Parliament: Motions on jobs and foreign talent

No special affinity for workers from any country: Sim Ann

Singapore has no special affinity for workers from any country, including India, Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and National Development Sim Ann said yesterday.

The growing presence of Indian professionals has nothing to do with the free trade pact between both countries and everything to do with economic strategy, she added.

Speaking in Mandarin during a parliamentary debate on two motions pertaining to jobs and foreign talent policies, she said Singapore's goal is to become a finance as well as a digital information and communications technology (ICT) hub to create better jobs for Singaporeans.

"India happens to be a major exporter of skilled manpower for both industries," she said.

Ms Sim also noted that India and China produce the largest number of skilled manpower globally for the IT industry. But the difference was in Indian ICT professionals being also well-versed in English, while China's huge domestic market has driven demand for home-grown talent, she said.

There are thus large numbers of Indian professionals in English-speaking economies and finance or ICT hubs such as London.

Ms Sim said most Indian professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) entered Singapore on Employment Passes (EPs), with only a few entering as intra-corporate transferees under the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca) trade pact.

Intra-corporate transferees are overseas staff at a multinational company who have worked for at least a year in it before being posted to a branch or subsidiary here.

She said: "In other words, even if Ceca did not exist, our strategy of building a finance hub and ICT hub would mean that there would likely be as many Indian PMETs here."

When it comes to foreign worker policy, the Government pays attention to overall numbers and whether Singaporeans are treated fairly, rather than focus on any particular nationality. Ms Sim said: "Indian EP holders have to clear the same bar as those from other sources, and checks are in place for all sources to guard against letting in under-qualified EPs."

Earlier, she also sought to address three main doubts that Singaporeans might have regarding their employment and livelihoods.

One was why the Government appeared to be allowing in so many foreign PMETs to compete with locals, and whether it would help Singaporeans being treated unfairly by foreign colleagues.

Ms Sim said the Government remains committed to raising Singaporeans' competitiveness through education and lifelong learning. It has also taken steps to regulate the entry of foreign PMETs through measures such as minimum salary requirements and to take action against unfair treatment.

Another core concern of Singaporeans lies in whether the Government is truly aware of their struggles, particularly of middle-aged PMETs facing stiff competition and fears of being replaced.

Calling the higher unemployment rate for PMETs aged 50 and above a structural trend that can be attributed to the impact of digitalisation and changing skills requirements, Ms Sim said the solution was not to simply curb foreign manpower but to take a multi-pronged approach to help the affected group to master new skills.

The third doubt is whether enterprises will really be driven away if the Government further restricts the entry of foreign manpower.

Ms Sim said it is hard work to attract MNCs, but only too easy to send them away. She said: "Repeatedly calling for curbs on foreign manpower may win some support. But this could morph into xenophobia, and discourage companies from coming here or remaining here... This would affect Singapore's competitiveness and threaten Singaporeans' prospects."

Ms Sim reminded the House how the pandemic has accelerated the trend of working from home, rendering it possible for anyone to be hired from anywhere.

"We should be upholding, not undermining, our competitiveness at such a critical juncture."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2021, with the headline 'No special affinity for workers from any country: Sim Ann'. Subscribe