S'pore must remain open, but businesses can do more to tackle concerns over discrimination: Pritam

Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh speaking at the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce's Distinguished Speaker Series on July 8, 2021. PHOTO: SINGAPORE INTERNATIONAL CHAMBER OF COMMERCE

SINGAPORE - Singapore must remain open and welcoming to foreign nationals, but how it manages and accommodates foreigners in the economy may have to change, Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh said on Thursday (July 8).

Citing concerns over Singaporeans being unfairly treated or bypassed at work, the Workers' Party (WP) chief noted that Singapore's position as a city-state at the crossroads of trade and globalisation is a double-edged sword for Singaporeans, creating opportunities but also making people susceptible to job discrimination.

To better deal with nativism and xenophobia, Mr Singh called for legislative weight to deal with recalcitrant employers who discriminate against locals, mandatory educational assessments to be imposed on foreign job applicants, and more education and skills upgrading support for local workers.

He also hoped companies would consider lobbying the Government to pass such anti-discrimination legislation, adding that businesses could do more to consider Singaporeans fairly and promote their skills retraining and upgrading.

He was speaking at the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce's (SICC) Distinguished Speaker Series held at the Suntec Singapore Convention and Exhibition Centre, that was attended by some 50 SICC members.

In his speech, which comes two days after a debate in Parliament on free trade agreements (FTAs) and foreign manpower, Mr Singh noted that nativist emotions and attitudes are a reality Singapore has to engage with and address, given it is a relatively new nation that needs immigration to top up its population.

"Nativism, while largely seen in pejorative terms in global cities and in the context of globalisation, is an entirely predictable emotion and goes to the core of the meaning of citizenship, and the relationship between citizen and state," Mr Singh noted. He added that this refers to the desire of governments and people to protect the interests of native-born or established residents in preference to those of foreigners.

"If nativism is not understood properly and managed, it can easily spill over into xenophobia," he said, laying out how the Government, the people and particularly businesses should play a role in addressing these sentiments.

"Singapore should be a place where xenophobia is rejected, nativism is addressed through progressive legislation, foreigners feel welcome, businesses can hire the talent they need, and locals are treated fairly," said Mr Singh.

In his speech, he said the WP supports the Ministry of Manpower's Fair Consideration Framework in principle. The framework requires employers to advertise job openings on the MyCareersFuture portal for at least 28 days before submitting Employment Pass or S Pass applications for these positions, and to consider all candidates fairly.

He also said companies should be able to recruit foreign nationals if they are unable to find Singaporeans to fill those jobs after having made best efforts to do so, and that the majority of businesses here have processes to ensure fair hiring practices.

But the framework needs more teeth, said Mr Singh, calling on the Government to seriously consider enacting anti-discrimination legislation with statutory penalties. This would send a "powerful signal" for businesses to change how they recruit manpower, he added, noting that employers who are caught unfairly hiring foreigners over Singaporeans are currently subjected only to administrative penalties.

The most serious offenders who breach the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices are barred for 12 to 24 months from hiring or renewing foreign employees, he noted. They can continue to employ the foreign workers they have previously hired and whose passes are not up for renewal, and can also hire Singaporeans.

"Surely this may encourage some less-enlightened employers to game the system and try their luck. They hire unfairly and hope not to get caught," said Mr Singh, adding that enhanced legislation will address only recalcitrant employers, rather than the majority of employers with progressive human resource policies.

Companies - such as those who are SICC members - should also consider lobbying the Government to pass such anti-discrimination legislation, he said.

"The Government is responsive to feedback from businesses generally - I would suggest they would be even more responsive to calls from the business community to increase protection for workers," said Mr Singh.

Scrutiny of foreign job applicants should also be stepped up, he said, reiterating the WP's call in its manifesto for all Employment Pass and S Pass job applicants with university degrees and diplomas to be subject to mandatory educational credential assessments, with costs to be borne by the applicant. The assessment, which would be conducted by a panel of government-appointed and independent consultants, would be sent to the Government, prospective employers and job applicants.

"(This will) ensure the quality of the workforce can be appropriately assessed and certified, with a corollary purpose to take the sting out of perceptions of poorly qualified foreigners taking away jobs from better qualified Singaporeans," said Mr Singh.

Education and skills upgrading policies to build up local talent should also be accelerated, he added.

He also called on companies to play a more proactive role to address the concerns of local workers, warning that the situation will get worse if they do not step up.

"We can blame populist politicians, but their methods would have no cachet if there wasn't a genuine emotive force on the ground for them to tap into in the first place," said Mr Singh. "Some Singaporeans question our FTAs because they struggle to see how their lives and those of their compatriots have actually improved because of them. Singapore's situation, as a trade hub and city state, actually makes the problem far more acute than imagined. It is a powerful fault line," he added.

The WP chief said he accepted there had to be give and take between foreign businesses and local workers. "But foreign companies who make profits here must take the effort to be one of us and also understand their responsibilities to Singaporeans," he said, adding that many firms understand that being good, fair, responsible long-term guests here means sometimes making decisions that favour Singaporeans.

"In turn, Singaporeans must accept that foreign companies are essential to Singapore, not only as a means to the end of wealth and prosperity but also because they bring jobs, vibrancy, new ideas, new people and yes, even discomfort, to keep us on our toes."

He said nativism and xenophobia are not going away in a hurry, and business can do more to combat them.

"The SICC and your member companies are already partners of Singaporeans and have shown yourselves to be for nearly 200 years. Better managing nativism and the fight against xenophobia needs your help, too."

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