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Tackling head on Singaporeans' unhappiness over foreign workers and immigrants, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Sunday outlined several new measures in housing, education, healthcare and jobs to relieve citizens from the pressure of the influx of foreigners.
In his 90-minute National Day Rally speech in English at the University Cultural Centre, he said while Singaporeans understand the logic of the foreign talent policy, they still feel the emotional impact.
"These are policies where the benefits are there but they are long term, the downsides are immediate, the side effects are visible, people react to them and we have to respond to this."
"I empathise with this. And we are acting to relieve the pressures and make clear we are putting Singaporeans first," he stressed.
On housing, the government will:
Increase the HDB income ceiling for BTO flats from $8,000 to $10,000,.
Increase the income ceiling for executive condominiums from $10,000 to $12,000.
Add 25,000 built-to-order flats next year and 7,000 rental flats over the next two years.
PM Lee noted that people are marrying later when their incomes have risen and acknowledged the concerns couples face about having children when they cannot afford a home.
These adjustments will ensure the government can meet demand and keep the prices of new flats stable and affordable, he assured. "I promise you: We will keep housing available and affordable for Singaporeans."
On changes to education, the government will:
Add another 2,000 university places (the equivalent of having another Singapore Management University) for Singaporean students over the next four years.
PM Lee said foreign enrolment at universities will be capped at present levels, which is 18 per cent of the local university intake.
PM Lee clarified that the foreign student intake has "not been at the expense of local student intake because we have steadily increased the number of places for Singaporeans in our universities".
This year a record number of 12,000, or one in four, Singaporeans entered the universities, compared to 9,000, or one in five, a decade ago. By 2015, universities will take in 14, 000 Singaporeans a year.
Foreign students also prepare local students for the global workplace and in some cases, the students partner in new start-ups, he added, citing the example of BioMers, a start-up by three Singaporeans, one Indian national and one Canadian Greek.
PM Lee also acknowledged, even as the country experiences nearly full employment, Singaporeans are also worried about jobs.
The main issue, he noted, is in the middle-lower range, where foreigners on Employment Pass work alongside middle level managers and executives.
So the government will:
The Ministry of Manpower will announce the new criteria shortly.
"But I should caution you on one thing: Just because we are tightening on foreign workers doesn't mean automatically that Singaporeans get better jobs or higher pay," said PM Lee.
"The competition isn't just with foreign workers here, we are competing with workers all over the world," said PM Lee, noting that graduates and professionals are not spared.
In China, 7 million graduates compete with each other annually and to compete, Singapore must develop expertise in work they have not yet learnt to perform, he said.
Calling for the "right balance" in foreigner intake, PM Lee also cautioned that slowing down the intake of foreigners will mean slower economic growth, less vitality and "less resources to improve our lives".
PM Lee's other overarching message on Sunday was that Singapore must maintain its sound, basic directions and adjust policies where needed.
The government will progressively improve its policies as it encounters new situations and problems, he assured.
"But where the strategic direction is correct, where we are basically sound and we have a temporary problem to deal with, I think we should have the courage and honesty to say "we're doing the right thing, let's tackle this problem.""
"Let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater. It's very dangerous," he warned.
HEALTHCARE AND SPECIAL NEEDS
When enhancing Singapore's social safety nets, this means keeping to the present approach of targeted help while addressing emerging problems.
Some changes PM Lee announced include:
Lowering the qualifying age of the Primary Care Partnership Scheme (PCPS) from 65 to 40.
Revise the PCPS income criteria to include more households.
Subsidising more types of drugs and increasing subsidies for more expensive drugs, such as those used in cancer treatment.
Expand capacity in special education and mainstream schools for special needs students.
Increase financial assistance to needy households with special needs children.
Changes to the PCPS will allow more needy patients with chronic illness to get treatment earlier and pay less fees, said PM Lee.
He urged the community to play a part in integrating those with special needs into society.
Singapore should not become a welfare state, he stressed, citing Greece as an example of a country with a generous welfare system and which is now in financial turmoil.
While the European Union has bailed Greece out, twice so far, PM Lee asked, "If Singapore ever runs into trouble, who would bail us out?"
"The best thing is, don't get into a hole and maintain a sense of self-reliance and personal responsibility because that's the best way for us to succeed."
Sharing a common destiny
Devoting the last portion of his speech to focus people on building the nation's future, PM Lee dealt at length on the Singaporeans' shared history and common destiny; he outlined the current works to enhance the nation's landscape and infrastructure.
Looking to the future, he asked: "What sort of Singapore do we want to be 20 years from now?"
"Do we want to be still an exceptional country, one which is unique and which people look up to around the world or are we content for Singapore to b an ordinary country getting by but no different from so many other cities all over Asia?"
To continue being exceptional will require "special effort", such as building for the long term patiently, keeping politics pragmatic and constructive and working together for the common good, he said.
"I believe to keep Singapore exception is a goal well worth striving for," stated PM Lee. "We deserve it, our children deserve no less."