SINGAPORE - When the Government works to attract companies into Singapore and to create jobs, its ultimate aim is always to improve the lives of Singaporeans, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday (Sept 2).
He added that being open to foreign talent has helped to further this aim, as it has created more opportunities for Singaporeans.
And even as Singapore adjusts its policies on work passes, it must be careful not to send the wrong signal that it is no longer welcoming to others, he said.
The issue of the foreign workforce in Singapore had been hotly debated in Parliament over the past two days, with many MPs calling on the Government to do more to protect the Singaporean core in the workforce. They shared stories from residents of having lost opportunities to foreigners and being outnumbered in their offices, and questioned whether the policies on work passes had perhaps been too lax.
In his speech, PM Lee acknowledged that Singaporeans are concerned about fairness.
He noted that the numbers of Employment Pass and S Pass holders have come down since Covid-19, and work pass schemes continue to be adjusted.
He said: "There is no comfort in knowing that the total numbers are not too many, if personally we feel that we have been discriminated against at the workplace, or that the Employment Pass holder working beside us somehow has an inside track."
He also reiterated the promise made by several ministers who had spoken before him in the debate: "The Government will always be on the side of Singaporeans.
"What is the point of creating jobs for foreigners, if it does not benefit Singaporeans? Why would we want to do that? Ultimately, our aim is to grow our economy, create good jobs for Singaporeans and raise our standards of living," he said.
Looking back to the past, he said Singapore had succeeded creating a better life for its people in part by being an international hub and serving a global market, and cautioned against turning inwards.
Over the years, the Government had worked to attract foreign companies to set up shop here and allowed them to tap foreign talent when Singapore did not have the workers with the skill sets needed, said PM Lee.
But this was on the basis that the companies would also hire Singaporeans and help train them so that they can rise up the ranks and take on these jobs over time, he added.
He cited the example of pharmaceutical companies that first began investing in Singapore some 20 to 30 years ago by building manufacturing plants, then later setting up their regional headquarters and research labs here.
One such company is GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). PM Lee noted that GSK's site director is a Singaporean, Mr Lim Hock Heng, who started in 1992 as a production engineer, picked up skills and knowledge from his foreign colleagues, and rose through the ranks.
Now, Mr Lim oversees the pharmaceutical giant's Singapore sites, which manufacture key products for the whole world.
Many more companies in financial services, semiconductors, oil and gas and information technology have similarly groomed Singaporeans and put them in senior roles, said PM Lee, adding: "If we had not welcomed these companies in the past and encouraged them to bring in global talent, Hock Heng... and many others would have been deprived of these opportunities."
PM Lee also disclosed that even in the depressed economic climate amid the coronavirus pandemic, some companies have expressed interest in coming to Singapore.
For instance, Hyundai Motor has announced plans to set up a major facility to undertake research and development and develop future mobility technologies.
There are other companies that are keen to invest here, and these include a pharmaceutical company planning to build a facility in Singapore to manufacture vaccines, a company specialising in pandemic risk insurance, and several Fortune 500 companies that are considering moving their regional headquarters to Singapore because of political uncertainties elsewhere, as well as major financial institutions that want to grow their operations here - including IT and backroom operations.
Amid a world in flux with societies under stress and politics becoming more divisive, Singapore is an attractive choice for these companies, said PM Lee.
"Companies are seeking a safe harbour, where the politics is stable, there is rule of law, the people are hardworking and united, and where the country will come through the pandemic safely, and have a bright future," he added.
"We take no joy in the troubles around the world, but it is a fact that in a troubled world, Singapore is one of the few trusted countries that stand out. And we must guard that reputation zealously."
But he also said that for the companies to come, they must also feel welcome, and be allowed to bring in the talent with the expertise required to fill some of the jobs.
PM Lee said the economic benefits of Singapore's foreign worker policies were clear.
"So even as we adjust our work pass policies, we must be careful not to give the wrong impression that we are now closing up, and no longer welcoming foreigners. Such a reputation would do us great harm and we have to watch this, because we are being watched," he added, noting that publications like the Financial Times and South China Morning Post had recently run articles about how the mood in Singapore on foreigners was changing.
"We have to do the right thing for ourselves, but we must also avoid sending the wrong signals to others."
He also said a more fundamental question the country would need to deal with was: "What sort of society, what sort of people do we want to be?"
Historically, Singapore as an open port and immigrant nation has always been open to the world and welcoming to others who can add value to society, he added.
"This generosity of spirit gives our society and economy vitality and resilience. It has made Singapore the exceptional, cosmopolitan city that we are today, plugged into the global economy, and making a living by making ourselves valuable to the world," he said.
"We may be under stress now, but we cannot afford to turn inwards. We will adjust our policies to safeguard Singaporean jobs, but let us show confidence that Singaporeans can hold our own in the world."