Risks of relying on foreign workers, says MP Heng

Foreign workers at a construction site

SINGAPORE: Senior Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office, Heng Chee How, has warned of the risks of continuing to rely on foreign manpower to fuel economic growth.

He stressed that Singapore has to improve productivity and innovation while there’s still time.

Citing a recent trip to Chongqing, Mr Heng said Chinese officials told him that the city’s success at attracting investments and jobs from the coastal cities was based on cheap land, financing and manpower.

But the officials acknowledged that this "cheap sourcing" strategy was not sustainable in the long—term — it was a means to buy time to develop higher value production and services.

Mr Heng, who is the MP for Whampoa, said a Singapore core workforce must be built, and move away from relying on foreign workers.

Mr Heng said: "What makes us think that the economic development that will occur in the home countries of our foreign labour sources would not naturally reduce the need and desire of their populations from wanting to leave home and work abroad?

"And if that happens, and if we are still bound to a model that critically depends on their free and abundant availability, would we not be exposing ourselves to unacceptable risks? And even if that does not happen, would we not at least be slowing our pace of innovation and transformation simply because of the painkiller than we can consume for the moment?"

Weighing in on the issue is Dr Chia Shi—Lu, MP for Tanjong Pagar GRC.

He welcomed the government’s plan to reduce Singapore’s "unhealthy reliance" on foreign workers.

Dr Chia said: "I often warn my patients who are otherwise healthy to avoid over—reliance on crutches and braces, and other walking assisting devices when they don’t need them. The initial period after leaving these aids behind is difficult, but with the proper guidance, the patient recovers rapidly afterwards and grows from strength to strength.

"Contrast this with the patient who clings on to these crutches and this patient will slowly deteriorate over time to the point in which any form of mobility becomes excruciating. And so we must act decisively to rehabilitate ourselves from this dependence on foreign labour while our social, economic muscles are still healthy and able to."

On productivity gains, Dr Chia said he hoped the government will monitor the extent to which such gains are translated into real—wage growth.

He welcomed the beefed—up measures to help businesses achieve productivity growth.

But he noted the perception that gains are not equitably shared amongst employees when companies do well.

He added that businesses that have received government grants should be scrutinised to see how much of their employees’ salaries have risen in relation to how well the company has performed.

And this should be an important criterion for approving future grants.

— CNA/de