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PEOPLE'S Action Party (PAP) candidates on Tuesday urged voters to see the importance in managing Singa-pore's economy, the challenges of an open economy and the progress that has been made in securing better jobs for Singaporeans.
This came as Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say said there would be more scrutiny over "double-weak" companies: those which have a weak "Singaporean core", and do poorly in nurturing Singaporean PMETs (professionals, managers, executives and technicians).
"We must tackle the local concentration of foreign PMEs in Singapore," said Mr Lim at the lunchtime rally in CBD. "Local concentration of foreign PMEs is undesirable. Be it by locations, by industries, by companies, or by departments within a company."
Since the government's policy announcement in Budget 2010 to reduce reliance on foreign labour and raise productivity, the annual increase in employment pass and S-pass has dropped by 70 per cent. Excluding the construction sector, the ratio of local to foreign manpower is three to one, said Mr Lim.
Mr Lim also rattled off figures that showed the boost in median wages for PMETs in the last five years, even as the world faces a problem of wage stagnation. Median wages, after taking inflation into account, have risen 20 per cent in the last five years. Singapore also outperforms many developed countries in the area of jobs, with graduate unemployment at less than 3 per cent, he added.
But the government is still concerned. There are young PMETs who cannot secure jobs due to inexperience, while older PMETs have found it difficult to make a mid-career switch. For some, "the cut in wages is just too deep for them to bear", said Mr Lim.
"Many also feel the competition from foreign PMETs in Singapore. I feel their frustration and stress," said Mr Lim, adding that Singapore needs to speed up the skills upgrading process, and build future leaders.
"It's never easy to restructure the economy and to reposition the workforce," said Mr Lim. "We'll never stop creating skills in our people. We don't want our people to suffer the pain of structural unemployment."
Education Minister Heng Swee Keat also noted that economic pressures are external, and changes have been sped up with technology and globalisation. "A good education is not enough," he added, noting that there may be a brain drain if educated graduates are forced to seek opportunities outside of Singapore.
PAP candidate Chee Hong Tat took aim at the Workers' Party's (WP) proposal to freeze foreign workers' numbers. Questioning if this was realistic, he noted that Singapore already has a high labour participation rate, which is ahead of the OECD average.
"They say they want to rely on women and seniors," said Mr Chee. "But we have to accept that some of them are not going to come out to work for family or health reasons."
He also argued that with small and medium enterprises (SMEs) facing labour constraints, such proposals would squeeze them further. Instead, he wants to cut costs for SMEs.
Victor Lye, a candidate at Aljunied GRC, was blunt that residents voted in the WP as "a cry for our leaders to connect better with our people". He retold his "humbling" experience in trying to return to the workforce after quitting to focus on grassroots work at Aljunied. "I urge our leaders and policymakers to understand and experience this sense of vulnerability, which will keep us connected and rooted to Singapore and Singaporeans," he said. But he was clear that Singapore is here because of hard long-term decisions made by leaders.
In imagining a conversation with his father - a Barisan Socialis MP - PAP candidate Ong Ye Kung said he wanted a "wise, experienced" government that will be able to implement policies based on sound principles and not popular sentiments.
He noted that if more opposition MPs are put into parliament, then "instead of talking about an SG100 vision, we may end up spending a lot of effort in politicking".
"It does take courage to say, 'the current system is not working. Let's tear it down, and build another one. Let's go for a revolution'. But I think in today's Singapore, it takes even greater courage to say the system is still working. It needs to evolve, so work with it."