Parliament: Debate on FTAs and foreign manpower

Rise in Indian EP holders driven by digital economy growth: Tan See Leng

The proportion of Employment Pass (EP) holders from India rose to about 25 per cent last year, from 14 per cent in 2005.

This was driven by the rapid growth of Singapore's digital economy, rather than the result of more favourable treatment for Indian EP holders due to the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca), Manpower Minister Tan See Leng told Parliament yesterday.

"As every sector seeks to be digitally enabled, their need for technology talent has grown significantly," he said, emphasising that Singapore currently does not have enough locals to fill the jobs available. In the infocomm sector alone, 6,000 jobs remain unfilled.

Another major source of technology talent is China, he said, but with the country producing many unicorns - start-ups worth at least US$1 billion (S$1.34 billion) - and having its own demand, many Chinese professionals are staying put.

Dr Tan noted that between 2005 and last year, the proportion of EP holders from China was relatively stable.

The top nationalities that comprise around two-thirds of Singapore's EP holders have been consistent since 2005 - namely, those from China, India, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Britain.

Dr Tan said the Government usually does not publish such detailed statistics for foreign policy reasons.

"We are not aware of any country that reports at the level of granularity requested. Nevertheless, we recognise that if misconceptions continue to spread, in spite of all our attempts to address them in other ways, even more damage will be done," he said.

This came after Non-Constituency MPs Leong Mun Wai and Hazel Poa from the Progress Singapore Party had asked for the nationality profile of work pass holders and their dependants from China, India, the United States and Australia. Ms Poa had requested more data on the jobs commonly held by these same nationalities.

All work pass holders in Singapore have to meet the same criteria before they are allowed to enter the labour market, stressed Dr Tan, adding that there is no differentiation based on nationality.

He also noted that India, whose talent continues to look outwards, is currently the largest country of origin for international migrants. Last year, it accounted for 18 million international migrants, up by 10 million from 2000.

"Given our shortage of manpower, even if the workers don't come from India, they will come from somewhere else," Dr Tan said. "The point is: Are they helping us grow the economy, and create Singaporean jobs? The answer is 'yes'."

Yet, it is not surprising that the increasing concentration of foreign workers has caused some social frictions and anxiety among Singaporeans, he noted. "In some ways, this is understandable and to be expected, because EP holders are transient."

Acknowledging that this is an area that has to be constantly managed, he said Singapore experienced a similar situation in the 2000s, when the share of Chinese nationals in the foreign workforce here rose significantly, before tapering as China's growth took off.

Dr Tan said the Government regularly reviews work pass policies. "We have to bring in the talent and skills to keep our economy growing, while tracking that the number of foreigners in our midst stays at a level we are able to cope with, and manage the social frictions that will arise from time to time," he added.

"It is a series of trade-offs. It is not a once-off adjustment, but a constant balance that we have to continuously monitor and get right."

Dr Tan said that in putting firms on the Fair Consideration Framework watch list, his ministry looks at whether firms have a high concentration of foreigners from a single nationality source, in addition to a high share of foreign professionals, managers, executives and technicians relative to their industry peers. There are currently about 400 firms placed on the watch list.

Today, salary is mainly relied on "as a gatekeeper" because it is easy to administer, but the Government has been exploring refinements to the EP framework to ensure a strong Singaporean core, complemented by a diverse foreign workforce. More details will be shared later, he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 07, 2021, with the headline 'Rise in Indian EP holders driven by digital economy growth: Tan See Leng'. Subscribe