Minister Lawrence Wong's Closing Remarks on The Parliamentary Motion on "Securing Singaporeans' Jobs and Livelihoods" on 14 September 202114 Sep 2021
Mr Speaker, I thank Members for speaking on this debate. We all know that change is the only constant. COVID-19 has accelerated change further with digital transformation, new business models and new ways of working.
In the coming years, we will see more disruptions and volatility in the global economy. As entire industries adapt to these changes, many jobs will be transformed. The skillsets needed will change – new jobs will be created, but some jobs will become obsolete. This is the reality of the globalised world we live in, and this is the inevitable price of human progress.
Sentiments towards these changes are understandably mixed. Some foresee limitless new opportunities. Others fear massive dislocation of jobs. How Singapore capitalises on these opportunities while addressing the anxieties around jobs will determine our success and whether we remain cohesive and intact as one people.
I am glad that Members who have spoken acknowledged this is a complex issue, requiring a delicate balancing act. We need to deliberate our options carefully and work hard to find solutions that balances the different interests, and the needs of our stakeholders. There are no easy answers.
Sir, I listened carefully to the points that Mr Leong and Ms Hazel Poa said just now. If I may summarise the basic thrusts of their argument: we have too many foreigners in Singapore. Let us squeeze them out of Singapore. And these jobs will go to Singaporeans, even better, our wages will go up. But this is simplistic and wishful thinking. Let me explain why.
First, when we squeeze foreign PMETs, the jobs will not automatically go to Singaporeans. Just think about this, global businesses are here - international consultancies and private banks. They are here, as Ms Mariam Jaafar said just now, 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% of your staff being locals. That is the condition. Why would they find that attractive anymore?
To assume that by squeezing the foreigners, all these jobs will go to Singaporeans, I think that is just being very simplistic about the argument. But Mr Leong goes further than that. He says, “Look, if foreigners go and Singaporeans can’t take the jobs, that is the failure of the education system.” Really? I think that argument is completely disingenuous and does a great disservice to our educators and teachers in our schools and institutions of higher learning.
Mr Leon Perera and Mr Gerald Giam did not go as far as Mr Leong, but they had variations of the same argument. If only you did better with training. If only you taught all the kids coding, from a young age 20 years ago. If only.
Sir, we will continue to improve our education system. But I think all of these arguments miss out on the most important point. And that's the stark reality that Singaporeans are great at the workforce, but there are just not enough of us.
We have needs in IT. We have tremendous needs in engineering. Look at the services sector, healthcare is growing, we need more people to look after our elderly population. We need more doctors, nurses. We need more physiotherapists. Oh by the way, low income issues are a problem, don't we need more social workers too? And didn't some members of the PSP ask earlier when I was in a MOE, they certainly did, let’s recruit more teachers?
Where are we going to find all the Singaporeans? Everybody wants more. Indeed, if you go to any of our faculties, or maybe most of the faculties in our universities, polytechnics, ITEs, they will tell you when they talk to industries, the industries and employers are saying, look we want your graduates but produce more of them. And how are we going to produce more Singaporean graduates? If we move to one area, the other will say that there is a shortage; that is just the stark reality.
Then there is another argument that says look, so many mid-careers; under-employed. Let us train them. Yes, we are doing our best to train all the mid-career PMETs, but this does not happen overnight. All of us know it is very hard for someone in his 40s and 50s to make a career change to transit from one industry that they have been working in for years to another industry. It takes tremendous effort. And that is why, as I mentioned earlier, the Government is going all out to help our mid-careers. We are investing more heavily in SkillsFuture, in lifelong learning; we are working with our tripartite partners, and especially with the NTUC and labour movement. But individuals also do have to make the effort in order to make these transitions. So that is my first point. It is hard work getting this re-skilling done, and we should not just automatically assume that squeezing foreigners means jobs will go to Singaporeans.
Second, Miss Poa also showed the chart that suggested there was an association between tight labour markets and wage growth. Yes, perhaps there was; the data is quite clear, based on the last 10 years, but I would say be careful about drawing simplistic policy conclusions from that data. It will potentially lead to bad outcomes. What happened in the last 10 years? We had the 2008 global financial crisis. After that, we waited for a while to make sure that the economy stabilised. And if you recall, we tightened our foreign worker policies, levies and quotas. At the same time, the economy bounced back very sharply, much, much more strongly than we expected. In fact, I remember, after 2011 and entering politics, we were discussing this issue and having dialogues; many businesses and employers were literally scolding us for tightening foreign worker policies. They said: there is so much growth, why are you holding us back? They were very upset with us, but it was that combination of factors – tightening of foreign worker policies; the very strong economic growth during that period that resulted in wage growth.
