“They took our jobs!”

Over the past 10 years or so, Singaporeans have been complaining about the overload of foreigners, who now make up nearly 40% of the population. In terms of overcrowding, it’s true that comfortable rides on public transports, decently-priced housing, or simple leisurely walks around town are becoming extinct.

On top of such day-to-day grievances, many people are worried the labour market is being irreversibly skewed towards foreigners, as their inflow is pragmatically designed to fill jobs on all salary spectrums.

“Foreigners are taking our jobs!” goes the old saying. But are these policies as unacceptable, as unsustainable, or as unfair as people make them to be? Are foreigners really coming over and stealing our jobs? Or are they just taking the jobs we’ve neglected?

The PM addressed the issue in his 2008 May Day speech. Lee quotes that foreign workers weren’t here to steal our jobs but to help enlarge the economic pie. His argument rested on the fact that they were hardworking and willing to work longer hours at cheaper rates, which meant longer business hours, lower costs, and better service.

Supporters generally agreed that foreign workers would dampen wage hikes and keep the economy competitive.

By the time of GE 2011, however, it became clear the government’s promised levies and limits didn’t reduce the number of foreign workers and didn’t really create exciting opportunities for Singaporeans.

Basically, citizen and netizen outrage grew along with the perception that foreigners were crowding locals out of jobs, schools, housing, and public transport.

Many measures were rolled out to alleviate some labour market strains, but they haven’t yet successfully addressed Singaporeans’ anxieties over their job security, leading to some sectors of society becoming increasingly xenophobic.

That’s because the main issue is not directly related to the number of foreigners, the quality of their work, or their work culture.

The main issue lies in the fact that as long as there are jobs locals can’t or won’t take up, someone out there is bound to show up and take over.

Concerning low-paying, low-skilled, and thankless jobs Singaporeans look down upon, our neighbouring countries are filled with hardworking and motivated people who don’t mind relocating for lack of better alternatives in their own countries.

Concerning high-paying, highly-skilled, and socially rewarding jobs, the global economic context makes Singapore one of the best alternatives for people who are out of options in their own countries, whose specialised skills are lacking here, or who see Singapore as a booming Eldorado.

The solution for the first set of professions will require many efforts from both workers and employers. The Progressive Wage model, for instance, will allow low-wage workers to improve their skills and their salaries, thus attracting more locals to such jobs. The “

Value Every Worker

” approach will change people’s mind-set so that certain professions are not shunned or mocked, but valued and rewarded.

The second set of professions will require more government intervention to guarantee that our pool of local talent is used to its full potential. It’s not that we don’t have many talented, creative, and hardworking workers, it’s just that years of emphasis on “useful” and “profitable” careers have made people strive for jobs that can easily be taken over. Everyone wants to be a banker or an engineer, but those are jobs that can be easily taken by any foreigner!

Diversifying our talent into professions that require a unique balance of skill and creativity (teachers, architects, advertisers, researchers, etc.) can ensure we have that little something that no one else can offer.

Don’t forget, Singapore isn’t the first or the only country facing the same issues!

The difference with other countries such as the US or Australia is that this is a tiny island, which means that any small change or disruption makes huge waves and has long-standing effects!

But the other major difference is that we’re pretty good at learning from other people’s mistakes, which means we can use these countries’ experiences and turn things around while there’s still time.


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