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Speech by Second Minister for Manpower, Dr Tan See Leng at Debate on President's Address

A. INTRODUCTION

A1. First off, I would like to thank Singaporeans for the opportunity to be part of the team entrusted with the responsibility to help steer Singapore and Singaporeans through COVID-19.

A2. This is unquestionably the worst crisis in a generation. We have had to strike a fine and delicate balance between protecting Singaporean lives and preserving their livelihoods. This pandemic has presented an unprecedented threat to our society and economy, as it has been more virulent and widespread than any other outbreak we have dealt with in the past. As such, we have had to constantly calibrate our responses based on the evolving global and local situation, and the attendant complexities of various scenarios.

a. A good example is the Whole-of-Government effort to manage the COVID-19 outbreak in our migrant worker dormitories. In early April, we convened a Joint Taskforce comprising officers from MOM, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Communications and Information, the Singapore Armed Forces, the Home Team, and other agencies, to provide support to migrant workers and dormitory operators in the fight against COVID-19. After close to 5 months of intensive effort, the Joint Taskforce has completed the mammoth task of screening migrant workers in all dormitories, and the vast majority of them have been cleared to go back to work.

b. Now, we are transitioning towards a more sustainable approach of maintaining and preserving the health of our migrant workers for the longer-term. The Joint Task Force has passed the baton to the newly-formed MOM Assurance, Care and Engagement Group, or ACE Group for short.

c. The ACE Group will continue to maintain the discipline and cadence of screening, containment, isolation and active contact tracing of cases. Beyond that, they will also play a larger role in assurance and engagement by ensuring safe working, safe living, and safe rest days for migrant workers, as well as reach out to at-risk workers to provide additional medical and mental health support. To engender a strong support network for migrant workers, the ACE Group will also partner representatives from amongst the workers, dormitory operators, employers and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

d. Even as we plan ahead, we will not let our guard down, to make sure that we reduce the risks of a resurgence of the outbreak in the dormitories. We will provide comprehensive and accessible healthcare services to migrant workers through three main channels.

i. First, they can visit one of our 12 medical centres providing primary care services island-wide.
ii. Second, they can also seek medical attention via telemedicine anytime on their smartphones, through a mobile application.
iii. Third, mobile clinical teams will be activated in the event of an emerging cluster, so that we can mitigate any outbreaks.

e. Other than physical health, we are also focusing on the mental health and well-being of our migrant workers. Our Forward Assurance and Support Teams, or FAST Teams for short, work closely with NGOs, the Institute of Mental Health, Ministry of Health officers, and the migrant worker community to identify and assist workers who are in need of mental health support. We have also been regularly disseminating mental health materials in the native language of migrant workers, to teach them how to identify symptoms of distress, practise relaxation techniques, look out for one another, and also provide information on how and where to seek help if needed. This includes guidelines, general helplines and tele-counselling services run by NGOs such as the Migrant Workers’ Centre and HealthServe.

f. We are actively engaging dorm operators and owners to make infrastructural changes to purpose-built dormitories, so as to enable our dormitories to be more resilient and prevent new public health threats to our migrant workers. For example, we are looking to improve ventilation and spacing of the living areas and communal facilities. In addition, we will make available 25,000 beds in Quick Build Dormitories by early next year, with another 100,000 beds coming onboard within the next few years. These are temporary structures that can be constructed quickly, so that we can put in place measures soon to house workers further apart for better social distancing.

g. The situation will continue to evolve, and our mission must evolve along with it. We will remain ready and responsive to tackle the new challenges that COVID-19 will bring to us, and ensure that our migrant workers and our Singaporean community remain safe and healthy.

A3. Turning back to the present, our economy continues to be battered by the storm, and difficulties remain ahead.

a. Striking the right balance between saving lives and saving livelihoods is a constant daily challenge, as we methodically reopen the economy to our varied trading partners and foreign visitors, while ensuring that Singaporeans remain protected from successive waves of infection.

b. As a small country reliant on external trade, we are susceptible to rising nationalism worldwide and growing tensions between our major trading partners. We will need to remain resilient to the very real possibility of disruptions to our global supply chains, which depend heavily on the modern-day business concepts of just-in-time delivery.

