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Highlights: Dr Tan See Leng and Minister Lawrence Wong's Parliamentary speeches on local & foreign employment

Highlights: Dr Tan See Leng and Minister Lawrence Wong's Parliamentary speeches on local & foreign employment

Both addressed Minister Wong's motion on securing Singaporeans' jobs and livelihoods, tackling topics such as perceived foreign competition, maintaining an open economy, and more.

In Parliament yesterday, (14 September 2021), Singapore's Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong and Minister for Manpower, Dr Tan See Leng, addressed a motion on securing Singaporeans' jobs and livelihoods.

In his opening speech on the motion, Minister Wong asked that the House:

  1. Acknowledges Singaporeans’ anxieties about jobs and competition in a globalised and fast-changing economy;
  2. Affirms Singapore’s need to stay open and connected to the world in order to grow and prosper;
  3. Supports government actions to manage the population of foreign manpower, ensure fair treatment by employers, and invest in education and upskilling, to create more good jobs for Singaporeans;
  4. Calls on the government to continue to update and improve its policies to secure the wellbeing and livelihoods of Singaporeans in an uncertain post-pandemic world; and
  5. Deplores attempts to spread misinformation about free trade agreements like the Singapore-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA), stir up racism and xenophobia, and cause fear and anxiety amongst Singaporeans.

Minister Wong said: "Securing jobs, livelihoods and better lives for Singaporeans has always been what this Government is about. All our economic policies, be they free trade agreements or foreign manpower policies, are about creating jobs for our people and helping Singaporeans achieve their aspirations. Every detail matters. Many of you will remember: Mr Lee Kuan Yew took special care to make the road leading from Changi Airport to the city as attractive as possible to impress foreign investors. They see this tree-lined road and their first impression is that this is a well-run place, able to plan and implement.

"So it’s safe to invest here – and create jobs here. That’s the level of detail – the persistence and devotion – that carries on to this day: All to secure jobs and livelihoods for Singaporeans. We’ve explained to Singaporeans many times our approach and policies. We’ve debated in this House too, including recently in July."

Thus, he noted: "I would like to bring it all together in this motion today to explain where the Government stands on jobs, why we must remain open and connected to the world, and how we are managing the foreign manpower population."

Minister Wong then went on to say that the government recognises that Singaporeans are anxious about jobs and competition.

The pace of change in the economy has "accelerated over decades," the Minister highlighted.

"Think about what our economy was like in the early 1990s. Then PMETs made up about 30% of our local workforce. It was rare to hear of PMETs being retrenched. There was a higher chance of retrenchments amongst non-PMETs, but not so much amongst PMETs.

"Today, PMETs make up a much larger 60% of our local workforce. Inevitably we are seeing more retrenchments amongst them."

Though the absolute number of layoffs is "not many", the Minister noted that even those who are in good jobs worry, and wonder if they might be next. "The pandemic has also increased the economic churn and uncertainty, and deepened these worries."

That said, the Minister pointed out that this is the same situation all around the world. 

"Job stability has fallen across advanced economies. In part, this is the result of the churn that happens in any vibrant economy – in some sectors, firms will close and let go of people, in other sectors, there will be growth and more promising jobs being created.

"Technology is accelerating this churn due to the disruptions it causes across all sectors of the economy. In some places, the churn they are experiencing is coupled with structural difficulties. For example, entire industries going down with no new jobs to replace, and places like these have started to turn inwards and become more protectionist."

Addressing the downsides of an open economy

Following further explanations on the matter, Minister Wong noted: "Being a hub economy brings many benefits to Singapore and Singaporeans, but it also comes with its share of cost. The rapid pace of change and the 'creative destruction' that takes place in any vibrant economy means that there will be people displaced from their jobs.

"But the issue is not about foreigners working here. Even if we got rid of 'tens of thousands' of foreigners, locals will continue to be displaced – because of technology, because of innovation, because of the changing nature of work over time.

"With the rise of remote work, people can work from anywhere in the world, and they need not be all in the same place."

He detailed the following steps being taken to tackle these downsides:

First, the government is continually updating its manpower policies and rules to "ensure that the flow of workpass holders is managed, and to ensure that they are of the right calibre."

Second, it upholds fair employment practices and takes a strong stance against discrimination at the workplace. One way this is being done is with the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices being enshrined into law, what the Minister called "a major philosophical shift."

Third, the government is helping those who are displaced.Minister Wong shared: "To every person who loses his job, the unemployment rate is 100%. Losing one’s job is disorienting and disabling – there are no two ways around it. We understand your concerns and we will do our utmost to help you.

