SINGAPORE - Singapore has no special affinity for workers from any country, including India, said Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and National Development Sim Ann on Tuesday (Sept 14).
She added that 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.
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, and 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 in New York and London.
Ms Sim said that most Indian professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) entered Singapore on employment passes (EPs) applied for by employers via normal channels, 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 employees at a multinational company who have worked for at least a year in it, before being posted to a branch or subsidiary in Singapore.
"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," said Ms Sim.
Singapore has been grooming its own finance and IT talent and creating more jobs for locals in those fast-growing sectors. But restricting enterprises in their hiring of the hundreds of thousands of available Indian professionals will make them feel constrained and affect their operational plans, she said.
"Some might even consider giving up on Singapore and going elsewhere," Ms Sim warned.
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.
The Government will also continue to encourage foreign professionals working and living here to respect local culture and integrate well.
"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," said Ms Sim. "But becoming a permanent resident or citizen is quite a different matter altogether.
"When it comes to PRs, we are careful not to cause major shifts in the ethnic proportions. And when it comes to naturalisation, we are even more careful. And this is why many well-qualified Indian nationals have yet to receive approvals for their PR or citizenship applications even after a long wait," she added.
Earlier, Ms Sim also sought to address what she identified as 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 the Government 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 and take action against unfair treatment, through minimum salary requirements, tripartite guidelines and paying close attention to claims of discrimination against Singaporean workers.
Another core concern of Singaporeans lies in whether the Government is truly aware of their struggles, particularly for 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. She again pointed to lifelong-learning initiatives such as SkillsFuture.
The third doubt of Singaporeans, said Ms Sim, is whether enterprises will really be driven away if the Government further restricts the entry of foreign manpower.
"If not for the fact that we have expended so much effort to build our economy up to a certain scale, we would not be in a position to even talk about curbing foreign manpower," she said, noting it is hard work to attract MNCs, but only too easy to send them away.
The Government puts the interests of Singaporean workers first, but losing companies to other economies will result in the "worst possible outcome" for locals, Ms Sim cautioned.
"It is necessary to regulate foreign manpower. But we have to do so cautiously and not in abrupt ways," she said.
She added: "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 Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the trend of working from home, rendering it possible for anyone to be hired from anywhere.
"For companies that need foreign manpower, this brings about many advantages. It also means a new challenge for Singapore and Singaporeans," she noted.
"We should be upholding, not undermining, our competitiveness at such a critical juncture."