A4. As most of you would have known, I have spent all of my working life in the private sector, so I can closely relate to what businesses are going through right now. There is a Chinese idiom: “创业难,守业更难”, which means “to start a business is already not easy, but sustaining a business is even harder”. Indeed, the challenges that face our businesses are significant regardless of whether you are a start-up, a small or medium enterprise (SME), or a large multi-national company (MNC).

a. Even in normal times, there are no past precedents or protocols that you can refer to when you get curve balls thrown at you. And this happens frequently, sometimes, on a daily basis. Just like during this current COVID-19 crisis, one has to constantly think on one’s feet, and adjust and adapt as the situation evolves. 我们要随机应变。

b. Competition is relentless for smaller firms, and doesn’t stop even if you survive and become larger, because then you face even more capable competition not just locally but regionally. Those that make it to the big leagues internationally have to pit themselves against other large conglomerates with a wealth of resources and expertise to compete with you, and contend sometimes with protectionist rules and regulations in foreign jurisdictions that curtail the ability to compete on a fair and equitable manner.

c. To expand on the sentiment in the Chinese idiom, I would add: “创业难,守业更难! 要改革企业更是难上难!” While sustaining a business is harder than starting a business, pivoting a business (or a country!) to be ready for new challenges is even more complex and difficult. Even before COVID-19, our businesses and workers were transforming themselves to prepare for the future economy and the future of work. This crisis has accelerated the changes to our economy, and highlighted that we must be flexible in pivoting to new areas of opportunity and different ways of operating even after the pandemic recedes. This will not be an easy feat, but our Government will walk with our workers and businesses to forge ahead on this path, even as we tackle the immediate challenges presented by the crisis.

B. WALKING WITH WORKERS TO SECURE GOOD EMPLOYMENT OUTCOMES FOR EVERY GENERATION

B1. As we navigate the crisis, we must always remember that our workers are the heart of our economy, and we must help our workforce to emerge stronger from this crisis.

B2. We will make every effort and come together to ensure that we do not have a “lost generation” of workers. We will support our workforce by securing “Fairness at Work” – upholding fair opportunities, fair hiring, fair competition and fair support for everyone to progress at every stage of their working lives.

B3. We promise to walk with every worker, even if we cannot preserve every job. Our national effort to do so is through the National Jobs Council, led by Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

B4. We will ensure that our jobseekers have fair opportunities and equitable ones, at a good job by bringing together 100,000 such opportunities through the SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package.

B5. I am particularly concerned about the growing concentration of disengaged Singaporeans in two key groups: (i) young graduates; and (ii) mature workers.

Walking with our young graduates

B6. Firstly, our young graduates. I have heard feedback from residents on how their children who have recently graduated are worried about securing a job in the current challenging labour market, and how this may affect their aspirations and career trajectories.

B7. We are working very hard to keep our young workers engaged and inspired as they embark on their journeys into the working world amidst this crisis. I wish to assure our young Singaporeans that although you have been dealt a difficult starting hand, I will do all I can to ensure that your generation will still flourish and fulfil your potential.

a. Even though some of our young workers may find it challenging to secure a job opportunity during this period, we are committed to helping them to build their professional skills, experience, and networks, through the SGUnited Traineeships Programme.

i. One such young graduate is Mr Foo Sek Eng, a 26-year-old who graduated from Nanyang Technological University in July 2019 with a degree in Mechanical Engineering.

ii. Sek Eng was looking out for suitable opportunities that would allow him to pursue his interest in technology and product management, and was attracted to the wide range of traineeships on offer. He has since joined Singtel as a trainee in July 2020.

iii. As part of his traineeship, Sek Eng has been applying his engineering background to address product innovation and data analytics issues. He aims to develop a well-rounded skillset through his traineeship, honing not just his technical competencies, but also his project management, business development, and interpersonal skills.

iv. We are very heartened by Sek Eng’s positive attitude, and his enthusiasm in learning and growing through his traineeship opportunity. Although it is a traineeship role, it has been a meaningful experience for him to build up industry-relevant skills, as well as networks and this will stand him in better stead to secure a good full-time job or maybe even spur him on to do a start up in his field of interest when the economy recovers. I hope his example inspires many others in his generation, and gives our young workers confidence that there are opportunities to flourish in spite of this crisis.

b. We also want to foster the grit and innovative spirit of our young entrepreneurs, whose companies will be a key part of our strong Singaporean Core of enterprises that can compete internationally and offer high-end quality jobs locally.

i. One such local enterprise is Lucence (“lu-sense”), which was founded by Dr Tan Min-Han in 2016. He chose to set up his own company to build world-class medical technology in a highly competitive industry. Why did he do this? Because he wanted to strike out on his own, put his and Singapore’s name on the world map, and successfully compete with global conglomerates. In doing so, his company operates the only US federally-licensed medical diagnostic lab in Southeast Asia. Lucence has also developed the world’s first blood test that detects both cancer-causing genes and viruses in order to identify the best treatment for cancer patients, and it has been used for thousands of patients across the United States and Asia. The company has also established laboratories in Silicon Valley and Suzhou Industrial Park, and continues to expand their operations amidst the global pandemic, with plans to hire more research and medtech professionals in Singapore.

