Ministerial Statement at Parliament Sitting on 12 September 2022
Minister for Manpower Dr Tan See Leng, Parliament
Mr Speaker Sir, Members of the House,
1. I recently announced targeted enhancements to our work pass framework, to better attract top global talent and experienced tech professionals in areas of skills shortage.
2. Our goal is simple and unchanged: to create more opportunities for Singaporeans, at every level of the workforce.
3. At its core, economic development is human capital development. It is the skills, the knowledge and the ingenuity of a country’s people that generate economic prosperity. Businesses attract talent with these attributes, local and global. And talent and the teams they develop around them in turn attract more businesses and encourages them to grow higher value activities. Countries that manage to develop and anchor talent benefit from this virtuous cycle, which benefits everyone in the workforce. Those that don’t, stagnate and worse, fall behind. Getting this right is all the more critical for Singapore, where people are our only real resource.
4. Many countries know this and are playing an offensive game. They have populations larger than ours, but are still going out of their way to court global talent. PM mentioned Germany and the UK in his National Day Rally speech. They are just two examples. Australia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have also launched talent visas of their own. And within the last month, countries much nearer to us such as Malaysia and Thailand have done the same. I do not think it is a mere coincidence that countries and even cities around the world have upped their game to attract global talent. They know that when it comes to talent, you can never have enough – because of the virtuous cycle that I talked about.
5. In this race, Singapore is coming from a position of strength, but we cannot stand still. As we move to create a high value, inclusive and more sustainable economy, there are many opportunities for us to capture, be it in the green sector, AI, or FinTech. And to do that, we need to attract the best from around the world, even as we do our utmost to develop local talents in each field. These are the rainmakers of the world, whom we hope to bring to Singapore, so that we can tap on their networks, grow teams around them and learn from their expertise, and through this efforts, we can level up our industries as well as our workforce.
6. Members of the House appreciate this.
7. The questions raised on the recent enhancements to the work pass framework – across 24 Parliamentary Questions – generally seek more details on the targeted enhancements to attract global talent, and our ongoing efforts to develop our own local talent pipeline.
8. These are important and valid questions. I thank Members for them.
9. As part of my Ministerial Statement today, I will address Oral Question Numbers 1 to 18 from today’s Order Paper; as well as questions filed by Ms Rachel Ong, Mr Patrick Tay, Assoc Prof Jamus Lim and Mr Don Wee for the sitting on or after 13 September.
10. I would like to invite all Members to seek clarifications after my Statement, and consider withdrawing the questions filed for future Sittings so that we can address this issue in the same sitting.
TARGETED MOVES TO ATTRACT TALENT
11. Let me start by recapping the four targeted enhancements to our work pass framework:
a. First, a new Overseas Networks & Expertise Pass, called ONE Pass in short, for talent earning at least $30,000 in fixed monthly salary, comparable to the top 5% of EP holders, or with outstanding achievements in arts and culture, sports, and research and academia.
b. Second, a new benchmark pegged to the top 10% of EP holders for our existing schemes, namely the exemption from the Fair Consideration Framework (FCF) job advertising requirement and COMPASS, as well salary criterion for the Personalised Employment Pass
c. Third, restoring the FCF job advertising duration from 28 days to 14 days with effect from 1 Sep 2022, and improving processing time of EP applications
d. Lastly, the option of a 5-year EP to experienced professionals filling tech occupations on the COMPASS Shortage Occupation List.
12. These are highly-targeted enhancements – aimed at attracting top talent in diverse fields, and experienced tech professionals in areas of skills shortages. They build on our efforts to improve the complementarity and diversity of our foreign workforce. The enhancements will also aim to build significant first-mover and sustainable competitive advantages in new growth areas to keep us ahead of the competition. I will address questions raised on each move in turn.
Overseas Networks and Expertise Pass.
13. On the ONE Pass, Members have sought clarifications on the privileges, criteria, safeguards, expected numbers as well as impact on local employment outcomes.
