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No easy choices when it comes to immigration, foreigner policy

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On the difficult issue of immigration and foreigners, whichever option Singapore chooses will inevitably involve some pain, stressed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day Rally speech on Sunday.

ON the difficult issue of immigration and foreigners, whichever option Singapore chooses will inevitably involve some pain, stressed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day Rally speech on Sunday.

"There are no easy choices - every option has a cost, has a downside. If we close our doors to foreign workers, our economy will tank . . . On the other hand, if we let in too many foreign workers, our society will come undone," he said.

"Therefore, we've got to find something in-between, make the right trade-off. But even in-between, there is a cost, and there is a price, and there is a pain."

For example, he said, firms may still find themselves short on labour, and may have to pass up on opportunities; and Singaporeans may resent having to compete with foreigners and find the pace of change too fast.

With immigration a "tough issue" that will be with Singapore for a long time to come, Mr Lee said it is his responsibility to make a judgment on what is necessary for the country.

"I believe that I'm doing what Singapore needs, and what best safeguards your interests. If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't be doing it.

"It's my responsibility to make this decision, to make this judgment, and then to act on your behalf. And having acted on your behalf, to account to you for the results and for the reasons why I decided the way I did. I think I owe it to you. You've elected me, this is my duty, I can't shirk it," he said to applause.

He acknowledged Singaporeans' "understandably strong views" on the matter, and cited examples of how the government has heard these voices. These have led to the various upgrades to Singapore's infrastructure, the slowing of foreign-worker inflows, the tightening of permanent resident (PR) and citizen applications, and efforts to ensure that Singaporeans are treated fairly at work.

Statistics show that efforts to reduce firms' over-reliance on foreign labour have produced material results. Foreign employment growth, excluding foreign domestic workers, moderated for the third consecutive year to 26,000, or 2.4 per cent, in 2014 - down from 48,400 or 4.6 per cent the year before. Immigration numbers have also been kept stable, with the government accepting 20,000 new citizens and 30,000 new PRs annually in the past few years.