S'pore will continue to address downsides of open economy, help displaced workers: Lawrence Wong

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SINGAPORE - Singapore will continue to address the downsides of an open economy as it strives to stay open to the world and bring benefits to its people, said Finance Minister Lawrence Wong on Tuesday (Sept 14).

He acknowledged in Parliament that globalisation is not an "unmitigated good", and that while being a hub economy brings benefits to Singapore, it also comes with certain costs, including how some people will be displaced from their jobs.

But Mr Wong said that the right approach for the country is not to impede progress by holding onto every job even as it becomes obsolete, but to instead work hard to protect every worker and help those who are displaced.

"In this way, we can grow the economic pie for everyone, and yet ensure that the cost of globalisation and openness does not fall unfairly on the displaced workers," he said.

This has been the approach that the People's Action Party (PAP) and the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) have taken.

Mr Wong said that over the past decade, Singapore has had retrenchments of around 60,000 resident professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) but has seen a much bigger increase of around 300,000 in PMET employment for residents.

Mr Wong added: "On an overall basis, the pluses of what we've been able to achieve far outweigh the negatives."

During a speech he gave to move one of two motions on jobs and Singapore's foreign talent policy on Tuesday, the minister outlined three ways that the Republic deals with the downsides of staying open.

First, the Government continually updates its manpower policies and rules to manage the flow of work pass holders, and to ensure that they are of the right calibre.

Singapore reviews and updates the criteria for work pass holders here over time, Mr Wong said, noting in his speech that last year, the qualifying salary for the Employment Pass was raised twice.

Second, the country upholds fair employment practices and takes a strong stance against discrimination at the workplace.

Mr Wong noted that some Singaporeans have experienced this, and the Government recognises their pain and frustrations.

He stressed that when agencies pick up problematic indicators in a firm, it is placed on a watch list for closer scrutiny, and the issues it has are dealt with quietly but effectively.

The minister also pointed out that Singapore will enshrine into law current workplace anti-discrimination guidelines, as announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during last month's National Day Rally.

Calling this a major philosophical shift, Mr Wong said the Government had deliberated over this for some time and had hesitated in the past due to concerns that it would lead to a more litigious and confrontational process, and that it could sour workplace relations.

"But after hearing from the labour movement and NTUC MPs, and consulting the tripartite partners, we decided we could manage these concerns, and that it was time to change," said Mr Wong.

He added that while the majority of companies do behave responsibly, unfair practices occur from time to time. No effort will be spared in investigating every case, and there will be consequences for those guilty of such offences.

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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).

Third, Singapore deals with the downsides of staying open by doing everything it can to help those who are displaced.

Mr Wong noted that for every person who loses his job, the unemployment rate is 100 per cent, and that such a loss is disorienting and disabling.

It is for these reasons that Singapore has been investing heavily in SkillsFuture, Singapore's national lifelong learning movement, to help its citizens stay employable.

The Government is paying special attention to mid-career PMETs, to equip them with relevant skills and to find new jobs, said Mr Wong.

Covid-19 has given Singapore greater impetus to accelerate the work to help these displaced workers.

Mr Wong said that efforts are under way to raise productivity and wages across all sectors through industry transformation efforts, as well as to improve employment and training support, especially for mid-career and mature workers, to move into new areas.

The Government is doing all it can to help displaced workers get back into jobs to minimise their time being unemployed and to find a job that matches their skills and experience, as well as to provide training for skills needed for a new role.

As the economy recovers from being hit by Covid-19, Mr Wong said that some of the Government's current schemes, which are temporary incentives for jobs, will be tapered down - but he assured that Singapore is not going back to how it was pre-Covid-19.

A permanent shift in support levels with more help for workers here can be expected, especially as the nation enters a period of greater volatility and disruption, he added.

Mr Wong told the House that his ministry is working through the details of this shift, to make sure the changes that Singapore makes are financially stable.

"I promise all Singaporeans - especially those who are displaced: You will never be alone," he said.

"We will continue to invest in your capabilities and skills; help you stay competitive; and walk this journey with you through the rest of your careers."

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