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New manpower minister to stay the course on foreign-worker policy

Not enough for companies to be aligned in working towards "priority outcomes", they must also move and act decisively, says Swee Say

Mr Lim: "We don't have to wait until everybody agrees to start . . . All it takes is three companies, five companies, seven companies that are prepared to take the lead."


EMPLOYERS can perish all thoughts of an easier labour market. The new Manpower Minister will not relax the foreign-worker policy to let in more foreign workers, nor reduce the foreign-worker levy.

Instead of yielding to calls by some bosses to go easy on tightening the tap on the inflow of foreign workers - and the fees for recruiting them - Lim Swee Say wants businesses to look beyond the current tight labour market that's plaguing them.

He wants them to work with the government and unions to focus on making the economy manpower-lean, boosting the Singapore core in the workforce and upgrading the existing pool of foreign workers.

The result would be a more competitive economy that's good for business looking for higher profits and good for Singaporeans seeking a fruitful career path, Mr Lim said in a media interview on Tuesday.

The former chief of the labour movement, who came into his new job on May 4, said that he's got many of the business leaders he met in the past month "aligned" in working towards the four "priority outcomes" - and his ministry is already looking into changes to provide the necessary support.

MOM's backing seems key. "With this support and understanding, our members, representing many industry sectors, will be even more encouraged to adapt to the new economic environment," said Thomas Chua, president of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce & Industry.

"Firms are fully aware of the impact of the tightened control on foreign workers," he added. "By the same token, they hope the government can also understand the strains and limitations they are grappling with."

Mr Lim has yet to work out the details of the support his ministry would offer to businesses but indicated that whatever they are, the best way to go about achieving the desired goals is through Tripartism - getting government, employers and unions to work together.

And the actions must be taken at the industry and sub-industry levels, rather than at the national level.

"We don't have to wait until everybody agrees to start," Mr Lim said. "All it takes is three companies, five companies, seven companies that are prepared to take the lead."

And these companies must not only be aligned in moving forward, they must also move and act decisively, he said.

According to SCCCI's Mr Chua, in meeting with the chamber, Mr Lim had indicated that he was prepared to meet with different industries sector by sector and welcomed constructive and alternative solutions on addressing the manpower challenge - and "would certainly support if they were found to be workable and feasible".

Victor Tay, chief operating officer of the Singapore Business Federation, noted that with an ageing population, Singapore's workforce is projected to decline by 2020.

Manpower shortage has already made labour the biggest cost burden for Singapore business, with many employers taking various productivity measures to lighten it.

While he agreed with the shift to a labour-lean economy, Mr Tay however cautioned that it would take time - probably a generation - to build a strong Singapore core, because it requires changes in mindset and work attitude.

According to Mr Lim, the manpower situation in Singapore has "reached a point of no return". There's "no turning back" to a more liberal foreign worker policy to ease the labour shortage, he said.

"If they (the companies) keep hoping that the Ministry of Manpower will revisit our policy on foreign workers to treat them special, give them higher quotas and so on, that is not possible."

Mr Lim noted that the ratio of local to foreign workers has dipped to 2:1. "If we continue (to adopt a more liberal foreign worker policy), the ratio of local workers versus foreign manpower will continue to decline. One day, Singaporeans will wake up to find ourselves as a minority in our Singapore workforce, and obviously that's not sustainable, that's not desirable."

Lowering the foreign worker levy is also undesirable because, Mr Lim said, that would undermine it as a key policy tool to keep the inflow of foreign workers manageable.

To achieve a manpower-lean economy, he said that more workers from labour-intensive and less productive industries have to be shifted to the more productive and capital-intensive ones.

If this is not done, the situation would lead to under-employment with more professionals, managers and executives not utilised to their full potential. Structural unemployment would be the outcome if the Singapore core is weak, according to Mr Lim.