"This is why the government has been investing heavily in SkillsFuture – to help all Singaporeans learn for life and to stay employable in this competitive environment. We’re paying special attention to mid-career PMETs, to equip them with relevant skills and to find new jobs."

Minister Wong's's full speech can be found here, where he talks about the 'Singapore talent policy', as well as further addresses concerns raised around the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA).

Later in the session, Minister Tan delved into a series of facts and data points around Singapore's jobs landscape, addressing statements by the Progress Singapore Party (PSP), and in support of Minister Wong's motion.

These are summarised as follows:

Data on Intra-corporate transferees (ICTs)

Minister Tan first touched on the number of ICTs in Singapore, noting questions by the PSP.

Total number of ICTs:

  • 2020: 4,200
  • 2019: 4,400
  • 2018: 3,200
  • 2017: 2,600
  • 2016: 2,100.

Total number of Indian ICTs:

  • 2020: 500
  • 2019: 600
  • 2018: 400
  • 2017: 400
  • 2016: 300

These numbers, the Minister noted, "have been consistently low."

Singapore's job landscape 

Local PMET employment

Minister Tan shared: "Over the past decade, there was an increase of 110,000 EP and S Pass holders. But local PMETs increased by 300,000. This is the case even if we look at some of the sub-sectors that hire more EPs – finance, infocomm, and professional services.

"Over the past decade, EP and S Pass holders in these sub-sectors increased by 40,000, but local PMETs increased by almost 155,000 – four times. This goes to show competition between locals and foreigners is not a zero-sum game."

Local PMET unemployment

On these figures, Minister Tan pointed out that outside of crises, unemployment in Singapore has generally remained at 3% or lower," citing that "few countries have achieved unemployment rates as low as this.

At the same time long-term unemployment rate, referring to those who were looking for a job for at least twenty five weeks, is below 1%.

"The increase in foreign PMETs has not caused the unemployment rate to rise," Minister Tan stressed.

PMET job vacancies

The number of PMET job vacancies in Singapore has "been on an upward trend" since 2010 and has been hovering around 30,000 over the past five years.

These vacancies are spread across various sectors - with 4,300 unfilled PMET jobs in infocomm, 4,100 in finance, 2,700 in professional services, and more.

Minister Tan questioned: "If every additional foreigner results in one less opportunity for a local, why are there so many unfilled vacancies? Surely these vacancies should have been long filled?"

Median local PMET wages

This figure has risen from S$4,600 in 2010, to S$6,300 in 2020, a total increase of 38%, the Minister shared. In real terms, this translates to a 21% increase.

Overall, Minister Tan noted that all the data above shows that while the number of foreign PMETs in Singapore has increased, the country has seen:

  • An even larger increase in local PMET employment;
  • Low local PMET unemployment;
  • A growing number of PMET job vacancies, and
  • Growing local PMET wages.

"In fact, the proportion of our workforce in PMET jobs is among the highest in the world at almost 60%, up from 30% in the early 1990s." 

The two different types of under-employment

Minister Tan then touched on the concept of under-employment, citing two types:

First, is time-related under-employment, when a worker would like work for longer hours, but is unable to find a job that allows him to do so. "This is well-defined, and internationally, there are ways to measure this.

"MOM regularly tracks and publishes resident time-related underemployment, which can be found in MOM’s Labour Force Survey. The time-related underemployment rate has averaged 3.6% over in the past decade. Although the resident time-related underemployment rate rose to 4.1% in 2020, due to COVID-19, it still remains relatively low."

Next, is skills-related under-employment, when a worker believes that his current job does not fully utilise his skills. "This is more subjective, and this is what I think a few members have alluded to earlier on. There is as yet no internationally-accepted standard for measuring this," Minister Tan added.

"MOM is part of a working group led by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), to develop suitable methodologies to relate an individual’s occupation to their skill and education level. These are discussions involving professional labour market statisticians.

"So while I appreciate the interest of Members for MOM to magically provide a 'KPI' for skills under-employment, the fact that there is at the ILO a working group of statisticians studying how this should be measured, should highlight that this is no simple matter."

In the meantime, he shared that Singapore does regularly track and publish the number of self-employed persons (SEPs):

  • The proportion of SEPs has remained stable between 8-10% over the past two decades, although we did see an uptick during COVID-19.
  • Gig workers are defined as self-employed persons who use online matching platforms. The top occupation of gig workers is private-hire car drivers, on online matching platforms such as Grab or Gojek. Around 1.5% of the local workforce is in this occupation.

Minister Tan's full speech can be found here, where he addresses concerns on foreign employment caps, reiterates Singapore's stance on workplace discrimination through legislation, and more. 

Photo collage / Screenshots of the Parliamentary sitting on 14 September 2021, MCI Singapore's YouTube channel

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