Walking with our mature workers

B8. The second group of workers, the mature workers, is near and dear to my heart, because I am in their age group.

a. Our mature workers in their 40s and 50s have contributed a good part of their lives to our economy so far.

b. Most of them continue to be willing, and are able, to contribute to our economy for many more years to come, but even before the pandemic struck, many were already concerned about their job security and the challenges of adapting to how technology has transformed their job scope and their work.

c. With the current weak labour market conditions, many are worried about losing their jobs, having to compete with their younger counterparts or even foreign workers for limited job opportunities.

B9. The reality is that many sectors and jobs that have been worst-hit by the crisis may take a long time to bounce back, and some of them may never come back. These companies would have to pivot their operations to ride on new opportunities that arise. Permanent job opportunities may change in scope, or remain scarce until our economy picks up again. We have thus designed opportunities for mid-career individuals under the SGUnited Jobs and Skills Package, to seize this opportunity to upskill and reskill for quality job roles and good future careers.

B10. As our mature workers strive to prepare themselves for new job roles, we must also make sure that employers consider them fairly and offer them good opportunities for improvement and progression. Meritocracy is a foundational principle of Singapore society, and we must demonstrate this to the world by taking a stand against employers that discriminate against workers based on nationality, age, gender or other factors that are irrelevant to the job.

B11. Mature workers possess a significant treasure of experiential knowledge and practice wisdom that cannot be replaced by or gleaned from academic pursuits or qualifications. Like what they say in Chinese: 姜是越老越辣 – “the older the ginger, the spicier it is”. There is significant value for companies to leverage on the expertise, and skills sets of our mature Singaporeans.

a. I want to reassure our businesses that we are neither inward-looking nor turning away global talents and investments. We will continue to welcome those who bring in valuable skills in short supply. Such top-tier workers allow our businesses to build the best teams and remain globally competitive, while also helping to attract investments and anchor high-value activities in Singapore. Our local workers can also learn from the expertise of such skilled foreign workers.

b. To this end, I am glad that Mr Pritam Singh and the Workers’ Party also agree and are aligned with us on the need to support the growth of our Singaporean core, infusing it with global talent. The two examples that Mr Singh cited with regards to MOM - the two companies amongst the 47 companies being added to the Fair Consideration Framework Watchlist, and asked why we had allowed them to hire as many as they did before deciding to put them on the Watchlist. If you read from the same media release, the 47 companies actually hired 2,800 local PMETs, more than the 2,000 E Passes that they have given out. The universe that we are looking at - there are more than 35,000 companies in Singapore that hire these EPs. Some of them will have problems of higher concentrations of foreigners compared to their peers, even though prima facie, the EP applications have met qualifications in salary criteria. Regardless, we will not allow companies to practise wanton discrimination against our local talent. The Ministry of Manpower has been enhancing these frameworks. We have been stepping up the surveillance and enforcement and in fact, we expect businesses operating in Singapore to invest more effort in strengthening their Singaporean core. In the current difficult economic climate, it is all the more important that our workers are given fair opportunities to find meaningful work.

i. We will give Singaporean jobseekers a stronger boost by working with businesses to give more serious consideration to Singaporeans when hiring, especially those who are willing to adjust their expectations and adapt. We will also scale up our proactive efforts to increase our Singaporean jobseekers’ chances of landing a suitable job.

B12. At the same time, I would like to appeal to all of our jobseekers, regardless of age and background, to be realistic in your expectations amid the difficult economic climate, and keep an open mind about the available opportunities. With support from the Government, this may be a chance to embark on a new career path in a sector or role that you may not have even considered before.

C. WALKING WITH EMPLOYERS TO EMERGE STRONGER TOGETHER

C1. The Government will also support businesses through a variety of targeted steps:

a. First, for businesses that are seeing new opportunities, such as those in the ICT, Biopharma, Agritech, Advanced Manufacturing sectors and those developing low carbon technologies, we will help them grow. We will create a more attractive environment for co-opetition, which is for businesses to compete and cooperate for new opportunities.

i. A recent example was the cooperation between FormLabs, TÜV-SÜD (“tood-sued”)[1], NUS, NUH and companies with 3D-printing capabilities, to rapidly develop swabs used in COVID-19 test kits. They formed a consortium to leverage digital manufacturing, and took only seven weeks to reach product readiness.

ii. Local companies Structo (“struck-toe”)[2], Eye2Eye[3], and Forefront Medical[4] were involved in the conceptualisation and entire production development cycle, and seized the opportunity to repurpose their available 3D printers to mass produce 3D-printed nasopharyngeal swabs, which continue to be short in supply globally due to demand surge and supply chain disruptions.

iii. The ability of our private sector, research institutions and Government agencies to come together quickly to meet new needs and seize new opportunities, puts us in good stead for co-opetition – to cooperate and compete globally.

b. Second, for businesses that are facing lower demand now but will eventually recover, we will help them preserve their core capabilities and be in the best position to seize new opportunities when the economy recovers.