If we make that simplistic conclusion that tight labour markets – just tighten, just tighten – wages will automatically rise, I think we may be going down a very dangerous path, because beyond a point if wage increases are not matched by productivity increases, we will lose our competitiveness. When that happens, we are not just squeezing out foreigners, we will be squeezing out investments and jobs will go with them.
That leads me to my third point, which is that this thinking is not just simplistic or wishful; it is fatally flawed. 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.
There is another thing about the PSP’s approach that worries me. And that is the complacent assumption in their thinking that Singapore has arrived, and companies just want to be here. So the Government can set tougher rules and the companies will have to put up with it, because they have no choice.
But let us get real. No one owes us a living. Global competition for investments is relentless and more intense than ever. It took many decades of hard work to get to where we are today. Please have a care about what we say or do, because things can fall apart very easily.
I have set out in my opening speech, the Government's approach. We keep Singapore open and connected to the world because that is the best, indeed, the only way to secure our future.
At the same time, we know that there are downsides to being an open economy. So we will deal with these downsides proactively. Associate Professor Jamus Lim just now talked about the concern about an “India shock”. And I think he also suggested that perhaps our FTA with CECA might make us more vulnerable to this India shock. But again, CECA is not relevant here. CECA or not, if India liberalises and opens up, just based on WTO, there will be an India shock, which we will have to deal with and adjust to as we had to do when China joined the WTO.
So there are downsides to trade, I have said that in my speech. There are downsides to being an open economy. That is why we work very hard to deal with these downsides by managing the flow of foreign work pass holders, upholding fair employment at workplaces, and helping every displaced worker to get back into jobs. We know that the speed at which technology has developed and the way the global economy is shifting is indeed disorienting and difficult, especially for our older PMETs. Some have been knocked down by the winds of change, and it is not simply a matter of bouncing back on your feet again especially when you are older. But the world will not stop, and the economy will continue to change.
The Government will provide the best possible support we can give to those who have been knocked back. We cannot go back or hesitate in embracing change. Our children now have opportunities today that we would only dream of in the past. They get to work in the most cutting-edge industries and companies; they work alongside the world's best without having to leave Singapore. This is not just for the few as it was for an older generation, but also for the many amongst the young, and all these have been made possible because we kept open to the world, even as many other countries caved in to domestic pressures and turned inward. There is no reason why as fathers and mothers, we cannot walk tall, knowing that we are doing our best for our children and our next generation.
Several members also gave specific suggestions on what more we can do in various areas. We will study all suggestions carefully and continue to finetune and improve our policies. I have also presented evidence of what we have achieved with our policies: more jobs created, incomes rising over the years, and more opportunities for our children. These are all based on published data and facts. There is a lot of data out there - more than enough for any serious analyst to dive in, understand better what is happening in the labour market, what is happening with employment trends and unemployment trends, and Professor Hoon just now demonstrated that with his excellent economic exposition based on published data. So look at the evidence and see for yourself how our policies have benefited Singaporeans.
But at the end of the day, I recognise that this strategy that I have set out – that the Government is pursuing – is not something that is easy to implement politically. While the vast majority benefits from an open economy, there will be some whose lived experiences are not so rosy. For everyone who suffers a negative experience, it is painful, it is very difficult, and it is emotional.
In other countries, populist parties have no compunction about tapping into people's anxieties, appealing to fear, appealing to tribal instincts, pitting one group against another. They blame immigrants and foreigners and make them scapegoats for their country's problems, and this results in the countries turning inward and becoming more protectionist. We cannot afford any of this to happen in Singapore.
First, as a small city-state, staying open is not just essential; it is existential. Second, if we start having racial or xenophobic undertones in our politics, we will be going down a very slippery slope. It will start with seemingly innocent comments and questions being raised, or dog whistles, coded phrases; but over time, the comments become normalised, and racist and xenophobic sentiments become more prevalent. And when that happens, our society will fracture and Singapore will fall apart.
Indeed, many members have spoken out strongly against racism and xenophobia. I thank you for your statements and I fully agree with all of you that there is no place for such sentiments in this House and in Singapore.
