Go for the maximum resources can support: Mah Bow Tan on foreign labour

Former National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan spoke on Wednesday about the need for as much foreign labour as Singapore's resources will permit. (AFP file photo)

Former National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan has called for Singapore to continue bringing in more foreign labour in the coming years — as much as the country’s resources are able to sustain.
Speaking for the first time in Parliament this week as debate on the government’s population white paper neared the close of the third day, Mah said Singapore’s continued ability to attract foreigners will ensure its sustained competitiveness.

Saying it was quite clear that Singapore cannot be as open as before due to resource constraints and time needed for people to adjust, Mah also argued that to be totally closed even for a few years as the Worker's Party suggested would lead to lost jobs, and businesses leaving and unlikely to return.

"...[W]hich leaves us with a balanced option: let in some foreign labour to supplement our local workforce but not as much as before. Business will want more, some people will want less — the numbers can be calibrated," he said.

“I support this. I say go for the maximum that our resources — land, water, energy — can support, whatever that number is. It shows that Singapore is an attractive place, a thriving, vibrant city, one where people want to come here to live and work and play," he declared.
“If we lose our competitiveness, our verve and vitality, our cohesion and confidence, not only will we not have foreigners wanting to come here; our own sons and daughters will leave for a better life,” he added.
Mah cautioned that after spending a lot of time “looking inwards, talking about our discomforts, our space”, the debate has not yet posed the question of how Singapore will compete with the outside world, something Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong alluded to as well when he spoke earlier Wednesday.
“It is almost taken for granted that the good life will continue even if growth slows,” he said. “We expect more infrastructure to be rolled out even as growth slows — more houses, more rail lines. We want more subsidies for healthcare and housing, but please, let’s have less foreign workers and a slower pace of life.
“Where will the revenue from all this come from?” he asked, citing a footnote in the White Paper which said the government’s revenue comes from income, consumption and asset taxes, all of which are dependent on economic growth.

“I believe size matters. I believe we need a bigger population with better-educated and trained citizens, as well as talented non-residents to supplement our home-grown talent," he said.
The former cabinet minister spent some time speaking at length about the external challenges he perceives important to Singapore — from the more than 6 million university graduates who emerge from various parts of China every year to whether or not Europe will be able to recover from its economic woes.

In these, he stressed the importance of “rid(ing) the wave with them and not be(ing) caught in the tide and drown(ing)”.
“We are still a small city state — in fact, we are tiny city state,” he said. “We still have no oil or gas or gold or diamonds. Politics has entered a new normal, but we need to earn our living through wits and hard work, and our need to be useful to the world — that hasn’t changed.”
He also called the debate on the 6.9-million projection figure a “semantics trap”, saying the number has been called many things: a target, a possibility, a projection, and a worst-case scenario.
“We have been caught in a semantics trap — in other words, what was said has been taken to mean something other than what was intended. People believe what they choose to believe,” he said, adding his worry that members of the House “are not being fair to (them)selves” when debate places excessive focus on the number.
“Population is not an exact science; it’s never been... frankly, right now it’s hard to convince people that the White Paper is on the right track, or people cannot understand why we are talking about bringing in more people when in their own day-to-day experience they feel the squeeze on trains and buses,” he said.
Mah joined a growing group of MPs petitioning that the government conduct a review of the White Paper assumptions in five years’ time, so that citizens will see a clearer picture of how things have changed — whether congestion is easing up, housing prices have stabilised, fertility rate is going up, and whether companies can be more productive and cope with less foreign labour.
“Will these happen? And if so, by how much? It would be a much more informed and meaningful debate by then.”
Mah’s speech comes at a politically volatile time for the ruling People’s Action Party, which is facing grief from Singapore citizens at its handling of the massive influx of foreigners in recent years that has diluted what is now being dubbed the “Singapore core” — the pool of Singapore-born and bred citizens — as the city-state continues to struggle with an ageing population and one of the lowest total fertility rates on the world.

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