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By Jimmy Ho Kwok Hoong
01 November 2012

Cases of cost cutting by Singapore employers in their recruitment of foreign PMETs to replace their local workforce are becoming a trend.

Yet, employers are denying the actual reasons behind their hiring practices. Reasons like laziness, negative work attitude, refusal to work long hours and job hopping on the part of Singaporeans are often cited for the choice of employing foreigners over locals.

Whilst this may be true for some Singaporeans, it is also greatly exaggerated. Deep down, we all know it is mainly about dollars and cents. The current competitive global environment encourages this type of discrimination on the part of employers.

Once, the Vice President of a prominent bank, a foreign talent, was sourcing for a senior manager. During the interview, he queried his hopeful interviewee on his nationality and ethnicity. The candidate failed to win the job on that basis.

The tendency for foreign bosses here to build their own comfort zone by selectively hiring applicants on the basis of nationality rather than merit aggravates the employment situation for local Singaporeans.

With the government easing the approval for more foreigners to seek employment in the PMET sector, Singaporeans are feeling increased heat.

The government must be forced to nib the problem in the bud, as it will not do on its own accord.

Government has conflated and confused the separate issues of white collar and blue collar foreign workers

Singaporeans welcome menial job workers (such as general workers and construction workers, maids or nurses) who perform work generally shunned by them. However, they do not agree with the indiscriminate influx of PMETs that threatens their rice bowl.

Recent restrictions on the intake of menial workers to pacify Singaporeans who are unhappy with the inflow of PMETs is simply barking up the wrong tree. The government has mischievously conflated the two separate issues – that of foreign PMETs displacing local white collar workers, and that of low skilled foreign workers crowding the neighbourhood.

By deliberately conflating and confusing these two issues, the PAP government has thwarted serious discussion about the problem, and has used sentiments against foreign PMETs to accuse Singaporeans of being xenophobic. Singaporeans are not xenophobic. The government used sporadic xenophobic outburst from some irresponsible quarters to paint Singaporeans as xenophobic. Meanwhile, the real issues are unaddressed and sidestepped.

Due to the foreign worker levies imposed, companies and factories here are starting to face higher labour costs and the inability to fulfill their orders owing to the lack of manpower.

The Straits Times (dated Sep 26, 2012) quoted Mr Lim Hng Kiang, the Minister for Trade and Industry, as saying that economic growth will stall unless foreign workers are continued to be allowed in. I agree.

Singaporeans have attained a level of lifestyle such that they naturally avoid construction, cleaning, and even factory jobs, all of which could be undertaken by foreign workers.

The Middle East is doing just that, leaving their own people to handle the more “comfortable” white collar posts. Even our neighbour, Malaysia, is doing this along with several developed nations. Elsewhere, the government cares about their own people. There is nothing wrong with this arrangement.

We, however, must not allow white collar workers to come in indiscriminately just because we have to open our doors to blue collar (menial) workers.

During the PM Forum of Sep 23, 2012, Ms Sim Ann quoted an “ironical” situation where a housewife complained about the impact of new immigrants on our housing (HDB flat prices, etc), while an SME boss gave the feedback that restricting menial workers gave him headaches in his operation and costing.

To me, the requests of the complainants do not conflict each other. The housing issue concerning new immigrants belongs to the PMET sector, while menial workers do not compete in housing purchase (of HDB flats).

Also, why is it that when people talk about foreigners competing for our PMET jobs, the government points to construction workers and says that no Singapore man wants to do the work? This is clear and blatant sophistry on the part of the government, in sidestepping the real question and using a strawman argument to avoid addressing the legitimate issue.

The lack of focus in problem solving gets us nowhere, and entangles us with endless “chicken and duck” discussions. Sincerity needs to be present in a national conversation.

No reason for employers not to like FTs

If we ask the majority of large Singapore employers about the current FT policy, most will agree. Who won’t, if it lowers your production costs as an employer to engage foreign PMETs?

Flooding the Singapore market with foreign FTs will also increase the Singapore market size, and employers selling their products to consumers here will benefit in increased revenues.

We should look at the FT issue not through the employers’ eyes alone. The goal of Economics is, eventually, to improve the welfare of the nation, not just that of the employers.

