a new generation of Singaporeans.
Today, the same situation is taking place in the info-communications technology (ICT) and software industries, Mr Chan said.
"So do we go out and attract these investments like Google, Grab and Facebook, not just for this generation but more importantly also for the next?" he asked.
"I say we do, and land the investment first," he told the House.
He then stressed the need to work hard to upgrade Singaporeans' skills to take over the higher-paying jobs as soon as possible.
"But do not exploit sentiments to create envy, anger and frustration towards that foreigner who is now taking the $10,000 job."
He said most Singaporeans understand and accept this approach, adding that they do not want unfair employment practices where they are passed over because of non-meritocratic considerations.
"The Government understands these concerns, and we stand together with fellow Singaporeans on this matter," he said.
That is why the Manpower Ministry is continually updating the Fair Consideration Framework to ensure a fair, level playing field for Singaporeans, he added.
He said that the vast majority of companies "play ball" and groom Singaporeans not because they are asked to but because it makes business sense for them to localise, among other things.
The Government will come down hard on the black sheep, he said, adding that businesses understand the need to be responsible employers.
To businesses that have asked for foreign workforce controls to be relaxed because they cannot get enough Singaporeans to expand their business, Mr Chan said: "Our answer to them is we can do this together, but you must also help us manage the sense of fair play and opportunity for Singaporeans."
He said the Government will continue to devote resources to help Singaporeans stay relevant and move into higher-paying jobs.
"Unlike other countries, Singapore and Singaporeans do not need to fear competition. We know we have to remain open to the world. We know that a Singapore that is closed-in cannot survive," he said.
Singapore, he added, has the means to help its workers - something not many countries have the political mandate, will or necessary resources to do.
"That is why their workers push back against global integration, trade liberalisation and so forth. But we are different."
The Government has "done the right things by getting the balance right", he said in his reply to Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) and Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC).
He pointed out that local employment increased by nearly 60,000 between 2015 and 2018.
The PMET share of local employment during this period went up three points to 57 per cent, a proportion that is among the highest in the world, he added.
Real average monthly earnings for employed locals grew 3.2 per cent yearly during this period, higher than the 2.4 per cent per annum in the previous three years, he said. It was also higher than most advanced economies such as the United States (0.5 per cent), Japan (0.8 per cent) and Germany (1.2 per cent), he added.
Singapore must firmly reject more extreme positions as it strives for what he called the "Goldilocks balance".
"We cannot open the floodgates and drown Singaporeans. But neither can we close our borders and reject foreigners in our workforce.
"Above all, we must firmly reject efforts to stoke anti-foreigner sentiments by spreading falsehoods or creating invidious comparisons out of context. That is not the kind of politics we want," he said.
Mr Chan added that the real competition is not between the Singaporean versus the permanent resident here versus the foreigner here.
"The real competition is Team Singapore, comprising Singaporeans, PRs and foreign workers here, competing with the rest of the world to give our fellow Singaporeans the best chance possible to win, not just in Singapore but across the entire globe."