14. Mr Leong Mun Wai has asked what would make the ONE Pass more attractive to talent compared to the Tech.Pass. Similar to the Tech.Pass, the ONE Pass is a personalised pass that allows the holder to concurrently start, operate, and work for multiple companies in Singapore at any one time. But compared to the Tech.Pass, it is open to candidates from all sectors, and is not limited to the tech sector alone. It has a longer duration of 5 years, instead of 2 years. Spouses of ONE Pass holders are also able to obtain a Letter of Consent (LOC) to work. In response to Assoc Prof Jamus Lim’s question, we do not have restrictions on the occupations that LOC holders can work in – this is generally the same approach for all other work pass holders, including dependants working in Singapore. The longer duration of the pass, as well as the LOC for spouses, is meant to give top talent the additional assurance they need when deciding whether to come to Singapore. Businesses tell us that these are key factors top talent consider before deciding where to go.
15. Some Members asked why dependants of the Overseas Networks & Expertise Pass holders are able to work on an LOC, instead of being assessed based on their own merits. Today, dependants of EP holders are eligible to work in Singapore if they obtain a work pass. We stopped issuing LOCs to dependants, not because we did not want them to work here, but because it made sense to hold them to a similar bar as all other foreigners. This policy remains unchanged. But when we are talking about top talent, we must be mindful of how global, how mobile they are, and how stiff the competition is for them. Many other jurisdictions – including Hong Kong, the UAE and the UK – offer work privileges for dependants. When people make major relocation decisions, it is usually a family decision. Without certainty for the spouse, these talent may choose to go elsewhere. In terms of numbers, it is not that material. Of the top 5% of existing EP holders that might qualify for the ONE Pass as a proxy, only a small minority have spouses who are working. But in terms of the signal we are giving to top talent, it is absolutely material and absolutely needle-moving.
16. Turning to the criteria for the ONE Pass, Mr Mohd Fahmi and Mr Pritam Singh have asked for more details on the criteria for talent with outstanding achievements, who do not need to meet the salary criterion of $30,000. In gist, we are looking at individuals who have demonstrated exceptionally high levels of achievement in the fields of arts, sports, science, and academia, who can help us push new frontiers, draw in greater investments and interest to grow our local ecosystem, and most importantly, create a very diverse range of opportunities for Singaporeans. In the case of sports, for example, it would include current and former world-class top-ranked athletes who may wish to set up their commercial operations or training bases in Singapore, from which our own local athletes, coaches, and sports ecosystem can benefit. The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) will work with sector agencies that are experts in these domains, such as MCCY, NAC, MOE and NRF to identify such exceptional talent.
17. Others, such as Mr Gerald Giam, asked whether the $30,000 fixed monthly salary criterion can be drawn from multiple employers. In general, the fixed monthly salary of $30,000 must be from one employer. This helps us ensure that the candidate has played, or will be playing a meaningful role in a company. For overseas candidates, the previous or prospective employer must also have a market capitalisation of at least US$500 million or an annual revenue of at least US$200 million.
18. I think most people would agree with me that $30,000 is indeed a high bar, but some worry that there could be potential abuse of the new ONE Pass. Mr Desmond Choo, Ms He Ting Ru, Mr Patrick Tay and Mr Yip Hon Weng have all asked about the checks that would be put in place to prevent abuse or fraudulent applications.
19. In general, the vast majority of employers and businesses are honest. They take our policies and they take MOM seriously, and know that there are grave consequences if they submit a false declaration.
20. Nevertheless, we will take precaution as we roll out this new Pass that offers more privileges.
21. We will put in place safeguards at two levels.
22. First level, we will carefully vet all applications. Today, MOM already conducts back-end checks to sieve out potential cases of false salary declarations. This includes scrutinising applications from companies with a limited track record, and asking for more documents to verify that the salary declared will in fact be paid. This will also be applied to all ONE Pass applications. For those seeking to convert from an existing Employment Pass, we will scrutinise their Personal Income Tax filings with IRAS to ensure they are consistent with their application. For overseas candidates, we will further assess their company’s market capitalisation and revenue based on verifiable sources. The economic agencies will support MOM in this endeavour.