i. Commune, a Singaporean furniture design and lifestyle company, is an example of an SME that has tapped on Government’s support to bounce back amidst the COVID-19 situation. With the onset of COVID-19 and the Circuit Breaker, Commune launched their virtual showroom with Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality technologies to enhance the online shopping experience, which was supported by Enterprise Singapore (ESG). These efforts have seen sales recover well during and post-Circuit Breaker. The company is also seeking new digital business formats to internationalise during the COVID-19 period, with additional support from ESG’s Enterprise Development Grant.

c. Third, for businesses in industries that have permanently changed, we will help them reinvent themselves and pivot into new markets and products. Many of the mass market tourism and social entertainment companies are already thinking along these lines. In fact, there are opportunities within these industries for Singapore to lead the way in the development of new business models that can be adopted globally.

i. For example, to prepare for the safe resumption of meetings, conferences and other business-oriented events, Singapore Tourism Board (STB) has developed a Safe Business Event Risk Management Framework in consultation with the industry and in alignment with international best practices. STB is trialling this framework with two pilot events before scaling up to other events. The first event, the IEEE (“eye-triple-ee”) International Conference on Computational Electromagnetics, was held successfully from 24 to 26 August 2020.

C2. To stay ahead, it is also crucial that we develop a strong Singapore Core of enterprises that can grow and compete internationally, and offer quality job opportunities to our workforce. I know this is not an easy feat, given the fact that our domestic market is too small to sustain them.

C3. To succeed, we must find new ways to innovate and transform; not just incubating new ideas, but developing generations of Singaporeans that not only come up with transformative ideas, but to also put those ideas into action and commercialise them with strong intellectual property protection and validation by our Government agencies.

C4. We have started to do this with business leaders through Singapore Together Alliances for Action, set up by the Emerging Stronger Taskforce. The Alliances are industry-led coalitions that will rapidly prototype and execute ideas in key growth areas for Singapore, such as robotics and supply chain digitalisation.

a. We have launched National Innovation Challenges to develop industry-led solutions to the challenges faced by businesses. For example, the Safe-Reopening: Construction challenge led by the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) and Kajima (“kah-gee-mah”) Group seeks to establish a system that enables construction-site continuity planning. This will allow project development activities to resume safely and sustainably.

C5. We must also continue to encourage partnerships with internationally renowned institutions, share and learn their best practices, and cooperate and invest to expand our talent base and our repertoire of ideas and innovations. This is something I hope to contribute to and achieve in MTI.

D. CONCLUSION

D1. To conclude, we must never waste a crisis, because every crisis also breeds new opportunities. 危机—有危险就有机会。Together as a nation, we must overcome our differences in ideologies, beliefs and personalities and unite together in constructive feedback, engagement and working together to overcome this pandemic and the pains it has brought us. I hope that all parties can work together to develop a new spirit of resilience, fortitude and unity that reflects the same tenacity and grit of our forefathers. Then hopefully, years from now, we can look back and say that we overcame the crisis of a generation and continue to prosper and grow.

D2. Already, many of our agencies in the biomedical ICT sectors are making significant inroads in the development of novel test kits for COVID-19. Several of these areas include the use of automation and robotics to improve turn-around times in the processing of these tests, whilst improving the safety and protection of our technicians and bolstering our contact tracing applications. Given the creative and intellectual capital in our country, we have the means and the resources to transform many of our industries and services and come out ahead.

D3. Every country dreams big. Singapore dreams big too, except we make them happen – think Jurong Island, Changi Airport – because we work hard together, because we have a collective desire to build a better and brighter future for Singapore together. To continue to do well and thrive in the brave new world, we must be EXCEPTIONAL! Exceptional in our dreams and aspirations, exceptional in our execution and implementation, and most important of all exceptional in the way we care for one another and carry one another. This is the only way our country of less than 4 million fellow citizens can transform, leapfrog, thrive and prosper in this brave new world.

D4. Mr Speaker Sir, I support the motion.

FOOTNOTE

  1. Headquartered in Germany, TÜV-SÜD is a technical services provider that offers certification and testing, inspections, audit and systems certification, knowledge services and training. In 2017, TÜV-SÜD was awarded a contract by EDB to develop the Smart Industry Readiness Index (SIRI), which aims to help companies decide and prioritise specific Industry 4.0 technologies that they should invest in. TÜV-SÜD created SIRI via a thorough literature review of the range of Industry 4.0-related concepts and frameworks, and helped pilot the index with 16 companies from various industries such as Aerospace, Petrochemicals, Pharmaceutical and F&B.
  2. Structo is a local 3D-printing start-up that operates primarily in the dental industry.
  3. Eye2Eye is a local company that produces optical technology products.
  4. Forefront Medical is a contract manufacturer for medical devices.