SINGAPORE - To assuage Singaporeans' anxieties over job competition and whether Employment Pass (EP) and S Pass holders are of the right standard, the criteria for EP and S passes will continue to be tightened over time, and all employees assured of fair treatment at the workplace.
At the same time, foreigners in Singapore must accept the ethos and norms of society here, and Singaporeans, too, must be open to living with and accepting others who are not exactly like them, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day Rally address on Sunday (Aug 29).
He added that the EP and S Pass criteria will not be tightened suddenly or sharply, which would hurt businesses, but gradually and progressively.
"This will ensure that work pass holders come in where we most need them, and we won't be flooded with more than we can absorb, doing jobs for which Singaporeans are qualified and available," he said.
He said that a practical and reasonable indication of quality is how much the employer is prepared to pay for the work pass holder, and this is why to qualify for an EP or S Pass, there are salary cut-offs.
"As Singaporean wages rise, we have raised these cut-offs in step," he said, noting that last year alone, the cut-offs were raised twice, with a higher cut-off set for the financial sector where salaries are higher.
PM Lee added that even as the authorities deal with workplace issues arising from large numbers of work pass holders, attention must also be paid to their social impact.
Social frictions arise because culturally, work pass holders are different from locals, even if they are of Chinese, Malay or Indian race, he said.
"In fact, sometimes frictions arise, precisely because they are racially similar to us. They look like us, yet they don't act like us."
This can be hard to understand - as shown when he tried to explain Singapore's multiracial society to a foreign leader.
He had explained that after two generations of nation building, Chinese Singaporeans have become different from Chinese-Chinese, and Indian Singaporeans have become different from Indian-Indians, and so on.
"The foreign leader understood English, but he looked at me, bewildered. Then he turned to his interpreter to ask: 'What is this Chinese-Chinese and Indian-Indian?'
"I tried to explain again... I am not sure he fully got it, but Singaporeans will understand. Compared to the non-Singaporeans, we are 'same same but different'."
Mr Lee said that with its immigrant roots, Singapore is generally an egalitarian society. After living here for some years, some foreigners have set up family here, speak Singlish, and enjoy local foods.
But some work pass holders and their families, he said, bring with them social practices and class distinctions from their own countries, which run counter to the informal and equal way Singaporeans interact with one another.
"That causes frictions. Non-Singaporeans must understand how Singapore is, so that they can fit in better."
He explained that he had decided to talk about the delicate subject of work pass holders and acknowledge the problem, so that Singaporeans' legitimate concerns can be addressed, and resentment over foreigners defused.
Only then, he said, can Singapore remain open and continue to grow and progress.
"The reality is that our competition is not only from foreigners who are physically here. We are competing with people who are all over the world," he said.
He added that Covid-19 has taught many companies that "working from home" is just one step away from "working anywhere".
"They and their staff no longer need to be all in the same place. All they need is a good Internet connection."
Foreigners who are here in Singapore strengthen the team and are Singaporeans' colleagues, neighbours and friends, he added.
He said that during Covid-19, some have endured personal hardships, and been separated from families who are abroad or stuck outside Singapore and unable to return home here.
"Many worked on the front line, shoulder to shoulder with Singaporeans. They, too, have contributed to Singapore. We must not turn our backs on them, and give the impression that Singapore is becoming xenophobic and hostile to foreigners," he said.
He reiterated a point that he made in his National Day message on Aug 8 - that turning inwards would gravely damage the Republic's reputation as an international hub, and cost it investments, jobs and opportunities.
"It would be disastrous for us. And it is not who we aspire to be."
Instead, he said, Singaporeans must make it "crystal clear" to the world that the country is determined to stay open in order to earn a living for itself.
"It is not just our policies which have to be outward and forward looking, but also our mindsets and values - to look beyond our shores, to welcome ideas and talent, to accept competition and change.
"These values helped transform Singapore from a population of immigrants into a cosmopolitan and vibrant country. We must uphold them, as we continue to build our home and nation."