23. Second level, we will engage the Pass holders during their time in Singapore, so we will be up to date with their professional activities and annual income. This will factor into our assessment on their eligibility for renewal. Ms Hazel Poa asked why we do not impose a time limit requiring ONE Pass applicants to remain employed. Let me be very clear. The ONE Pass is not meant to be abused as a visit or travel document. MOM reserves the right the cancel the Pass if there are extended periods of economic inactivity with no good reasons. Having said that, we are bringing in these talent and giving them flexibilities because we want to encourage them to take risks, to explore new frontiers, and to make a big impact to benefit Singapore. It is important to allow for some ramp-up period for that to happen, and not be too quick to jump to the conclusion that they are not contributing.
24. Members have asked how many individuals we are expecting to qualify for the Pass. This Pass is meant for talent comparable to the top 5% of our EP holders, which means that the salary criterion is based on the 95th percentile of EP wages. To give a sense of numbers, today, 5% of our EP holders would be around 8,000.
But the focus is really not on the numbers – because we are focusing on quality rather than quantity.
25. Mr Mohd Fahmi, Mr Pritam Singh and Ms He Ting Ru have asked whether we will be setting a quota on the number of ONE Pass holders. We are not setting a quota, and the reason is this – if we accept that there is never enough of top talent to go around the world, then it does not make sense to limit the amount of talent we are bringing in. If we impose a quota, we are essentially putting a hard limit on how strongly we can compete at the high-end of the global economy. This ultimately hurts Singaporeans, who will then have fewer opportunities. This is the same reason why we do not impose a quota for EPs, but focus instead on setting a high quality bar. Given that the ONE Pass has an even higher quality bar than an EP, it would not be wise to apply a quota here. However, Members would know that we are talking about the top of the pyramid of talent. Given the highly selective nature of the scheme, there is no risk of a deluge of people coming in through the ONE Pass.
26. There are naturally questions on how the Pass would benefit Singaporeans and what the expected impact on local employment is going to be. Mr Liang Eng Hwa and Mr Ang Wei Neng have asked this. Assoc Prof Jamus Lim also asked how “meaningful contributions” and the success of the ONE Pass will be measured. As I mentioned earlier, we will engage all Pass holders. This will allow us to better gauge if they have been contributing in meaningful ways. Even so, the relationship between talent, innovation and economic growth is more than a simple, linear one. The contributions of talented individuals go beyond a set of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). Limiting and reducing it to that risks constraining us to a yardstick of measurements and missing the forest for the trees. Some Pass holders may be employees, making it possible to bring a new business unit to Singapore, or grow a new line of business. Others may set up companies of their own, generating employment, as well as supporting their network of business partners who can also provide good jobs. Yet others may be here to teach, advise or consult for local enterprises, sharing their expertise with Singaporean business owners and professionals.
27. Like any portfolio, the contribution of each Pass holder can vary. Indeed, not all may succeed in the first instance, because such is the nature of risk-taking. What matters is the sum of the parts, and how well the whole portfolio performs. We are building a rich network of markets, people and ideas, that over time, will show up in the dynamism of our economy. And if, at the macro level, local job creation remains strong, unemployment low, real income growth sustained, and if, amongst our people, there is always a sense of hope and of opportunities – then I think we would have succeeded.
28. Our local Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SMEs) will benefit from this too. Mr Don Wee asked how these enhancements to our work pass framework would help our SMEs. SMEs are the backbone of our economy. They too will be able to benefit from the recent enhancements. Mr Lennon Tan, President of the Singapore Manufacturing Federation, agrees. In an interview with Channel 8 news, he mentioned that SMEs can now benefit from the expertise of these talent and professionals as they are not tied to just one employer. Indeed, some SMEs could benefit from directly hiring the ONE Pass holders, while others could tap on the Pass holder’s expertise through consulting services, or inviting them to join their Boards. Just as importantly, a vibrant, growing economy will create more business opportunities or build a new eco-system for our SMEs who may be partners, contractors, suppliers or service providers. This may be in up-and-coming sectors like green economy or FinTech, where there will be new cheese for our SMEs.
