As Parliament heard this week, the issue of foreign workers here rests essentially on striking an equitable balance, both quantitatively and qualitatively, among three factors. These are the needs of industries and enterprises, the needs of workers of this generation, and opportunities for Singaporeans of the next generation. Clearly, companies can employ Singaporeans only if their businesses and enterprises survive. For an island-city state lacking in natural resources, survival entails success in the global marketplace. Singapore's domestic market is too small to anchor and nurture the range of business enterprises needed to employ Singaporeans at a standard of living commensurate with their First World expectations.
That reality necessitates having suitably qualified foreigners to help make Singapore competitive internationally. There is no vociferous economic complaint about foreign construction and domestic workers, for example, because citizens do not want such jobs. The controversy is over the entry of professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs). The existence of this controversy itself sheds interesting light on local-foreign workforce relations. Given the steady improvement of the economy since independence, the mainstream of the economy has shifted upwards to the point where some Singaporeans fear they are being displaced by foreign PMETs. That would not have been the case had Singapore pursued protectionist policies. Any such move would not just have shut out foreigners but would also have reined in the upward mobility of Singaporeans because of the absence of competition.