SINGAPORE: Second Trade and Industry Minister S Iswaran said Singaporeans must have an honest discussion about the country’s immigration policy, no matter how unpalatable it may be.
Mr Iswaran was speaking to reporters on the sidelines of a dialogue session a day after his ministry released a report on population and the economy.
It was a vigorous night—time session for the participants where they discussed the pros and cons, shared their views, and gave suggestions.
What stood out at the session, said Minister Iswaran was that there was no outright rejection of foreign manpower.
"I don’t think the basis of the discussion is xenophobia, which is very heartening. What I think they’re trying to come to grips with, and I think we all are, is really how our demography impacts our economy, the opportunities for ourselves, our children and in turn, how immigration and foreign manpower can help us," said Mr Iswaran.
The discussion centred on how to bring foreigners in judiciously and this is where Singapore needs to find the right balance.
Mr Iswaran said: "So a calibrated approach to immigration, a calibrated approach to bringing in foreign manpower and having a sustained economic policy means being able to grow at a rate where on the one hand, the additions to our local population mix is done at a rate which we can sustain as a society and we can move with that and adapt to it. But at the same time, it is done at a rate where our economy can continue to generate opportunities for our Singaporeans."
During the dialogue, many participants spoke passionately about how Singapore may need to re—prioritise its values and some said perhaps it is time to move away from material aspirations.
Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan—Jin, who was also at the event, warned that this sentiment pre—supposes Singapore has arrived and that survival is not an issue.
He said there are individual choices but the government needs to provide a baseline that is jobs, security and social mobility.
Mr Tan said: "At the end of the day, what we are trying to do is what makes sense for Singaporeans. What is best for our people as individuals and what is best for us as a society? All the dots must connect back because otherwise it makes no sense in whatever we are doing, especially at the government level.
"GDP cannot be an end in itself. High growth cannot be an end to itself. It’s about what will really benefit and make life better for Singaporeans and what will make life better for us as a society and even in that, there are inherent tensions."
Mr Iswaran added that if the economy stagnates, the option to pursue non—material aspirations would not even be there.
One participant, who is a representative from the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises, spoke about how difficult it is for SMEs to find manpower, with the tightening of the foreign worker quota and higher levies.
Mr Tan replied if the government were to free up the space, every company would then appeal and the number of foreign workers would go up.
He said the question is how to calibrate and slow down the growth of the foreign workforce while still allowing companies to remain viable.
Citing the experience of other developed countries, he said more can be done to increase productivity.
He urged companies to wean off from a free flowing labour market.
Participants also raised issues on how to improve Singapore’s fertility rate.
The dialogue was organised by the National Population and Talent Division and inputs are expected to go into a White paper on population polices, to be released early next year.
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