In a series of parliamentary discussions, top Singapore ministers defended the government’s free trade agreements and openness to hiring foreign professionals amid criticism from political opponents that the policy increased job competition — particularly from India.
Free trade agreements are a keystone for the economy and responsible for creating hundreds of thousands of jobs, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said in an address in parliament this week. Speaking in his capacity as a former trade negotiator, Ong further reiterated the need to maintain a balance of foreign workers in Singapore even as the opposition has called for measures that favor citizens.
“We need to be careful that these valid concerns are not exploited by political groups, and intentionally or not, end up sowing division, stoking fear, fanning hatred,” Ong said.
The need to bring in labor and stay globally competitive as business activities resume has clashed with concerns over local employment and tighter borders to stem the virus. The government, long led by the People’s Action Party, has consistently reiterated the need for the country to remain open to international talent, while stressing it has worked hard to retain and grow jobs for its citizens.
In his speech, Ong highlighted that nothing in the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement with India implied that Singapore must unconditionally allow professionals, managers and executives from India to enter the country.
In a separate speech, manpower minister Tan See Leng also outlined the challenges in striking a balance between attracting foreign investments and nurturing local talent. He said the government is studying refinements to its visa policies, such that it doesn’t just rely on salary criteria as a gatekeeper to select talent.
In fast-growing sectors like technology, there isn’t enough locals to fill the jobs available and there are 6,000 jobs in the infocomm sector alone that remain vacant, he said.
The rise in employment pass holders from India, which last year made up about a quarter of all pass holders from 13% in 2005, is driven by factors such as the expansion of the digital sector and outward mobility of Indians.
While both ministers acknowledged the social tensions and anxiety that arise from having more foreigners, Tan said the country is at a critical point, where there are opportunities if it plays its cards right.
“This is a golden opportunity for Singapore to pull ahead,” he said. “But if we turn protectionist and we make it difficult for companies to hire talent from around the world – then we will lose this opportunity.”