The government thinks that lower costs (like lower labour costs) results in increased competitiveness and survival in the global arena, and hence creates more employment and better life for the Singapore people. But this is a superficial view.

The oversupply of FTs to our job market deprives locals of their jobs. New jobs created from economic expansion also goes to FTs, due to their lower pay expectations.

A good economic growth rate becomes irrelevant to a local Singaporean if he has to forgo his job to outsiders or needs to suffer a severe pay cut in order to remain employed. Hence, telling Singaporeans that FTs help grow the economy may not be that pleasing to their ears.

We have a tiny job market for our tiny citizenry. We can’t be opening our job market indiscriminately to international competition.

There are developing nations in Asia alone, whose workers, on average, draw one-fifth of our pay. Are we to half our pay (as they tripled theirs) to welcome competition? Can we survive on that in expensive Singapore?

Conclusion

If the influx of foreigners is not properly handled, Singapore will witness its people entering poverty, facing serious inflation and having their needs being deprived, including the need for an efficient transport, medical and educational system.

We must tackle the foreign worker issue using two separate platforms: one for the white collars (the jobs that Singaporeans want, need, and lack) and another for the blue collars (jobs shunned by Singaporeans, which can be outsourced to foreigners).

For lower menial jobs, the government may (like the Arabs) openly allow the intake but tackle its social impact in doing so. Where lower Singaporean jobs are affected by the intake, impose a minimum wage.

With continuation of the current FT policy in favour of employers, the property owners and the rich, our common folks will drift further and further apart from these people in well being and income distribution. In the end, the latter would have no choice but to fight a system which has previously been proven effective but is no longer relevant.


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  1. I work for a large international company that was encouraged by the SIngapore government to move to Singapore from Europe. We were very actively pitched to by the Singapore government. We had many options in terms of where we relocated our business to, and even staying put in Europe was a feasible option. One of the reasons we agreed to move to Singapore was because we could retain and freely hire international talent. This is the same freedom that is provided to companies in most global cities. We provide opportunities for Singaporeans to join our firm and learn a sector that wasn’t even previously located in Singapore. If we relocated to Hong Kong, say, all of our investment funds and jobs we create would be there an not here. In conclusion, your distinction between white and blue collar jobs is imprecise. Singaopre will start to feel a lot more like Jakarta and KL if there are restrictions on who firms like mine can hire.

  2. I agree with Tony to a certain extent but let me give you another perspective. I worked for a succesful local entity, which was bought by a US company 3 years ago. We have been posting 30-40% growth year on year for the past 3 years with a completely local team with occasional visit by the owners

    Last year the company brought in a Caucasian as chief and he was the only one. Today they have about 11 caucasian in senior management positions and they took over the jobs which were previously successfully done by locals. He also created new positions which are basically useless. Do note that there is not a single Caucasian in sales nor critical support services. But I must give it to the guy for he was smart enough to convince the owners that 30%-40% growth is not sustainable and that we will be doing about 20% this year as we need to spend more on resources. By resources he means more uselss foriegn talent who cost much much more and more entertainment, travelling and perks for his team of talents. The local staff know how useless these people are and are pissed off with their attitude that there are a god send to help us ignorant folks be successful. Well the truth is they screwed up elsewhere and chose to come here because we are extremely successful and they can claim credit for all our efforts and be paid extorbitant wages with housing and car

  3. Hear hear LHL, Lim Hng Kiang et al…………………………..

    Very soon, there will not be enough male Singaporeans to serve in the SAF.

    Have you thought of the measures to ensure that the FTs & the new citizens bring in their children to serve Singapore?

  4. I’m sorry I read only the first section and couldn’t continue any more. Sorry I really couldn’t when the bias of the author literally screams in between the lines. The story of the bank interview is likely inferred by the unsuccessful (and bitter) candidate, who actually manages to convince others (and himself?) that the bank needs to find out about his nationality and ethnicity during the interview, rather than before. It is simply a typical example of poor anecdotal evidence.

    I’m not saying employers do not play favor. The story in the comments above are what we hear everyday. As a matter of fact, people always tend to hire their alike, local or foreign. Just a matter that we have more and richer foreign bosses. So if you want favor towards locals, work for a local company that’s not getting sold to US in any time soon. Or create one.

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