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Room to review foreign manpower policies in the coming years: Heng Swee Keat

SINGAPORE'S tight foreign manpower policies will stay in place for now to encourage companies to transform, but there is room for review in the longer term, said Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat.

The government is sticking to its stance in the short term to signal the importance of raising productivity, Mr Heng said at a media briefing on Wednesday.

"Our priority in the coming years must be to continue to develop Singaporeans. At the same time a well-calibrated inflow of foreign manpower can complement our people," he noted.

"We should not make changes too hastily because this needs to be sustained. If we don't sustain this effort and don't continue to invest, the substitution between machines and man will not happen. If I can get workers cheaply, why should I invest in machines?"

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Mr Heng was responding to concerns raised by companies about Singapore's talent shortage, especially in fast-growing tech sectors such as cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and data analytics. Companies have said that this manpower shortage is holding back growth, especially amid efforts to go digital and transform.

To help companies with this in the short-term, the government has launched the Capability Transfer Programme, which will support companies in bringing in foreign specialists to transfer skills to the local workforce.

Still, Mr Heng acknowledged that Singapore's approach to foreign manpower bears relooking in the longer term.

"Do we need to review this? Yes we do, in the coming years.

"But I don't want to send the wrong signal that changes are coming anytime soon - then the pressure (to transform) will be lost."

Separately, Mr Heng encouraged companies venturing abroad to tap talent across the region.

He cited the example of an entrepreneur he met, whose company hired an employee from an Asean country who studied in a Singapore university.

"This young lady was so capable that after a year with the company he sent her back to her home country and she headed a 100-person outfit there," said the minister.

"The more our companies can do this the more they can make full use of the talent in the region - and our region is full of talent."