Parliament: Motions on jobs and foreign talent

If S'pore turns inwards, firms could leave with the jobs they provide

There are severe consequences if Singapore turns inwards and loses its lustre as a regional hub, causing companies to leave with the jobs they provide, Manpower Minister Tan See Leng said yesterday.

Some businesses have faced difficulties finding enough local workers with the right skills, hampering their expansion plans. As a result, some have given up and turned to hiring foreigners based in their home country, he said, noting that people can now work from anywhere.

The 10 biggest multinational corporations in Singapore alone create around 30,000 local professional, manager, executive and technician (PMET) jobs, Dr Tan noted. "If they decide to leave, we would not be talking about recouping 'tens of thousands' of jobs, but about losing more of them instead," he said during a debate on jobs and foreign talent policy.

The minister noted that Singapore fell from first to fifth in the Institute for Management Development's (IMD) 2021 World Competitiveness Ranking, in part due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Republic slid in its openness towards global trade and talent, in rankings including those regarding attitudes towards globalisation.

"I will say this plainly to Mr Leong (Mun Wai): What he and his party spew, attacking Ceca and FTAs, and foreigners in general, has an effect on IMD's assessment, and on business sentiments, both here and overseas," Dr Tan said, referring to the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement by its acronym.

He stressed that Singapore's appeal to investors is the result of the country's efforts over the years, and many public agencies continue to work hard to ensure Singapore remains attractive to investors and a competitive economy, proven by its pipeline of investments even during the Covid-19 pandemic.

But other economies are also raising their game, Dr Tan said.

"We cannot afford to take our economic competitiveness for granted. The attitudes that PSP (Progress Singapore Party) is promoting are detrimental to how others perceive our openness. Mr Leong, please have a care."

Responding to PSP's call to set a quota for Employment Passes (EPs), Dr Tan stressed the global competition for talent and shortages in areas such as technology and digital skills. Setting quotas on EPs would send the wrong signal that Singapore is not welcoming of such talent, he said.

He cited how Singaporeans accounted for 40 per cent of Mizuho Bank's project finance team when it was set up in 2003. Now, Singaporeans make up 70 per cent of a much larger office, he said.

If Singapore had imposed quotas then, Mizuho Bank may not even have come here and the country would have lost out on jobs for Singaporeans, he noted.

"(Mr Leong) had previously suggested that it is not good enough that Singaporeans make up 70 per cent of the workforce in the financial sector, but that it should be even higher, at 80 per cent or 90 per cent, in which case, how do we remain and maintain our status as an international financial centre?"

The minister said many companies have said that they prefer to hire locals over foreigners, so long as they can find the needed skills here. "Even if there is initially a shortage of skills, many are willing to develop local talent to fill these roles," said Dr Tan.

He acknowledged that there is always more to be done. "We must continuously refine our policies to secure the well-being and livelihoods of Singaporeans in a post-pandemic world, but Members of the House, we must not discard the principles that have worked well for us," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2021, with the headline 'If S'pore turns inwards, firms could leave with the jobs they provide'. Subscribe