Government will always be on the side of Singaporeans on jobs: PM Lee Hsien Loong

Office workers wearing face masks enter a building during lunch time in the financial business district in Singapore on August 11, 2020. - Singapore's virus-hammered economy shrank almost 43 percent in the second quarter, in a sign that the country's first recession in more than a decade was deeper than initially estimated, official data showed on August 11. (Photo by Roslan RAHMAN / AFP) (Photo by ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP via Getty Images)
Office workers wearing face masks enter a building during lunch time in the financial business district in Singapore on 11 August 2020. (PHOTO: AFP via Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — While Singaporeans’ anxiety about competition for jobs from foreigners is understandable, it would do “great harm” to Singapore if others get the wrong impression that the country is no longer welcoming foreigners, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday (1 September).

“We may be under stress now, but we cannot turn afford to inwards. We will adjust our policies to safeguard Singaporean jobs, but let us show confidence that Singaporeans can hold our own in the world.”

Lee stressed, “The government will always be on the side of Singaporeans. What is the point of creating jobs for foreigners, if it doesn’t benefit Singaporeans? Why would we want to do that? Ultimately, our aim is to grow our economy, create good jobs for Singaporeans and raise our standards of living.”

The 68-year-old was delivering a parliamentary speech in lieu of the annual National Day Rally (NDR). The NDR is widely considered the most important political speech of the year.

And Lee took the opportunity to address a hot-button issue that has been brought up by various Members of Parliament over the past two days: the presence of foreigners working in Singapore, and the number of work permits issued to them.

Discrimination against Singaporeans?

Singaporeans, noted Lee, are concerned about fair treatment: that citizens are being considered fairly for jobs, promotions, or retrenchments. This is why the Tripartite Alliance for Fair & Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP), where Singaporeans who feel unfairly treated can seek redress, and the Fair Consideration Framework provides protection on this front.

Furthermore, the issue of fairness is a factor in evaluating Employment Pass and S-Pass applications, – whether the employer has kept up support of Singaporean professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) in their employment, and been responsive to government efforts to help them recruit and train more local PMETs. Or conversely, whether the employer has discriminated against qualified Singaporeans.

“We particularly want to emphasise these considerations now, in these uncertain times, to remind all employers to play their part in building up their Singaporean workforce,” said Lee, noting that one specific red flag is a company that has an over concentration of a single foreign nationality in its ranks, especially when compared with other companies in the same sector.

Lee warned, “This concentration, if unchecked, can cause social resentment and workplace problems. It makes it harder for the company to blend into and be accepted by our multiracial society...It suggests that the company has not really taken root in Singapore.”

Guarding against xenophobia

The Prime Minister also noted that the issue of concentration can be easily played up. For example, last September, a Facebook page posted a wefie of DBS CEO Piyush Gupta with a room full of Indian employees. It was captioned “Eye sight test: Find a Singaporean or Chinese in this DBS photo”.

And while the picture resurfaced recently and caused many to take offence, it was actually taken in India, where DBS had opened a new office, and not in Singapore.

“The person who put up the post surely knew this, yet he irresponsibly misused the wefie to insinuate that DBS in Singapore was not being fair to Singaporeans. And damage was done,” said Lee.

Companies value Singapore

Lee noted that even in the current depressed economic climate, many investment projects want to come to Singapore. Even in places where investors already have regional headquarters and projects, they are rethinking the merits of their locations, and looking for alternatives.

Meanwhile, investors starting new projects are also “anxiously” scanning the globe, searching for the right place where they can safely make a commitment now. “Companies are seeking a safe harbour, where the politics is stable, there is rule of law, the people are hardworking and united, and where the country will come through the pandemic safely, and have a bright future,” said Lee.

“We take no joy in the troubles in the world, but it is a fact that in a troubled world, Singapore is one of the few trusted countries that stands out. And we must guard that reputation zealously.”

Besides Hyundai Motor’s plans to set up a major facility in Singapore to undertake research & development and develop future mobility technologies, Lee revealed that a pharmaceutical company is planning to build a facility to manufacture vaccines.

Another company specialising in pandemic risk insurance wants to set up shop in Singapore, while several Fortune 500 companies are considering moving their regional HQs here, because of political uncertainties elsewhere. Major financial institutions want to grow their operations in Singapore too, said Lee.

“We want to talk to them to see how they can fit in here, to create good jobs for Singaporeans. But for them to come here, they must feel welcome, and be allowed to bring in the talent that they need. Also, regional and global HQs, by design, need to draw talent from around the world and be run by international teams.”

He added, “They will employ Singaporeans too, but they cannot be staffed by Singaporeans alone.”

Creating opportunities for Singaporeans

Lee made reference to two Singaporeans: GlaxoSmithKline site director Lim Hock Heng, and Susan Kwek, who oversees operations and technology for Citibank in Hong Kong.

“There are many more Singaporeans in senior positions in semi- conductors, oil and gas, and IT. If we had not welcomed these companies in the past and encouraged them to bring in global talent, Hock Heng, Susan and others would have been deprived of these opportunities,” said Lee.

Local SMEs also need skills, knowledge and expertise that they may not have in Singapore, for example to develop an external wing, and to move up the value chain.

But fundamentally, said Lee, Singapore has always been a people open to the world.

“This generosity of spirit gives our society and economy vitality and resilience. It’s made Singapore the exceptional, cosmopolitan city we are today, plugged into the global economy, and making a living by making ourselves valuable to the world.”

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