Benchmark Pegged to top 10% of EP holders for Existing Schemes
29. Moving on to the new benchmark for existing schemes, including the exemption from the Fair Consideration Framework, or FCF job advertising requirement and COMPASS, let me clarify that this is not a relaxation of our policies.
30. By setting the benchmark at the top 10% of EP holders, the threshold for exemption is in fact increased from $20,000 to $22,500.
31. What this aims to do is to set a clearer benchmark for existing schemes. This will give businesses predictability on future updates, and to ensure that our mainstream framework continues to cover the vast majority of EP applications, even as wages move up.
32. Mr Pritam Singh has asked for the rationale of exempting the top 10% of EP holders from the FCF job advertising criteria and COMPASS. The top 10% of EP holders consists mostly of senior management and senior professionals. For such roles, companies would already have a stringent selection process to hire the right candidate, given the impact these individuals would have on their business. It is also more likely that head-hunters or search firms will play a role to fill these jobs, and it is not typical for these roles to be filled by advertising on job portals like MyCareersFuture.sg alone. Individuals filling these roles would also have no problems passing the COMPASS criteria given their calibre. Providing this exemption is therefore not a major concession on our part. However, what it does is that it helps us to send the right signal to global companies on our openness, by giving them greater certainty that they are able to hire their key personnel, which will make a difference to their confidence to operate here. These global companies are a key driver in creating good jobs for locals, including opportunities for them to take on higher-level positions. Many locals have taken on these opportunities. And, as I will share more later, we will continue to invest heavily in developing our own local talent, so that they can compete strongly at all and every level.
FCF job advertising duration
33. Besides attracting top talent, we also want to make sure that the broad base of businesses can access complementary foreign workers, especially in areas of skills shortages.
34. On that note, let me touch on to the adjustment to the FCF job advertising duration, which applies to all EP and S Pass applications. Mr Patrick Tay has asked whether shortening it to 14 days will remove the need for employers to exhaust all avenues to hire local PMEs, before they turn to foreign PMEs. Mr Louis Chua and Mr Ang Wei Neng, have asked for more data to understand the efficacy of the FCF job advertising requirement. Let me address the intent of the questions by explaining the considerations behind our latest move. It is important for us to look at the context of when and why we increased the FCF job advertising duration to 28 days. When the FCF job advertising requirement was first introduced in 2014, the duration was set at 14 days. Based on data from MyCareerFutures.sg, the vast majority of applications are submitted within the first two weeks of a job posting; within a fortnight. Thereafter, responses fall off significantly. So, 14 days was an optimal balance between giving jobseekers time to look for a job, and making sure that companies could fill their vacancies in response to pressing business needs. During COVID, we extended the FCF job advertising duration to 28 days, because of the unprecedented slack in the labour market. The ratio of job vacancies to unemployed persons reached a low of 0.55 in June 2020, in the thick of COVID-19 - there were more jobseekers than job openings. We wanted to give local jobseekers more time to respond to job openings and employers more time to evaluate the increased number of applications. The situation has since reversed. The ratio of vacancies to unemployed persons has risen in excess of 2.4. So from 0.55, it is now in excess of 2.4. There are now more jobs than there are local jobseekers. Companies, including local enterprises, have been giving feedback that in the tight labour market, the 28-day requirement is causing them to lose good candidates because they are unable to offer them employment contracts quickly. It is timely to adjust the job advertisement period back to 14 days. But, Members of the House, make no mistake, employers are still expected to fairly consider all applicants who apply within this window. That remains unchanged, and our employers understand this.
Option of 5-year EP for experienced tech professionals on the Shortage Occupation List
35. Last but not least, let me touch on the option of a 5-year EP introduced for experienced tech professionals in areas of skills shortages. Ms Rachel Ong asked if this option of a 5-year EP could also be extended to non-tech professionals in the sustainability sector.
36. For the time being, we have limited the option of a 5-year EP to tech roles, for which there is an acute shortage of talent globally. But that it is not to say that other sectors cannot benefit. Almost all sectors require tech talent to drive transformation. This includes the financial services and manufacturing industries, as well as up-and-coming sustainability sectors. We are watching the sustainability space closely as it develops, and will refine our policies when needed.
