The following is an opinion of Victor Mills, Chief Executive at Singapore International Chamber of Commerce (SICC).
The whole immigration/foreign talent issue has been hijacked.
It is misunderstood by many people because of the results of the infrastructure crunch we are currently managing our way out of.
Since independence Singapore’s practice was to build infrastructure first and then increase the population. This had the advantage of not impacting people’s lives negatively. At the beginning of this century the infrastructure plans were put on hold because of economic reasons connected with the dot com crisis and SARS. A generational change in our urban planners was another factor here.
Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell the Immigration and Check Points Authority that our infrastructure plans were put on hold. The authority let in 1.2 million people in about 11 years. This would have been hard for any country to manage. It was very hard for our city state. The resultant pressure on infrastructure impacted people’s quality of life in very obvious, negative daily ways: congestion on trains, buses, roads and pressure on hospital beds.
It also generated a sense of displacement and insecurity among citizens and PRs. From there, it was a short step to blame the foreigners for everything and to see foreigners competing for jobs as a bad thing.
It is time to put the immigration debate back into its real context and ditch any feeling of insecurity. Singapore will never produce sufficient talent and must remain open to attracting and retaining the best of its own home grown as well as foreign talent. The goal of achieving a Singaporean core in all sectors of our economy is a laudable goal but will not be possible because there are many jobs which we Singaporeans are no longer prepared to do. It is not a question of remuneration. It is a question of perceived job status. This is exactly the same phenomenon seen in every other developed economy.
What then can we do?
We can build on the Fair Consideration Framework by ensuring that those sectors or industries in which Singaporeans want to work they are given every chance to do so. Equally, for those sectors or industries in which Singaporeans do not want to work MOM should sit down with business to determine the necessary minimum of foreign workers needed to ensure our society and economy functions optimally. In other words, we need a sector-specific policy based on what jobs Singaporeans want to do and those they don’t.
Government should stop making employment pass renewal so tough for business when they can’t find Singaporeans to do the jobs because Singaporeans do not want the jobs in the first place. Government should also stop wage inflation by dictating salaries as a condition of employment pass renewals. Salaries and who they employ should be left to business to determine.
Lastly, we need to put immigration in the context of declining birth rates and continue the recent open and honest discussions about immigration.
We can’t have our cake and eat it. We need talent – both local and foreign – to ensure the sustainability of our economy and country.