Singapore’s tendency to rely on the continual acceptance of cheap foreign labour has made it a “one-trick pony”, said Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) director Corinna Lim.
Speaking as a panellist at a forum on the country’s population issues on Saturday afternoon, Lim noted that its excessive dependence on foreign workers over the years is a short-term one that needs to end sooner or later, and that there are other ways to promote economic growth that we somehow stopped working on.
“The problem with Singapore is that suddenly, we became a one-trick pony,” she said, addressing about 50 members of the public in attendance at the forum organised by Transitioning, an unemployment volunteer NGO. “Our one trick was bring in more cheap foreign labour; we will increase GDP every year. And that is true, but it’s not the only trick in the book — (yet) it became so convenient for us that we used it all the time.”
Lim added that Singapore’s reliance on foreign workers extends beyond short-term economic goals to caring for the sick, the aged and the young.
“This one trick is very short-term. How many more people can we have?” she asked. “I’m sure we can take 6 million (people), we might even be able to take 6.5 million. But how many more beyond there? There must be an end to this... we can’t keep adding more and more people.”
In another point on Singapore’s population, the government’s repeated statements relating fertility rates to the need for foreign workers to support economic growth over the years are “illogical”, said Lim.
Quoting the then-Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng in 2010, who said Singapore’s low fertility rates mean that it “must keep bringing in foreign workers to support economic growth as the population ages”, Lim said, “If you think about it, (it’s) completely illogical.”
“Having one extra foreign worker today is not going to make any difference at all to the number of people that we have 20 years from now, which is what this fertility issue is about,” she continued. “This (the mass admission of foreign workers) has nothing to do with fertility; this has everything to do with the short-term economic needs that exist today — it’s not to do with fertility, so stop trying to confuse us with this.”
Profit versus cost approach ‘forces us to ground zero’
Adding to the discussion was fellow panellist Vincent Wijeysingha, treasurer of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party, who said Singapore’s economic climate of seeking the highest profit from the lowest cost will eventually “force us to ground zero”.
He said going along the line of our “one trick” of continually bringing in more and more foreign workers would still not enable us to compete with countries that have much larger populations, such as Indonesia, South Africa and Papua New Guinea.
“(The three countries have) huge populations where you pay far lower than you would pay in Singapore,” he said. “So the idea that we can somehow compete — cheaper and cheaper and cheaper labour — eventually you bottom out, you flat-line.”
Wijeysingha added that Singapore could go in the way of Liverpool and Detroit in the 1970s and 80s, where in the case of Liverpool, its docks and traditional manufacturing industries entered a sharp decline when containerisation replaced its labour strategy, and for Detroit, its automobile industry took a hit when foreign vehicles entered the fray.
While these cities and their parent countries — the UK and the U.S. — sought refuge in their primary industries, Wijeysingha said Singapore “cannot take shelter in a primary industry to stabilise us”.
“An economy that seems fixated on the low-wage model is heading for crisis,” he added. “We don’t have to be economists to say this, (and) the inability of the government to comprehend this is not something we, the people, should have to put up with any longer.”
Data shows impact on low-wage workers: Leong
Lim and Wijeysingha were among a panel that also included The Online Citizen chief editor Kumaran Pillai and statistician Leong Sze Hian, who tackled issues relating to the question of whether or not Singapore can support and sustain a 6 million-sized population.
Speaking on the issue of the influx of S-pass and work permit holders who depress the wages of Singaporean workers, Leong pointed out that the impact of this phenomenon has been telling through available statistics.
Even though unemployment rates on the whole may stand officially below 2 per cent, Leong noted that the rates for cleaners, labourers and related services are higher, at more than 5 per cent.
Aggravating the situation is the fact that the net pay for these workers is falling over the years instead of rising with inflation, with Leong adding that in the past decade, real wages for this category of workers fell by more than 30 per cent when adjusted for inflation.
He also observed that there appears to be discrimination by age in the workplace, where at the median level for male workers in Singapore, real wages start to fall by age 38. By the time he reaches 55, a man at the median income level earns the same as what he did when he was 33, said Leong.
“We can sustain a 6 or even 6.5 million population,” said Leong. “The more important question I would ask, though, is what kinds of people are we bringing in?”
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