S'pore could lose investors, firms and jobs they bring for locals if it turns inwards: Tan See Leng

Some businesses have faced difficulties finding enough local workers with the right skills. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - There are severe consequences if Singapore, a small country devoid of natural resources, turns inwards and loses its lustre as a regional hub, causing companies to leave with the jobs they provide, said Manpower Minister Tan See Leng on Tuesday (Sept 14).

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.

Dr Tan was speaking during a debate in Parliament on two motions about jobs and Singapore's foreign talent policy - one by Progress Singapore Party's (PSP) Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai and the second tabled by Finance Minister Lawrence Wong in response, to set out the Government's position on Singaporeans' jobs and livelihoods.

Mr Leong's motion called upon the Government to take urgent and concrete action to address the widespread anxiety among Singaporeans on jobs and livelihoods caused by the policies that allow movement of people under some free trade agreements (FTAs).

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.

In particular, the Republic slid in its openness towards global trade and talent, in rankings regarding attitudes towards globalisation, availability of skilled labour and immigration laws preventing companies from hiring foreign labour.

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

"Investors watch and wonder how many other Singaporeans feel this way? Has Singapore become less welcoming of foreign investments, of global talent?"

He noted how the issue of foreigners and jobs has been addressed numerous times by various ministers, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during his National Day Rally speech last month.

Said Dr Tan: "Do Mr Leong and his party think Singapore will forever be attractive to investors? Is there some magic water that draws global multinationals here? All this happens spontaneously?"

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MPs from both sides of the House spoke during a debate on two motions pertaining to jobs and foreign talent policies on Tuesday (Sept14).

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

But other economies are also raising their game, he said.

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

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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 added.

Dr Tan said: "(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 requisite 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, who is also Second Minister for Trade and Industry.

He noted how fintech company PayPal, which has sited its international headquarters in Singapore, had to rely more heavily on global talent for specialised technical skills and management roles in its earlier years. But it is taking steps to develop more local talent and has committed to hire and train 150 Singaporeans across tech and business roles over the next three years, he added.

Dr Tan 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."

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