Singapore could lose good investments and jobs if it imposes tighter restrictions on global companies' ability to employ the talent they need, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said on Tuesday.
Speaking in Parliament that is debating Opposition tabled motions on free trade agreements, singling out the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) with India, Wong said with strict policies global companies would find it rough to operate in Singapore.
"If we were to take a politically craven approach and impose many stringent conditions on their ability to operate here, we will lose out on many good investments," he told Parliament.
"We would have fewer foreigners for sure. But many Singaporeans will also be deprived of good jobs and career opportunities. It's like cutting off one's nose to spite one's face," he added.
The Opposition party has repeatedly highlighted the CECA with India as an example of how Singaporeans have lost out to foreigners, although that debate has been marred by an undercurrent of racism and xenophobia.
Wong called out the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) for its "fatally flawed" thinking that reducing the number of foreigners here will allow Singaporeans to automatically fill those jobs, and said locals will ultimately pay the price if overly restrictive policies lead to companies relocating elsewhere.
The data and evidence are clear that Singapore's economic policies have helped to raise living standards across the board and create many more good jobs for Singaporeans.
Wong had also tabled a motion in response to a separate motion filed by PSP (one of the Opposition parties) parliamentarian Leong Mun Wai, to categorically set out the Government's position on jobs, why Singapore has to remain open and connected to the world, and how it is managing foreign worker numbers.
In a strongly worded speech, the minister censured the PSP for the way in which it has framed its criticism of the Government's foreign talent policy.
"Let me be clear. We are bringing in investments and growing the economy, not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end," The Straits Times quoted Wong as saying.
"Our aim is to create good jobs and improve the lives of all Singaporeans," he said.
International companies will hire many Singaporeans but there are not enough Singaporeans to fill all the jobs available, he said.
Most firms also want to have a diverse workforce, bringing together the best team to oversee regional and global operations.
Wong noted that from 2010 to 2019, median income in real terms grew by 3.2 per cent yearly for Singapore residents.
Between 2010 and last year, local professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMET) employment grew by about 300,000.
In contrast, the number of Employment Pass and S-Pass holders went up by around 110,000 in that time period.
But the PSP wants to sweep these achievements aside, Wong said.
He also made the point that Singapore already has more than 25,000 vacancies for PMETs.
"With so many companies having difficulties filling these vacancies, how would we find people with the relevant skill sets to take on the additional 'tens of thousands' of jobs that Leong thinks can be created by getting rid of the foreigners?" he asked.
At present, foreign PMETs account for about 20 per cent of the PMET workforce.
Those who wish to see fewer foreign work pass holders may be holding to "a sense of nostalgia" about how things were in the past, when Singapore was less developed as a hub economy, Wong said.
In the 1990s, for instance, foreign PMETs accounted for around 10 per cent of the PMET workforce - although living standards were also lower.
Singapore's per capita gross domestic product is now more than 80,000, Singaporean dollars compared with around 35,000 Singaporean dollars in 1995.
Median salaries of residents were less than 2,000 Singaporean dollars then, but now stand at around 4,500 Singaporean dollars.
"Is that what we want? Stagnate in the 1990s, while the rest of the world progresses around us?" Wong asked, making reference to a speech made by founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, one month after Singapore gained independence in 1965.
At the time, Lee had told his audience: "Ten years from now, this will be a metropolis. Never fear." He urged the PSP to stop making "misleading and false" claims and cease its anti-foreigner stance, which has raised concerns among the business community as well as ordinary Singaporeans.
"If you are truly concerned about the well-being of our fellow Singaporeans and the future of this country, please have a care about how you go about dealing with these issues," he said.
Wong quoted an email sent to the Government by an Indian Singaporean, who was concerned that potential employers would think he was a foreigner from India, and thus pass over his job applications.
"I decided to indicate on the header of my resume on each page 'Singapore Citizen' but does this help? I don't think so," the man wrote.
"I seek your assistance that our Government put a stop to the PSP campaign, which is truly racist and is hurting Singapore Indians and we are splitting Singaporeans along racial lines."
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