Mr Leong himself now claims that his motion has got nothing to do with racism or xenophobia. But the fact is that over the past few months, the PSP has been raging against FTAs and CECA, and for reasons that I genuinely cannot fathom. Despite all the clarifications we have made, his motion today continues to attribute the cause of job anxieties to FTAs and CECA.
Now, Mr Leong takes issue with the government calling him out on this, but it is not just us. Others can see what the PSP is doing. In my opening speech earlier I read an email from someone that various Ministers received the email from. Mr Leong says the PSP listens to the people. Is he listening to feedback like this?
Miss Poa said, in response to my email sharing about this Singaporean who was not happy with the PSP’s campaign against CECA, that we should assure him that do not worry, the PSP’s approach will give him more assurance of getting a job, but I have already highlighted that the PSP’s approach is not going to work any better. It will be worse. Second, Miss Poa misses the point because this gentleman, who emailed us, his concern was not just about jobs. He said, and I repeat what he said again: the PSP’s campaign is truly racist and it is hurting Singaporean Indians and we are splitting Singaporeans along racial lines. It is not just a jobs concern, which you have not addressed.
The PSP’s own members have expressed this concern which my colleague Mr Shanmugam said just now. According to media reports, one senior PSP member said that focusing on CECA is “cheap politics”. Another member said there are racial undertones with how the CECA issue is being raised in Parliament and the “real problem is not about CECA”.
So, these are voices that the PSP’s own members have said; that Singaporeans have highlighted. Mr Leong and Ms Hazel Poa keep saying no, no, no, we are not racist. We are not stirring racist sentiments. But look, if it looks like a duck, if it walks like a duck, if it quacks like a duck, it is a duck. Whatever Mr Leong or Ms Hazel Poa may say, the fact is this is how people see and perceive the PSP’s campaign.
Mr Leong also asked for more data. Well, Dr Tan has given a whole range of data just now, and as I said, there is more than enough public data out there to show that the job challenges we face do not arise from FTAs, let alone CECA. And I cannot help but feel that the persistent data requests are red herrings to continue this campaign of casting aspersions and creating disaffection toward the Government. I hope Mr Leong and Ms Poa will have the open-mindedness to look at the data and evidence again. Listen to what Professor Hoon said just now, or any other serious analyst that is looking at the data, and review the PSP’s position objectively and be gracious enough to accept that the allegations are baseless, and put a stop to the false claims that they have been perpetuating about CECA and FTAs both in and out of this House.
Next, let's consider the policy issues that Mr Leong raised. He suggested tightening immigration policies, but as several of my colleagues said just now, this is really a separate topic from manpower policy. In any case, the evidence is clear – population growth over the last decade has been the lowest since our independence. So there should be no doubt that we have already been very tight at the overall level. We have also emphasised that our immigration policies will continue to ensure that the ethnic balance remains stable for our citizen population. And you can see for yourself in the latest census reports, how we have maintained this balance over the decades.
As far as foreign manpower policy is concerned, after all the fire and brimstone from Mr Leong, all that he has asked for are three adjustments to our policies: raising EP and S Pass qualifying salaries, imposing a levy on EPs, and imposing a cap of 10% per nationality in any company. These proposals have nothing to do with CECA and FTAs.
So these are the three specific policy issues that Mr Leong was concerned about. Why didn’t the PSP raise them in the first place? Why does this motion harp upon the foreign talent policy movement of natural persons in FTAs and specifically CECA? Why is he continuing the PSP’s sustained negative campaign against CECA, a move which even his own party members say is cheap politics? Why pin the blame on Indian nationals and stir racial unhappiness in our own community?
These are questions that I doubt I will get direct answers from Mr Leong but only he, Ms Poa and the PSP know the real answers to. But I hope that having had the benefit of this debate, Mr Leong, Ms Poa and the PSP will seriously reflect on their actions and conduct and abandon such irresponsible politics that will divide our society and be disastrous for Singapore. By all means, let us talk about manpower policies; let us debate them; let us talk about the pros and cons of different settings, but they have nothing to do with CECA and FTAs. The more you persist with this line of questioning and the more you persist with your campaign, the more you obfuscate the matter and make problems worse.
Next let me address some of the questions and points that members from the WP have raised. If I can summarise the Workers’ Party position on my motion, it is this: the Workers’ Party agrees with the Government's overall strategy to stay open and connected to the world and deal with the downsides of an open economy, but we would like the Government to do more to help Singaporeans. First, I thank the Workers’ Party for supporting our strategy. That is very important that there is alignment and common ground on this basic strategy for Singapore. As for the ‘do more’ part, well, I have already said that the Government will do our utmost to deal with all the downsides. Where there are specific policy suggestions, and a few were raised just now, we will consider them. We will weigh the pros and cons and consider carefully also – wearing my MOF hat – how we should pay for them. And I am sure that there will be opportunities in the future for such meaningful debates, including during the Budget next year.
