SINGAPORE (The Straits Times/ANN) – As Singapore looks to stay ahead of the curve in developing its industries to compete globally, the shift towards higher value-add foreign workers is something that the government wants to encourage.
But raising the skill level of foreigners in Singapore is a knotty issue – Singaporeans worry it would intensify competition for good jobs.
Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing says the answer is to ensure locals are quality workers, too. “We cannot dumb everybody down, right? That’s why we work so hard to move our people up.”
In an interview with Insight, he recounts an occasion when he asked a student about the type of foreign worker he would want to work with – above average or below average.
The student answered, “Above average but below me.”
This shows that he knows good talent is needed for the country to progress, but he also feels the tension, says Chan, who is secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC).
Thus, the way forward is to level up locals. “The Singapore average must be above the regional and global average,” he says.
On the issue of bringing in higher-skilled foreigners, he gives the example of the construction sector, which employs more than 300,000 foreign workers. If it raises productivity by one per cent, those jobs could be replaced by 3,000 foreign information technology, wealth management or biotechnology professionals instead, helping to boost Singapore’s capabilities in these areas.
At the same time, companies here which employ such professionals should help transfer expertise to locals, he says.
“I’ve no problem employing the high-skilled foreigners to come here – we have done that ever since the 1960s – but there must be a process of localisation whereby my own domestic workers, my own local workforce, can progress,” says Chan.
One government effort in this area is a pilot scheme started last year called the Capability Transfer Programme, which subsidises the cost of companies bringing in trainers from abroad to arm local workers with skills and knowledge of new technology.
But the question of quality is part of the puzzle.
The number of foreigners working here was also a major issue earlier in the decade, when Singaporeans were concerned about competition for jobs and the strain on infrastructure.
Although there is no fixed formula for success, the balance of two locals to one foreigner in the workforce looks set to stay for now.
Both Chan and Second Manpower Minister Josephine Teo reiterate that this ratio is about right.