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S’pore will continue to need foreign workers in complementary role: Iswaran

SINGAPORE — Whether as a “transitional” tool or something more long term, Singapore will continue to need foreign manpower to complement its economic and population needs, said Trade and Industry (Industry) Minister S Iswaran yesterday.

SINGAPORE — Whether as a “transitional” tool or something more long term, Singapore will continue to need foreign manpower to complement its economic and population needs, said Trade and Industry (Industry) Minister S Iswaran yesterday.

Despite the recalibration in foreign manpower policies over the years, the Republic has remained open and the size of the imported workforce has continued to grow, note Mr Iswaran, who was speaking at the press conference at the launch of the Committee on the Future Economy report.

Responding to a reporter who noted little mention of foreign manpower policy in the report and asked if Singapore’s stance is unchanged, Mr Iswaran stressed that whether a worker is Singaporean or foreigner, the emphasis is on productivity and value-add.

The role of foreign talent here is complementary — even as the Republic invests in developing the skills of Singaporeans, there may be gaps in the market, he said.

“Whether it’s a transitional issue or something that may be more on a long-term basis, we still need some complement,” he said. “Those are areas where we want to ensure that there is adequate complement ... to the talent base that we are growing and nurturing in Singapore. That’s the approach.”

While the committee’s report did not dwell on this issue, Mr Iswaran said this is because the Government’s approach is “deeply embedded”. “It is a policy that is dynamic to the changes in the market, and we’ll continue to observe it,” he added.

After years of surging foreign manpower growth, the Government moved to tighten the tap in a bid to shift away from low-skilled labour. Work Permit levies were raised, while the criteria for S Passes and Employment Passes were tightened.

Despite calls from industry players feeling the pinch, the Government has maintained that there will be no “U-turn” from its stand. “I keep explaining (to businesses) that if they keep hoping that the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) can revisit our policies on foreign workers ... to give (a) higher quota — that’s not possible. We’ve reached the point of no return,” said Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say in 2015 in an interview.

Foreign employment has continued to grow over the years, albeit at a slower pace. Employment grew by just 5,700 last year for this group, according to preliminary estimates released by the MOM last month. In comparison, foreign employment grew by 84,800 in 2011. As of December, there were 1,393,000 foreigners employed in Singapore, from 1,197,900 in 2011.

Commenting on the issue, Dr Chua Hak Bin, an economist at Maybank Kim Eng, said that while the committee did not call for foreign manpower policies to be relaxed, it did recommend reviewing current work pass schemes to “facilitate entry of more start-up founders and key executives who are prepared to anchor their growing business in Singapore”. This will be positive for the technology sector, with “high multiplier effects” for the rest of the economy, he added.

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