The Workers’ Party also had another line of argument, which was about information, data, and communications.
The Government's communication is not perfect; we will always work to improve our communication strategy. But where data is concerned, as I have said, there is already a lot of data that we have released to the public. Data on the labour markets, data that has been requested; we have put out more than enough data for anyone looking at the matter to examine the facts carefully.
The Workers’ Party's line is that more data is better. In fact, why not go all the way and have freedom of information, a proposal which the Workers’ Party has made before. I would say, the Government has a different view. We see data and transparency as a means to better governance, and it is not always the case that data is necessarily an unmitigated good.
America has the Freedom of Information Act. What is their trust in government like? All the external surveys will show that the trust levels are low, and nowhere near where we are in Singapore today. And this is America, but you can look at many other countries which have similar Freedom of Information provisions, and that has not helped to improve public trust, or public confidence in policies.
The real issue is this: when someone loses his or her job, they will be unhappy, no matter how much data you provide to them. In fact, when they lose their jobs, you are not interested in data. They need help. So, we will do our utmost, as I said, to help everyone who is displaced.
There are also, sometimes – from time to time – good reasons why we may want to be careful about releasing data. Which is why I said our view on data is a lot more nuanced than the Workers’ Party's position, that is just release all the data, and everyone will have enlightenment.
For example, people ask for more data with breakdown by nationality. Where it is possible, we have released those data, but is it such a good thing to let the whole world know our dependence on foreign workers and from which particular country? Really, do we want to let everyone know that? I think it was one of the Workers’ Party's members who also said that one has to be careful about hostile actors that may exploit our social fault lines to disrupt our society. Indeed, we live in a dangerous world. So, should we not be careful about external parties that may hold us ransom by threatening to disrupt or terminate our labour flows, especially in certain key industries? So that weighs on our minds when we think about data release. We should therefore think through carefully these broader considerations when we talk about data release and information policy.
This is why the Government cannot accept the Workers’ Party's amendments to this motion. First amendment, drop the word ‘support’, and talk about calling for stronger actions. But this leaves it too open ended and changes the meaning of the limb of the motion that we originally had. The second limb, limb “f”, talked about data and information, but that is really about, as I said, information policy. Nothing to do with the debate we are having now about jobs, and there is no shortage of data as I have emphasised earlier. There is a lot of data today already that allows anyone to study the facts and evidence to decide how our policies have worked and impacted Singaporeans, and make an informed decision about this matter. If the Workers’ Party would like to have a separate debate on information data provision, or even what the Workers’ Party has proposed, which is to have a Freedom of Information Act, we can do so separately. But let us not conflate the issues.
Finally, we talk about racism and xenophobia, which is the important issue that we are dealing with today in this debate. I note that the Workers’ Party has tried to disassociate itself from the PSP motion. It suggested some amendments to the motion, which Speaker has ruled were not acceptable, because it changed the substance of the motion, but it is quite clear from the speeches made by the Leader of the Opposition, and members of the Workers’ Party, where they stand on this matter, and I thank Mr Singh and Workers’ Party members for your very strong stand against racism and xenophobia.
Mr Singh himself quoted from a speech he made, I believe at the Opening of Parliament, where he talked about foreigners in our economy; giving Singapore vitality; that we must maintain that openness and friendly attitude towards them. In the debate in July, he made very clear his stand again, that when it comes to racism and xenophobia, we have to reject them and there can be no ifs or buts. I believe that he also agrees that FTAs, including CECA, are fundamental to our economic survival. That was in the debate in July.
Again today, I think he was quite clear where he stood, and he, I believe, also mentioned that he was concerned about the racial undertones that have entered into the present debate on FTAs and CECA. And we should be very clear that the Workers’ Party does not stand for any of this. Those were, I believe, statements that he made earlier. So, I thank the Leader of the Opposition for making very clear where the Workers’ Party stands on this important matter. In that spirit, I hope he will confirm that we cannot give credence to negative racial undertones in our political debates, that we must never allow such politics take root in the house and in Singapore, and that the Workers’ Party will reject the PSP’s motion.
