In the MNC where Tan Mei Peng, 27, works as a cyber security specialist, there are a “sizeable number of foreigners”.
“Cyber has only become popular recently in Singapore. Previously, there was very little emphasis on this industry and, therefore, our supply of skilled local workers is small,” she said.
While Ms Tan believes there are enough tech-related jobs for both locals and foreigners, others in Singapore feel less secure. Foreign talents being a threat to locals in the job market is a perennial hot button issue.
A decade since it became a flashpoint at the General Election 2011, the concern remains just as real. At a recent parliamentary debate on 14 September 2021, which ended past midnight, two sides of the House spent 10 hours talking about the topic.
The conclusion after the long-drawn discussion was that shutting the door that has been opened to foreigners cannot be the answer to staving off competition.
But what, then, to make of the disquiet among citizens?
Are the Sentiments Founded?
According to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), there were 177,100 Employment Pass workers and 174,000 S Pass workers as of last December. Resident PMEs make up 60 per cent of the workforce or 1,330,000.
To put these numbers into perspective, it means that for every foreign PME in Singapore, there are nearly three resident PMEs. Local talents outnumber foreign ones.
In addition, because of the pandemic and tighter restrictions for foreign hires, the number of foreigners working in Singapore fell in the last quarter of 2020 by 42,400 even as resident employment rose by 34,500.
But facts do not always quell felt disadvantage.
In a study by the Institute of Policy Studies, some 43.6 per cent of the 2,012 Singapore residents surveyed said they believed immigration increases unemployment.
Such sentiments were acknowledged by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during the recent National Day Rally speech on 29 August 2021.
“There is another set of arguments based on individual lived experiences, which are more personal and emotional,” he said.
Perceived job competition aside, foreign workers in Singapore come with other real costs.
Dr Kelvin Seah, Senior Lecturer of Economics at the National University of Singapore, added: “Space constraints and the potential for cultural frictions are just some examples.”
These cultural frictions were highlighted by PM Lee at the National Day Rally speech: “Some work pass holders and their families bring with them social practices and class distinctions from their own countries.
“These run counter to the informal and equal way Singaporeans interact with one another, and that causes frictions.”
Foreign Talents Are Vital
The reality, of course, is that as a global hub, Singapore needs foreign professionals to bolster its economy.
- Foreigners fill a resource gap
As a tiny nation-state with a resident population of just 3.52 million and one of the most rapidly ageing societies in Asia (16.8 per cent of its citizens were aged 65 and above in 2020, up from 16 per cent in 2019), Singapore does not have a large local talent pool.
ManpowerGroup Singapore Marketing Director Josh Goh said: “84 per cent of employers in Singapore reported difficulty in filling jobs in a recent ManpowerGroup Employment Outlook Survey. With talent shortage at a record high, competition for talent is tighter than ever, especially for in-demand roles.
“As global companies are more likely to have higher headcount demand, they would generally find it more challenging to fill certain roles due to the limited local talent pool.”
So, Singapore has little choice but to look to foreign hires to “top up” the labour force, as PM Lee called it at a parliamentary speech in September 2020.
- Foreigners lend skills
Apart from adding quantity, foreign professionals offer quality to the workforce.
Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing made this clear in September 2020 when he spoke at a Standard Chartered virtual forum entitled The Global Hub and Gateway to ASEAN.
“We want the world’s best and brightest to be with Team Singapore – to augment our skills and capabilities, competing on our side rather than against us, and ultimately, to benefit Singaporeans, not to substitute or to hurt them,” he said.
One area in which Singapore is in great need of foreign talent contribution is the tech field.
According to Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) Managing Director Ravi Menon, the technology workforce in the country’s financial sector is an estimated 25,000. But Singaporeans make up just over a third of this.
“Technology talents from abroad have brought with them valuable experience and expertise that we do not have enough of in Singapore,” said Mr Menon at the Growing Timbre Series in May 2021.
He estimated that the financial sector will continue to create between 2,500 and 3,500 tech jobs each year over the medium term. Singapore’s pipeline of technology graduates is not enough to meet this demand.
Across six autonomous universities, undergraduate enrolment for Information and Communications Technology (ICT) was only 2,800 in 2020. Even with the addition of 4,500 ICT student graduates from polytechnics and ITE annually, there is a “large mismatch between demand and supply of technology workers”.
“We have to continue to depend on foreigners to fill the growing vacancies for technology jobs over the next few years.
“If we tighten this inflow excessively, it will impair not just the competitiveness of our financial centre but dampen the prospects for creating good jobs in the future, especially for Singaporeans,” noted Mr Menon.
Dr Seah outlined another benefit of the foreign influx: “There is also potential for skills transfers as foreign hires train locals and share with them knowledge and skills.”
This can best be appreciated when looking at the area of R&D. In 2019, there were nearly 12,000 foreign research scientists and engineers (RES) in Singapore, adding to the 27,000 citizen RSEs. This was from data published in the National Survey of Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2019 by the National Research Foundation and A*STAR. These foreigners bring with them expertise that enhances Singapore’s status as a research hub.
- Foreigners Draw Investors
In the September parliamentary debate, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong stressed that Singapore’s open economy and foreign talent policy have benefitted the country by making it attractive to investors. This, in turn, provides jobs for Singapore citizens and grows the economy.
Arguing for the benefit of foreign PMEs, he said: “When we squeeze foreign PMEs, the jobs will not automatically go to Singaporeans.
“Just think about this, global businesses are here – international consultancies and private banks. They are here to play the global game. They are not here to serve the Singapore market. They are here to serve the region and the world.
“Here in Singapore, they want to bring together an international team. That is our value proposition to them. That is why they find Singapore attractive.
“Imagine if you tell them, ‘Look, you can only be here if you fulfil 90 per cent of your staff being locals. That is the condition.’ Why would they find that attractive anymore?”
He added: “If we were to take such a short-sighted approach, companies will leave and jobs will leave with them. Over time, Singapore’s reputation as a business hub will surely be impacted. Our economy will decline, and Singaporeans will suffer.
Local Talents Are Protected
The resident employee is not without recourse should employers discriminate against them.
The Fair Consideration Framework (FCF), introduced in 2014, sets out requirements for all employers in Singapore to consider local workers fairly for jobs.
Those who wish to hire foreigners must first put up an advertisement on MyCareersFuture for at least 28 consecutive days before they can submit Employment Pass or S Pass applications. This ensures that Singapore workers are considered first before employers look elsewhere.
The Government has also just raised the qualifying salary for Employment Passes and S Passes for the second time this year to $4,500 for the Employment Pass and $2,500 for S Passes. This is so that citizen-employees will not have their salaries undercut by their foreign counterparts.
The move was implemented as part of plans to encourage employers to hire more Singaporean workers.