HELPING LOCALS SUCCEED AND COMPETE STRONGLY
37. I would now like to spend some time to talk about our efforts to develop our local workforce, and in particular, our local leadership pipeline.
38. Our policies to attract global talent are also meant to accelerate the development of our own local talent pool.
39. We have designed our foreign workforce policies to incentivise companies to develop a strong local workforce – COMPASS, for instance, takes into account a firm’s local PMET share when evaluating its EP applications.
40. And we will complement this with investments in our local workers, to help them succeed.
41. The Industry Transformation Maps mapped out growth plans for 23 sectors across the economy. For each of these 23 sectors, we have identified in-demand jobs and developed jobs and skills strategies to build up the local talent pipeline for these jobs.
42. We have also launched Jobs Transformation Maps, to provide job-level insights on the impact of technology on the industry and workforce. With these insights, companies can redesign and enhance job roles, and equip their workers with the skills needed for these roles.
43. Working closely with industry and unions, the Government has spared no effort to help employers and workers to upskill and reskill for jobs of the future. A wide range of programmes are offered by Workforce Singapore, SkillsFuture Singapore and the various sector agencies to support training.
44. I echo Mr Desmond Choo, Mr Patrick Tay and Mr Lim Biow Chuan’s views on the importance of building up our local bench strength when it comes to top leadership positions. One key priority is increasing the global and regional exposure of our local talent, so that they can take up leadership positions in global firms.
45. Mr Tan Wern-Yuen is an example of a Singaporean who has ventured abroad to gain valuable experience. He started his first overseas stint as Managing Director of McDonald's Taiwan. He then became the CEO of Walmart China, where he led a team of 100,000 associates responsible for over US$10 billion in annual revenue. Now, he is back in Singapore, as CEO of PepsiCo APAC, helming the global firm’s operations across Asia-Pacific, Australia, China and New Zealand.
46. We need more Singaporeans to do the same. Our agencies have good programmes to support this. For instance, MAS has the Asian Financial Leaders Scheme that co-funds and sends promising Singaporeans in the Financial Sector on leadership programmes. Other similar schemes include the SkillsFuture Leadership Development Initiative, and Enterprise Singapore’s Global Ready Talent Programme. At Budget this year, I also announced a new Singapore Global Executive Programme that will help local enterprises build a pipeline of young local talent with potential to take on regional or global leadership positions.
47. Leadership development must fundamentally be driven by our businesses. The business community is also doing its part to nurture promising Singaporeans. The Singapore Business Federation has taken the lead to form an Alliance for Action (AfA) on Business Leadership Development. This AfA brings together businesses and local leaders to look into ways to cultivate conducive conditions for Singapore talent to strengthen regional exposure and assume key leadership roles in enterprises. The AfA will also draw upon the diverse experiences from business and academia to help Singaporeans broaden their networks and learn progressive leadership practices. I look forward to the ideas and initiatives that the AfA will propose.
48. Ms Rachel Ong asked about skills transfer as a way to build up local expertise. Today, companies have programmes to get more experienced employees, foreign or local, to transfer skills to less experienced employees. It is in their interest to do so, for business resilience and sustainability. They can also tap on various Government programmes, including SkillsFuture, the Enterprise Development Grant and the Capability Transfer Programme. At Budget this year, DPM Lawrence Wong, also the Minister for Finance also announced that $70 million has been set aside for the NTUC Company Training Committee (CTC) Grant. Companies that set up CTCs can tap on this grant for their business and workforce transformation projects.
