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Speech by Minister of State Ms Gan Siow Huang at Debate on President's Address

  1. Mr Speaker, Sir. Much has been said about how COVID-19 has impacted the world - claiming lives, disrupting economic activities, and changing our way of life. In Singapore, the Government acted decisively to contain the spread of the virus and is injecting close to $100 billion into the economy. This has helped many Singaporeans, and has cushioned the impact on our GDP and unemployment.
  2. I’d like to speak on how we can use this crisis to strengthen the Singaporean core. These include urging employers to hire fairly and retain Singaporeans over foreigners. I’d also like to urge Singaporeans to build on their skills so that they enhance their suitability for more jobs that are being made available. I will also share my perspectives on the hard truths confronting our nation as we strive to maintain a strong Singaporean core in the long term.

    STRENGTHENING THE SINGAPOREAN CORE
  3. Today, excluding foreign domestic workers, two-thirds of the workforce in Singapore are Singapore Citizens and Permanent Residents, while the remaining one-third are foreigners. Prior to COVID-19, our economy was growing steadily and we were able to attract foreign investments as well as a sizeable foreign workforce to complement our local workforce.
  4. Our resident unemployment rate rose from 3.3% in March to 3.9% in June this year, based on preliminary estimates. Although the rise in unemployment rate is lower than what we’ve seen in advanced economies such as the United States, we should still be concerned because, unlike many other countries, Singapore has no natural resources to give us buffer. Our people are our only asset, and every Singaporean counts.
  5. How should we strengthen the Singaporean core through this crisis? Some say that it’s about increasing the proportion of Singaporeans in the labour force and reducing our reliance on foreigners. This is necessary when there is slack in the job market, as we are experiencing in this crisis.
  6. However, if we want to reduce our reliance on foreigners in a sustained way, we would need to increase our work productivity to bring down our overall demand for labour. We’ve made some progress in raising productivity in the last 10 years, but it takes much effort to keep up the momentum. While we have a highly educated population and dynamic workforce, our local labour force is ageing. Last year, the median age of residents in our labour force was 44 years old. The median age will gradually creep upwards. At the same time, the proportion of Singapore citizens between 20 and 64 years old will decline. This is the group that forms the bulk of our labour force. In 2019, 63.1% of our citizen population were between 20 and 64 years old. Ten years from now, this is projected to drop to 56.1%. To stay competitive against a younger global talent pool, we would have to keep upgrading ourselves or risk being squeezed out in the global competition for good jobs as we strive to grow our economy.
  7. With our low birth rate, our local workforce will peak in the next 10 years. We will need to improve our Total Fertility Rate so as to maintain a critical mass of Singaporeans in the labour force, and not overly rely on foreigners to sustain our economy. Increasing our work productivity and “life productivity”, which means having more babies, are both not easy to achieve, but we must keep trying.
  8. In the more immediate term, there are two other areas that we should address to strengthen the Singaporean core. First, employers need to be fair in hiring, retrenchment, and developing local talent.  Second, we need to ensure that Singaporeans have relevant skills and are adaptive.
  9. With growing unemployment this year, there’s a heightened sense of anxiety among Singaporeans about job security. Some people have expressed strong sentiments about foreigners here, especially if they have been retrenched and see that other foreign workers remain in employment. This is compounded if the Singaporean’s job search journey has been unsuccessful and companies are still hiring new foreign workers.
  10. In Marymount, residents have similarly shared with me their anxieties about finding jobs. Many have families to support and expenses to upkeep, and I can understand the immense pressure that they are facing.

    EMPLOYERS TO LEAN TOWARDS SINGAPOREANS IN THIS CRISIS
  11. In trying to make sense of the continued presence of foreign workforce in Singapore, I find it helpful to look at three categories of jobs that we require foreigners to do.
  12. The first category are jobs in essential services that are not so popular with locals, such as construction workers and cleaners.  For this category, the reality is that locals may not want these jobs even though we try very hard to transform them. We will need the foreign workforce to complement locals. Having said that, we ought to move towards a reduced reliance on foreign workers. How then do we “upgrade” these jobs to make them more appealing to Singaporeans?
  13. A good example is the construction sector. The adoption of new technologies and digitalisation in construction has created new and higher-skilled jobs in the sector. With the push for Design for Manufacturing and Assembly, more construction work has shifted off-site to automated production facilities that require production managers and quality assurance personnel, as well as logistics and supply chain planners. These jobs offer better work environment for our local PMETs. We should push for similar transformation and job re-design in other sectors, so that we can create good jobs for Singaporeans while reducing our reliance on foreign workers for essential services.
  14. The second category of jobs are those that locals want and can do, such as engineers and IT professionals, but for which there are not enough Singaporeans to meet the demand during periods when our economy is growing. We have foreigners working alongside us in these roles so that jointly, we expand the economic pie which all Singaporeans can benefit from.
  15. In the current crisis where there are not enough jobs for locals, we need to work with the employers so that Singaporean job seekers will be viewed favourably when applying for jobs, especially given the Government incentives such as Jobs Support Scheme, Jobs Growth Incentive, SkillsFuture Enterprise Credit and career conversion programmes. In circumstances where retrenchment is unavoidable, and an employer has to choose between a foreigner and Singaporean, I urge the employer to lean towards keeping the Singaporean. In short, if employers must retrench, retain the Singaporean over foreigner.
  16. A strong presence of locals in your company not only improves the support for your business in Singapore, but also enhances the resilience of your business in times of border controls that could impact the supply of foreign workers for your company. And most importantly, by showing due consideration to the Singaporean core in this difficult time, the trust that is forged between your Singaporean employees and you will be further strengthened. This will augur well for you when your business picks up in the future and you need the support of your local workforce. 
  17. The third category of jobs are those in global and regional companies that require global teams and certain professionals with highly specialised skills. Our goal is to get Singaporeans to be part of these global teams comprising diverse foreign and local talent. We also want companies to contribute to grooming our local talent so that Singaporeans have a fair chance at senior and top management positions.
  18. One company that has done well in this area is Shell. Ms Tan Chee Wei, a 46-year old Singaporean, is Shell’s Vice President of Human Resources for the Asia region. In her 18 years of career with Shell, she rose through the ranks from a HR generalist to a global HR Leader. She spent a few years in London as a Global HR Advisor and also took on regional roles in organisational development and talent management, before being promoted to Vice President this year. Shell is an employer that values and invests in our local talents. I hope that more companies would do likewise.
  19. Our foreign workforce policy has largely been driven by the need to support economic growth, so as to create good jobs for Singaporeans. We need to continue to stay open and provide businesses with access to global expertise and talent. But with rising unemployment in this crisis, we’ve had to tighten work passes for foreigners, and work more closely with employers and unions to uphold fair hiring and retrenchment. Ultimately, for every additional Employment Pass or S-Pass that is issued to a foreigner today, we need to be clear that it is so that even more job opportunities will be available to Singaporeans in the future.

