SINGAPORE - More than $2 billion of public construction projects will be deferred in order to spread out labour demand, as the Government continues to slow the inflow of foreign workers, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Wednesday.
This will not affect projects which are urgent, such as Housing Board flats and train network expansion. Instead, the delays will apply to the new Science Centre and extensions to Gardens by the Bay, for example.
Singapore could save 20,000 or 30,000 foreign workers that way, he said: "These are necessary trade-offs and I hope Singaporeans will understand."
Keeping an eye on construction manpower, and foreign manpower more generally, is part of the Government's efforts to manage Singapore's population.
The debate on the Population White Paper in January last year was "vigorous and emotional", but helped both the people to better understand the issue, and the Government to work out its plans, said Mr Lee.
The inflow of new arrivals has been reduced, the economy is making the transition towards higher productivity, and the Government will review its population planning parameters closer to 2020.
As for foreign worker numbers, the inflow was slowed but not frozen, having now almost halved since 2011. Excluding construction workers, the growth rate of foreign workers is now just a quarter of that in 2011.
Yet even this has been painful for companies, especially small and medium enterprises, noted Mr Lee. Many are struggling and some have had to shift their operations out of Singapore.
"If we squeeze them too hard, they may not survive, and that will mean that many Singaporean jobs will be at risk," he said.
Several weeks ago, he met some Malay SME owners who said there was business to be done but they could not find the workers, and asked for help. Mr Lee replied that the Government will help all firms to adapt to having fewer foreign workers, but cannot ease up on foreign worker limits.
Besides foreign construction workers, foreign professionals, managers and executives (PME) are another group to which the Government has been paying attention.
"The issue is less about numbers, because the numbers are not huge, but about the quality of foreign PMEs and also about fair treatment for Singaporean PMEs," said Mr Lee.
The Government has been managing both their numbers and profile, tightening the requirements for Employment Passes and S-Passes for such workers.
For Singaporean PMEs, there are efforts to develop them and to ensure a level playing field, for instance through the upcoming Fair Consideration Framework, which will require firms to advertise on a jobs bank before applying to hire foreigners.