Sir, in this pandemic, we have been talking about vaccines and the antibodies they provide against the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
There are other viruses we should worry about – the dark forces of fear and anger of racism and xenophobia. They are no less infectious or deadly. As a society, we need our antibodies to kick in against these viruses; against these other threats; to defend against and defeat the bigots, the racist and the fearmongers.
Finally, Mr Singh and Mr Leong suggested having parliamentary committees to discuss the issue of jobs and skills. Sir, we have no shortage of opportunities to debate these issues in Parliament. The Government will provide data when it is asked for; where we think it is in the national interest to provide such data. We will certainly do so. We will consult widely with our stakeholders, especially with our tripartite partners. We will take all ideas and views seriously.
Often there will be differing perspectives, and it will not be possible to take on board every suggestion. In the end, the Government has the responsibility to govern and to make policy decisions in the best interest of all Singaporeans. Some decisions will not be so popular, even though we are convinced they are necessary and must proceed for the good of all. When that happens, we may see opposition parties finding ways to stir up disquiet and disagreement. That is the nature of politics.
Sometimes, the Government decides it is an urgent matter and we need to move quickly. Then we will be criticised for not consulting, and being too high-handed. On other occasions, we think it is better to take time to deliberate and get everyone on board. Then, we will be criticised for moving too slowly.
That is our karma. We have accepted that in Government. At least I have accepted that. But we will not be shaken from our conviction to do what is right for Singapore and Singaporeans.
We will not sugar coat realities or shirk away from our responsibilities in tackling difficult issues. We will make the tough calls where necessary. At the end of the term, we will present our report card to Singaporeans and they will judge us on our performance. That is how our system has worked, and will continue to work, and that is why the PAP Government will always be on the side of Singaporeans, working with you and for you.
We know our policies are delivering results and Singaporeans are seeing improvements in their quality of life. But we also recognise that there are segments who are more vulnerable, and who struggle to keep up. So we are fully committed to do more to ensure the fruits of progress are shared by every Singaporean. Our priority is to build a fairer, more equal and more inclusive society, as we emerge from this crisis, and enter a more uncertain and volatile post-pandemic world.
Mr Speaker, we have had a long debate on important issues. I am mindful of the time. But it is an important debate; it's a debate about jobs and livelihoods. It is also a debate more importantly about our values, who we are, who we want to be and the Singapore we want for ourselves and our children. Two motions stand before us, the motion that stands in my name, that talks about Singapore's overall economic strategy to stay open, connected to the world, and to deal with the downsides of an open economy, and to continue with all our efforts to help every Singaporean cope and adjust, and to make sure Singapore stays united and we progress together.
The motion that stands in Mr Leong's name, ostensibly to deal with the anxieties about jobs, but for reasons known only to the PSP persist with a negative campaign to link this to FTA and CECA, and to continue to stir racism and xenophobia. So we have to decide where we stand and make a choice.
I say, we take a firm and unequivocal stance against racism and xenophobia, and so I ask all members in this House to vote for the motion standing in my name, and to reject the PSP’s motion.
Sir, I entered politics 10 years ago in 2011. My first posting was as Minister of State in Education.
When I visited schools, one of the questions I liked to ask our students then is this: what would you like to be when you grow up? At that time, I received many traditional answers – to be a doctor, be a lawyer, be a soldier, be a teacher. When I returned to MOE last year, I went around asking the same question in my school visits. And this time, I heard many more diverse aspirations. Kids said that they would like to be a video game designer, data scientist, start-up founder, pursuing careers in companies like Amazon and Google. These aspirations are possible because we have defied the odds to build something special here in Singapore - a vibrant city connected to the world, brimming with life, energy and excitement, full of opportunities for our people.
By continuing on this path, we give ourselves the best chance of helping our children realise their aspirations. This is what is at stake for all of us. We know it is not easy to thrive as a little red dot in this big ocean of globalisation. We will encounter many bouts of stormy weather along the way, for sure. But we are all on the same boat together, and we will get through these storms as one people.
That is what we have been doing for the past 20 months, dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. It has been difficult for all of us. It has added to the stresses and strains felt by people who are suffering the negative experiences of trade and globalisation. But we have also seen throughout this period that we are strongest when we stand together. We have demonstrated that we have the never-say-die spirit. We have the ability and drive to work as one people. And we have the guts and gumption to meet every problem head-on.
So together, we can build our best home in Singapore, and create a brighter future for ourselves and our families, and for all Singaporeans, young and old.
Thank you, Sir.