     

    SINGAPOREANS TO BUILD UP SKILLS
  20. While we ask employers to be fair in hiring and retrenchment, our local workforce needs to be adaptive and skilled in diverse fields, to remain highly employable even as the nature of work changes.
  21. COVID-19 has caused major disruptions to our work and lives. Some people have lost their jobs as a result. Some are waiting for the economy to recover before they go back to their previous occupations. Unfortunately, it is hard to tell whether some of these jobs will come back again or will disappear in the new normal.
  22. The National Jobs Council is creating close to 100,000 jobs and training opportunities. As at July, we have helped place 25,000 jobseekers into new opportunities. Amongst the remaining places available, there are over 47,000 jobs, 16,000 traineeships with different companies, and more than 10,000 training places in various Institutes of Higher Learning and other training providers such as NTUC LearningHub.
  23. I have been encouraging my residents and friends who are looking for jobs to seriously consider the SGUnited training and skills programmes. I can’t guarantee that they will be able to get a job immediately after going through one of these courses, but they will certainly be more employable if they pick up new skills and knowledge.
  24. 32-year-old Muhammad Iskandar Bin Ismail is one example. Iskandar was an operations officer in the tourism and aviation sector when his job was affected due to COVID-19. To enhance his employability, he took charge of his own upskilling journey, and completed a series of courses. These included service-related Workforce Skills Qualifications (WSQ) courses, as well as supervisory-level courses on problem solving and decision-making. Iskandar used his SkillsFuture Credit to defray part of the course fees. Equipped with new skills, Iskandar successfully found a job as a full-time customer service officer in the retail sector.
  25. Under normal circumstances, we would have preferred Place & Train programmes where a job seeker goes for training as required by his employer after he has been offered a job. As many businesses have been hit by COVID-19, there are fewer companies that are prepared to hire in advance now. As such, we are pushing for more Train & Place programmes with the hope that Singaporeans who attend these courses will stand a better chance of getting a job when the economy recovers.
  26. For employers who are concerned about finding Singaporean workers with relevant skills to fill your business requirements, you can consider partnering with our Institutes of Higher Learning to offer Work-Study programmes and provide structured on-the-job training for potential hires. These programmes are modelled after the vocational training and apprenticeship track in Germany, where about a third of upper- and post-secondary students pursue an apprenticeship programme.
  27. COVID-19 has presented us with both challenges and opportunities. We should take this time to re-invest in building our skills. The best course of action that we can take now is to add to our skills, and remain open to available jobs and training opportunities. Deepening this culture and spirit of lifelong learning will position our local workforce better in the long term.

    FORGING THE SINGAPORE IDENTITY
  28. Mr Speaker, Sir, Iast year’s SG Bicentennial events affirmed three fundamental values that underpinned Singapore’s history - openness, multiculturalism, and self-determination. 1) Openness – our forefathers came from different lands to pursue their dreams on this island that is open to the world. 2) Multiculturalism - despite differences of race, language and religion, our forefathers worked together to build thriving communities here. 3) Self-determination – our people knew that we had to take our fates in our own hands. So we fought for the right to chart our own destiny.
  29. These values are still very much alive and among us today. I met some Secondary 2 students from Catholic High School recently and they shared with me their reflections on “The Singapore Identity – What makes a Singaporean?” The students had studied the history of different towns in Singapore and conducted surveys to understand what brings Singaporeans together. I was heartened that elements of openness, multiculturalism and self-determination surfaced in their independent analysis of what makes us Singaporean.
  30. Our Singaporean core may be limited by the size of our citizen population, but we can be mighty if we differentiate ourselves from others by being identified with the values of openness, multiculturalism and self-determination.

    CONCLUSION
  31. As a society, we will chart our own destiny, overcome adversity and find opportunities in this crisis. We must stand together and take care of one another so that no one is left behind in the storm. When we have fought together as a people in the battle against COVID-19, the Singapore identity will become even stronger than before.
  32. Finally, I’d like to share something that one of my residents in Marymount reminded me about the duty of the Government: “为人民遮风挡雨, which means protect our people from wind and rain. The Government will do our best to ensure fair opportunities for Singaporeans to get jobs and to support Singaporeans in acquiring new skills. We will spare no effort to strengthen the Singaporean core, and walk the journey with every Singaporean. Because our people are our only asset, and every Singaporean counts.
  33. Mr Speaker Sir, I support the motion.