SINGAPORE: Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan—Jin has said that instead of aiming for past economic growth rates, the country has chosen to slow down to a pace that is more sustainable.
Speaking in Parliament on Thursday, he said the Population White Paper does not aim for growth at all cost.
He also took issue with the opposition Workers’ Party’s proposal for a zero—foreign manpower growth in this decade, saying when put in practice, it will hurt Singaporeans.
It was an impassioned speech by the Acting Manpower Minister as he sought to explain the stark realities presented by the Population White Paper, which charts the country’s future policies.
He said Singapore is at a different stage, both in its life and economic development.
Mr Tan added: "Singaporeans have also indicated a desire to slow down because they feel that pace of growth, because we have crossed that physical and social threshold. We cannot continue on as before. We can’t.
"And we are also at a stage, from a profile perspective, different stage of economic development. This is where we need to change in terms of the direction we are going. So the White Paper is the product of this desire to get it right and chart the course for the next lap."
He said the key is in coming to a consensus about what level of growth is sustainable and will bring about quality of life for Singaporeans.
It is a judgement, he said, that 3 to 4 per cent of growth for this decade is a realistic one to allow the country to transit as it restructures while at the same time providing a buffer for slower growth beyond this decade, to 2 to 3 per cent a year.
Labour force growth will also be halved from the current rate to about 1 per cent from 2020.
Mr Tan said the Workers’ Party’s proposal to freeze the foreign labour force growth rate immediately is an "alarming" one.
He said: "When companies go, it is not trivial; we can boldly be very heroic, tell people, ’let’s bite the bullet’. I think sometimes if you bite too hard, the bullet will kill you. ... With zero manpower growth, I think that will kill off a lot of companies."
Mr Tan also asked for details on how the opposition party proposes to keep the foreign workforce growth rate at 1 per cent for the next decade, especially when there are limits to how much the resident labour force participation rate can grow with an ageing population.
Workers’ Party chief, Mr Low Thia Khiang, said: "He mentioned about the programme we have —— like ... asking seniors to go back to the workforce and all that and whether or not we have any other programmes.
"I would advise that perhaps the minister goes back to his programmes —— if it is not effective, set a hard target, the numbers and the KPIs, and if he thinks that his ministry can’t do very much and wants the Workers’ Party to do more, perhaps he can consider putting his ministry’s resources under the Workers’ Party."
Mr Tan said: "I’m fully committed in terms of raising labour force participation rate. I would use Mr Low and his colleagues to read some of these initiatives.
"And some of these initiatives are not just on paper, have a very high labour force participation rate, and it is increasing and it is improving. But what I’m highlighting is, there are also some challenges and we continue to emphasise and we hope labour force participation rate will continue to improve.
"But that is different from saying that we have no more ideas, we will continue to work on that. What I have been asking is, I’m curious as to some of the very practical suggestions. So we would also appreciate if there are concrete ideas accompanying some of these broader statements."
Mr Tan also rejected the Workers’ Party’s proposal that the government could dip into the country’s reserves to help fund the productivity efforts of businesses.
He said the government needs to be careful when dealing with the reserves and that this "is not a rainy day".
Even with more foreigners in the midst, the acting minister said Singaporeans will be taken care of. He listed the various Continuing Education Programmes, for example, to give local workers a leg up. And if employers are found to be discriminatory toward locals, Mr Tan said they will be taken to task.
He said: "Let me be clear. We are putting in place safeguards against irresponsible employers and irresponsible practices. We are not erecting barriers to foreign employment because it remains part of our landscape.
"This will go a long way to assuage the concerns that we have, and these are valid concerns, perceived or otherwise. We know pockets of this happen and it cannot be accepted."
However, Mr Tan also cautioned against being overly nationalistic when dealing with foreigners and immigrants.
He said: "I understand that we all are naturally concerned about competition. But competition is there, whether we like it or not.
"Just because an individual from Philippines, Vietnam, China is not here, (it) doesn’t mean that he’s not competing with us. They are competing with us in their hometowns. In some sectors, good quality white collar jobs, PME jobs for Singaporeans, accounting, HR —— some of these have left Singapore."
As to the Workers’ Party’s notion of a Singaporean core —— being those who were born and grew up in Singapore —— Mr Tan said: "I guess this is one way of looking at it and I suppose it resonates with some Singaporeans.
"I honestly don’t know how far back we should go before Singaporeans count. I think even here in this House, some of us are not born in Singapore. Ms Irene Ng is not born in Singapore, Mr Chen Show Mao is not born in Singapore. Does it make them second class citizens?
"We have many Singaporeans who are not born here, they may not have grown here but they have decided to make this place home and serve and contribute to our society. Should this be what defines us as Singaporeans? Are these the values we subscribe to?
"I do not subscribe to these values. Taking too nationalistic an approach can bring the worst in us. We are much more as a people."
Parliament will wrap up the debate on the Population White Paper and Land Use Plan on Friday.
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