For the past four years, the Ministry of Manpower had been tightening foreign manpower in-flow to Singapore. The result of this was a distressed business market. This is seen most visibly in the F&B sector, with big names shutting down and drops in customer service levels.
Each Minister of Manpower has the awful task of regulating the number of foreign manpower. Here’s the difficult choice he is faced with:
a.) Tighten labour such that businesses are forced to reduce foreign competition on Singaporeans. But he will do this at the risk of destroying businesses (and workers lose their jobs altogether), alienating businesses that simply cannot find the right people to work and creating a wage/productivity mix that is unrealistic and thus imploding in the near future – resulting in greater job losses.
b.) Ease labour policies such that businesses can bring in foreigners easily and be faced with declining productivity and wages, encourage “low-tech and low-value” industries that pay little and have little value for Singaporeans and result in a 2011 situation where there was so much pressure on the Singaporean worker.
(A side point that the years before 2011 were the years where the mother of all recessions set in. What was a solution to keep the country afloat then, became a disaster when the economy recovered)
The Minister also cannot make changes too often to the decisions also, otherwise it would make for a very fickle business landscape and you lose the trust, stability and predictability that businesses yearn for.
The opposition in Parliament is also bankrupt for ideas. The last four years had seen the Worker’s Party shift from a position that Singapore had too many foreigners, to a position that Singapore had not enough. They themselves have trouble figuring out what works and had earlier asked for a complete halt to foreigner growth. When the SME community took offence to this, they U-turned straight away and proposed to merely limiting the numbers.
On Wednesday (Aug 19), the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) announced a two-year pilot that gives small and medium enterprises more leeway in hiring and retaining foreign workers — provided they commit to becoming more manpower-lean, developing their workers, and building a stronger Singaporean core eventually.
The Manpower Minister cannot base his decision on which community, which organisation and/or which voter wants.
Rather, he must base his decision on this simple direction: WHY do we limit/not-limit labour growth?
The “WHY” question appears to have been very clear in Lim Swee Say’s decision, and it is observable in this statement: “We want a two-thirds Singaporean core in the economy”, said Lim.
In the 60s to the early 21st century, the leadership had always been obsessed with creating jobs so that Singaporeans have enough work to do. Today, with unemployment at an envious 2%, we could say we have been very successful at job creation.
The fresh challenge for now and the immediate future is to create high-value jobs that pay better, and with better work-life balance. There is also the challenge to “recession-proof” the Singaporean worker, thus the need to sharpen their skills.
The two-third core of Singaporean workers policy appears to strike at the heart of this very goal – we don’t just want jobs, we want GOOD jobs for Singaporeans….and this message must be delivered to whomsoever wants to continue operating a business in Singapore.
If a company is dedicated to designing good jobs (which rewards well both spiritually and financially), they should not be hindered from continuing their operations.
It doesn’t matter how many foreigners this company brings in, the point is:
a.) do they offer the jobs first to Singaporeans and
b.) invest in their careers?
If the answer is “yes”, then why get in the way of their work?
This makes sense to me. Arbitrarily tightening and loosening manpower is not an effective means of governing, perhaps, as the Ministry of Manpower had come to notice. There are hundreds and thousands of businesses in Singapore, each has their own nuances and operational needs, what we need is a policy that is flexible enough to reward those take care of Singaporeans and punish those who do not.
What the MOM has come up with is a “living policy” that cleanses itself of ineffective businesses and rewards those that help Singaporean workers.