49. Assoc Prof Jamus Lim has asked whether we can codify training and skills transfer requirements into law. Some Members have previously raised the idea of time-limited EPs, as a way of ensuring skills transfer. I would caution against too deterministic an approach. Skills Transfer is but one way that foreign manpower can contribute to Singapore and create opportunities for Singaporeans. In some areas, foreign manpower helps to make up the gap between demand and supply – some of these gaps continue to persist due to local and global trends, for instance, the global lack of digital talent. Skills transfer is another way they can make a meaningful contribution, though this can take many forms – in some cases, it would be to train up a local to take on their role. But in others, it is to bring in expertise in a new area, to provide leadership and to level up many more Singaporeans. At the end of the day, skills transfer is not a simple or linear process – it would be impossible to come up with a single rule on how long it should take for skills to be transferred from one person to another, or how much skills to transfer, for that matter. So, our approach is not to set a mandatory requirement for skills transfer, but rather to put in place the right ecosystem of policies that incentivises businesses to select complementary foreign workers, while building up a strong Singaporean Core. This includes keeping a tight labour market through regular updates to our work pass criteria, alongside significant investments to help our workforce upskill and reskill.
50. Mr Speaker, may I say a few words in Mandarin?
51. Members of the House, I have gone on at great lengths to explain the targeted nature of our recent work pass enhancements, the safeguards we will put in place, and our efforts to ensure that our locals can compete fairly and strongly.
52. But let us not forget what our goal is: to create opportunities for Singaporeans to grow within and benefit from.
53. We do not live in a zero-sum world. Attracting and anchoring global talent in Singapore does not mean less opportunities for locals.
54. And indeed, we have grown opportunities tremendously. At the start of the 1970s, our GDP was $20 billion. The opportunities for Singaporeans then were much more limited, in terms of the sectors and occupations that they could work in. I mentioned before that our economy has now grown to $454 billion. Singaporeans can pursue a wide range of careers, and with vastly higher salaries. This is only possible because we have adopted a global mindset, and welcomed global companies and global talent to our shores. Many Singaporeans are working in or with these global companies, alongside global talent. And the same companies often post Singaporeans abroad, giving them opportunity to develop new networks and deeper experience.
55. Singapore cannot be playing a defensive game when it comes to talent. The better we are at attracting and retaining the best talent, local and global, the higher the chances of securing our economic future, and to continually be able to generate good jobs for all Singaporeans. Conversely, if we don’t do this well, and we cede competitiveness to other jurisdictions, we may not even be able to hang on to our best Singaporean talent.
56. The enhancements to our work pass framework are our offensive on global talent.
57. Ms He Ting Ru hit the nail on the head when she asked about the marketing and promotional efforts we will be putting in place. Indeed, the ONE Pass is just a vehicle. We will need targeted marketing and promotional efforts to get to our desired destination, and to pick up the right talent, with the skillsets, networks and expertise to contribute to Singapore.
58. Our sector agencies are identifying high-quality individuals to proactively engage. We will be leveraging existing networks, such as EDB’s overseas offices, to reach out to the right global talent.
59. In the last two weeks, I have been speaking to various parties. The feedback has been positive. Businesses have been very supportive of these moves, as it will help them to attract and retain talent in Singapore. Locals understand these moves are targeted at the top, and will create more economic opportunities. For those who are concerned about fraud and abuse, I hope my clarifications today assure them that safeguards will be put in place. The international community is buzzing. There is a sense that Singapore is finally emerging from the shadow of COVID-19, and that we can all work together in this next phase of growth.
60. We have taken an important step – to make talent all over the world sit up, pay attention, and think seriously about coming to Singapore.
61. MOM and economic agencies will continue to put in place processes to ensure the schemes are implemented well, monitor the outcomes, and review the parameters as we go along.
62. But it cannot just be about government policies and compliance with rules and thresholds.
63. Businesses must continue to play their part to uphold fair hiring practices and promote an inclusive culture, develop most importantly the Singaporean core in their organisations, and complement it with a diverse foreign workforce.
64. The global talent we attract must share knowledge and provide opportunities for others including their local colleagues, and outside of the workplace, to seek to understand and respect the norms in our society.
65. And locals ourselves should keep upgrading our skills and be willing to go on international stints. We should also help newcomers integrate into our society.
66. And all of us must look for the possibilities of what we can create together, when we bring our diverse skills and expertise, to work as one.
67. Let us, together, build a vibrant Singapore, that is always looking to new horizons, always daring to re-invent herself, and brimming with opportunities for our fellow Singaporeans.
68. Thank you very much.