Conflicting signals from Government over foreign manpower policy

This article was originally written for The Online Citizen.

Written by Ng E-Jay
9 Feb 2010

The government appears to be sending out conflicting signals over its foreign manpower policy, a possible indication that rising concerns over the liberal import of foreign workers in recent years are starting to overwhelm decision makers in the PAP cabinet.

Last Sunday, Manpower Minister Gan Kim Yong told the media during a visit to Nee Soon Central that when scaling down our dependence on foreign workers, we have to take into account business cycles. [1]

Mr Gan said that when the economy is doing very well, we need to allow it (the import of foreign labour) to expand a little bit within some limits.

In his own words as quoted by Channel News Asia: “In a recession, we have to monitor the situation and allow the foreign worker population to come down, but when the economy recovers, we have to be very careful, (and) calibrate our response carefully, otherwise you may stifle the economic recovery.

The Manpower Minister appears to be articulating the point that the government will adjust the inflow of foreign workers according to economic conditions so as to balance the supply and demand of labour.

As Singapore is currently embarking on an economic recovery after being severely hit by the global recession in 2008, is Mr Gan suggesting that more foreign workers will be allowed in at this point in time, in response to our new-found economic expansion?

If so, then Mr Gan’s remarks could be in contradiction with the position taken by the Economic Strategies Committee (ESC), as well as the views expressed by the Prime Minister, Senior Minister, and Minister Mentor, who in the past couple of weeks went all out in assuring Singaporeans that the inflow of foreign workers will be moderated.

Speaking at the sidelines of a community function on 24 Jan, Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said that “If you want to grow fast, it means a larger foreign workforce, which I don’t think is advisable because already, we have too huge a presence (of such workers) and we’re not emphasizing productivity.” [2]

A day later, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong added on to SM Goh’s remarks, saying that “we cannot indefinitely expand our workforce by importing more and more workers from abroad,” and that Singapore is to adopt a new economic growth strategy focused more on improving productivity than pursuing growth at all costs, as we are faced with physical constraints such as limited land. [3]

Assurance that there would be fewer foreign workers in five years also came from Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, who was the first minister to put a time line on the Government’s pledge since last year to reduce the inflow of foreign workers. Speaking at an event to mark the Housing and Development Board’s 50th anniversary, MM Lee said that “The next five years, we have decided we will tier down our need for foreign workers“. [4]

The suggestion for Singapore to cut back its dependence on, and moderate the inflow foreign labour, with a renewed emphasis on raising productivity in place of mere expansion of the pool of workers, was formally articulated by the Economic Strategies Committee (ESC) which released its report in early February.

The ESC report, taken in conjunction with the statements made by the Prime Minister, Senior Minister, and Minister Mentor, clearly indicate that the government is committed to reducing the inflow of foreign labour as the current rate of import cannot be sustained.

Although the ESC had based its report solely on economic considerations, it does not take a genius to figure out that the government, in deciding to fine-tune its foreign manpower policy, must have also taken into consideration rising concerns on the ground concerning foreign workers depriving Singaporeans of jobs or suppressing wages at the lower end of the income spectrum.

Given that the deadline for the next general election is fast approaching, it would be politically foolhardy for the ruling party to ignore the rising groundswell and the legitimate concerns voters have over the impact of the government’s foreign manpower policy on their livelihoods as well as on the social fabric.

Yet, the Manpower Minister has made remarks which suggest that the inflow of foreign workers will be raised if economic conditions warrant it.

This seems to call into doubt the government’s sincerity in reducing the reliance on foreign workers in a five year time-frame.

To add to the confusion, Mr Gan also said that foreigners “abroad” are the real competition, not foreigners who work within our shores. [5]

The Straits Times quoted Mr Gan as saying that everyone working and living here — be they citizens or foreigners — should be considered the “in-group” who are contributing to the country, competing against the real “out-group”, who are those (foreigners) working outside Singapore.

Is Mr Gan therefore suggesting that foreigners working here are to be considered on equal footing with born and bred citizens, by mere virtue of the fact that both groups are collectively competing against the rest of the world?

How can that ever be a realistic or reasonable notion?

The government’s clumsy attempts at addressing voters’ concerns over its foreign manpower policy has created more confusion than clarity.

If this is not cleared up in time, voters may well express their dissatisfaction over the way the government has handled the foreign labour issue at the ballot box.



[1] Channel News Asia, “Measures to encourage low-wage workers to take up training expected during Budget“, 07 Feb 2010.

[2] Straits Times, “Work smarter, harder to sustain growth: SM”, 25 Jan 2010.

[3] Straits Times, “Grow productivity, not just GDP: PM”, 26 Jan 2010.

[4] Straits Times, “Fewer foreign workers in five years, says MM”, 28 Jan 2010.

[5] Straits Times, “Foreigners abroad ‘are the real competition’”, 08 Feb 2010.