Finally, Singaporeans first

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Singapore street scene

By Abhijit Nag

Singapore street scene“We are putting Singaporeans first,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his National Day Rally speech on August 14, 2011, three months after the May 7 general election which returned the People’s Action Party to power with the slimmest majority since independence. Now, two years later, we are seeing the government acting at last on one of the biggest grouses of Singaporeans.

Singaporeans will have to be considered first before companies can hire foreigners. Anyone looking for a better job in this tight labour market, where unemployment is a paltry 2.1 per cent, will be familiar with the boilerplate last line in want ads: “Only Singaporeans and permanent residents need apply.” Now the rule is being tightened. From August next year, companies will have to advertise for Singaporeans first before they can apply for employment passes to bring in – is that the phrase? – “foreign talent”.

The phrase is so yesterday. Once you could not even finish the paper without coming across the phrase. Now it has become the linguistic equivalent of a persona non grata. It seems to have been banished from the vocabulary of ministers and officials.

You won’t find the expression in the official press release yesterday which said: “The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) today announced new rules that require employers to consider Singaporeans fairly before hiring Employment Pass (EP) holders.“  True to style, it goes on to list the penalties for breaking the rule: “Firms with discriminatory hiring practices will be subject to additional scrutiny and may have their work pass privileges curtailed.”

Government means business

The government means business. It is specific about the conditions that have to be met before companies can apply for employment passes:

“Firms making new EP applications must advertise the job vacancy on a new jobs bank administered by the Singapore Workforce Development Agency (WDA). The advertisement must be open to Singaporeans… and run for at least 14 calendar days.”

Since the companies will have to advertise on a WDA jobs bank, it will be easier for the government to check if they are following the rules.

Singapore already has rules regulating the ratio of foreign workers to local workers. What MOM’s latest rule really comes down to is a leg up for young, white-collar Singaporeans. The press release says as much:

“Elaborating, Acting (Manpower) Minister Tan (Chuan-Jin) said, “What we are doing is to put in place measures to nudge employers to give Singaporeans – especially our young graduates and Professionals, Managers and Executives (PMEs) – a fair chance at both job and development opportunities.”

Cynics might say that’s the constituency the PAP lost in the by-election in the largely young, relatively well-off Punggol East — the sandwiched middle class likely to vent online instead of just drowning their sorrows in the local kopitiam.

But, of course, you can’t please all the people all the time. There will be grumbles even about the new rules: Why August next year? Why not now?

Maybe companies still need time to adjust to the new Singapore.

Good for business?

So, yes, the government means business, but is it good for business? The SMEs’ lament about the labour shortage is well known. But start-ups have been complaining too. Generally, university graduates prefer working for multinationals like Google, Facebook or Microsoft, making it difficult for start-ups to hire people unless restrictions on foreign workers are loosened. That’s what some entrepreneurs said at the first dialogue session with the Entrepreneurship Review Committee, attended by Minister of State for Trade and Industry Teo Ser Luck, in July, reported sgentrepreneurs.com.

The Singapore International Chamber of Commerce in its annual closed-door dialogue with MOM also spoke about the need to hire and retain foreign workers, “particularly for certain industries that are in need of skill sets, knowledge and experience not readily found among Singaporeans”.

Even the former US ambassador to Singapore, David Adelman, stressed that Singapore must remain open to foreign talent in order to attract foreign capital. Commenting on the debate on foreigners in Singapore, he told The Straits Times: “American businesses and investors are watching it closely. I would even broaden it – all foreign investors are watching it very closely.”

So business-friendly, MNC-wooing Singapore is really shrugging off the concerns expressed by quarters crucial to its economy – SMEs and foreign investors.

Who comes first, who spoke first

But, of course, Singaporeans come first.

“The new rules… draw on feedback from Singaporeans who have submitted their views to MOM through MOM’s Our Singapore Conversation on Jobs and from key stakeholders such as the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC) and employer groups,” says the official press release.

Concerns were expressed earlier too. The Workers’ Party captured the Aljunied GRC – the first GRC lost by the PAP – in the 2011 general election on a manifesto that, among other things, claimed: “The PAP government’s immigration policies appear to be focused mainly on meeting the manpower demands of businesses, and ostensibly to grow our population in the face of declining local birth rates.”

Now the policy has changed.

Over to you, Mr Low Thia Khiang.