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Oral Answer by Mrs Josephine Teo Minister for Manpower to PQ on keeping Singapore's workforce competitve in light of remote workers willing to work for less pay

NOTICE PAPER NO. 44 OF 2020 FOR THE SITTING ON 14 OCTOBER 2020 QUESTION NO. 113 FOR ORAL ANSWER

MP: Mr Yip Hon Weng

To ask the Minister for Manpower (a) how can Singapore's workforce remain competitive when remote workers from the region are willing to work for usually far lower remuneration; and (b) how will our labour laws be updated to address the impact on our locally-based workforce and tax base.

  1. COVID-19 has necessitated a change in the way we work, in particular with remote working becoming commonplace for many workplaces. Some companies, such as Facebook, have announced that all employees can work from home. UBS has started experimenting with issuing its home-based traders with virtual reality headsets to recreate the experience of working in a packed trading floor. Increasingly, traditional jobs which require physical presence may also be done remotely. For example, port cranes could only be operated from their cabins in the past but can now be automated and controlled from a remote centre.
  2. The impact of remote working technology is however not fully clear. Even when staff are able to work from home, employers may still prefer to bring teams of workers together physically, on a regular basis, for learning and collaboration. Face-to-face interactions with clients and partners will still be needed. As with digital technologies, which have mostly been adopted to augment rather than replace the work performed by people, it is likely that remote working technology supplement rather than fully replace physical interactions at the workplace.
  3. Nonetheless, remote working may indeed prompt companies to redistribute their activities to take advantage of manpower availability in lower-cost locations. This is similar to how activities such as garment manufacturing and call-centre operations have shifted out of Singapore over the years. In their place, we have grown new manufacturing clusters such as biomedical sciences and expanded the services sector. At the same time, activities that remain in Singapore moved higher up the value chain.
  4. With limited land and manpower, we no longer compete on cost alone but on productivity, connectivity and ability to support business innovation. However, with each potential new disruption, we cannot take our relevance as a given. The effort to transform our economy must continue, to retain a competitive edge.
  5. First, we must strengthen our business environment and ensure that Singapore remains the preferred location for trade and investment, particularly in emerging growth areas such as additive manufacturing and fintech. The anchoring of global companies, which meet our desired profile and the aspirations of Singaporeans, will help to preserve and spur the creation of good jobs.
  6. Second, we must sustain efforts to help Singaporeans build skills relevant to the global talent marketplace. This is why we started the SkillsFuture movement and complemented it with a range of career conversion programmes. They have helped Singaporeans take up new jobs in growth areas.
  7. As for whether labour laws need to be updated, this is an ongoing process that takes into account feedback from tripartite partners. We are also actively monitoring shifts in workplace practices due to remote working and sharing views with our international counterparts, to assess the need for policy intervention.