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Businesses must hire fairly, groom local staff

It is important to keep Singapore open by ensuring work teams are diverse and that there is investment in human capital development.

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Employers such as 3M, HP, Baxter and MasterCard have shown commitment and effort to develop a strong local workforce in Singapore. Many have put in place structured programmes to develop and train their employees to take up better jobs.

TEN years ago, as a labour member of parliament still on the backbench, I called on the government to ensure that as our economy recovered from the 2008 global financial crisis, most of the new jobs created would go to Singaporeans.

One foreign diplomat, a friend, asked politely if I was anti-foreigner. I am not. Neither are most Singaporeans.

Besides the fact that all our ancestors had been "foreign", Singaporeans understand that to create good jobs for ourselves, we need to stay open to trade and investments.

Why then did I make that call? To register the point that the primary responsibility of any government must be the well-being of its people, and that includes having good jobs.

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In my present role as manpower minister, I often get complaints from businesses that our rules on hiring foreign manpower are too tight and limit their growth. Quite often, they express a worry that Singaporeans are not hungry and are choosy about jobs.

On the other hand, Singapore workers are often concerned that the rules are too lax. They express worries about having to compete with foreigners. They sometimes feel that capable Singaporeans are passed over for good jobs, and that some foreigners are not as good as they were made out to be.

Who is right? Let me share what I think. Our economy today requires 3.4 million people to support the entire breadth and depth of activities. With a local workforce of just 2.3 million, clearly, we have a surplus of jobs and have to borrow people from the rest of the world.

Businesses have asked, why don't we let more foreigners in, so that the economy can be even bigger and better? My answer is simply that this will not be sustainable.

While Singapore will always remain open, growth by workforce expansion alone can only go so far. This is why the emphasis on economic restructuring has to be to promote growth that is driven by productivity and innovation.

Internationalisation of our businesses also gives them more room to grow beyond our constraints. To meet Singaporeans' aspirations for quality jobs, we must attract good companies to grow their businesses here.

In this regard, Singapore faces keen competition. In financial services, cities like New York and London have much larger talent pools to draw on.

Likewise, in infocomm technology, businesses in San Francisco, Boston and even Shenzhen can build deep capabilities because of access to an enormous reservoir of specialist skills.

Often, when I meet Singaporeans in these cities, they tell me about the exciting range of options that keeps them from heading home.

What would make their employers consider bringing those activities to Singapore? Part of the answer is the access to global expertise, so they can compete effectively as a bigger, stronger team.

Providing that access has therefore helped to anchor many good jobs for Singaporeans and keep them home. In most sectors, locals comprise 70 to 80 per cent of all professionals, managers or executives.

I would, however, like to point out two risk factors for businesses.

The first is to watch the level of diversity in your workforce. I won't belabour the merits of diversity, but specifically point to the importance of cultural diversity in a city and region as multicultural as ours.

PLUGGING SKILLS GAPS

The second, which businesses are accustomed to doing, is to avoid concentration risks. We avoid depending only on single markets or customers for revenues, or exclusive vendors for key supplies.

For our critical operations, we may spread the locations. Likewise for our people needs, it makes sense to draw on multiple sources, particularly local sources.

Everywhere in the world, anxieties about being overtaken by "outsiders" have given rise to perverse outcomes. At workplaces here, there is heightened sensitivity towards being treated fairly and having local norms respected.

Employers can help to push back the negative forces that stoke such fears. The lived experiences of your employees can either be a strong defence against irrationality, or they can reinforce these beliefs.

To do so, they can start by practising fair hiring and advancement. It may be faster to recruit from familiar sources, but please do not keep jobs to closed circles of "friends". Perceptions about competence, or the lack thereof, can also be toxic.

Our Fair Consideration Framework requires companies to advertise most positions on the national Jobs Bank when considering employment pass (EP) holders.

Unfortunately, we have had some employers who treat this as a "paper exercise" and fail to consider good CVs from locals. That is not in the spirit of fairness which we want to see.

MOM also proactively identifies firms with workforce profiles that suggest possible discrimination against Singaporeans. Since 2016, we have placed 600 employers on the FCF Watchlist. As a result, 2,300 EP applications were held back.

These employers who previously insisted they could not find locals for the jobs, managed to hire more than 3,800 Singaporean PMETs.

I hope you will understand our resolve to take to task employers for acting in bad faith. From time to time, we will also update the controls to ensure fairness and safeguard local employment outcomes.

But more than punishing bad employers, we want to support good employers. Over 570 firms, employing over 200,000 locals, are recognised through our Human Capital Partnership programme.

These employers, such as 3M, HP, Baxter and MasterCard, have demonstrated commitment and effort to develop a strong local workforce. Many have put in place structured programmes to develop and train their employees to take up better jobs.

Their efforts are borne out in their workforce profile - local PMETs account for over 90 per cent of their total PMET workforce, while at the senior to top levels, about 85 per cent are locals.

There are also many programmes to plug skills gaps. For example, over 100 Professional Conversion Programmes (PCPs) are available to help mid-career executives upskill or reskill for good jobs. Since 2016, PCPs have helped more than 13,000 jobseekers move into good jobs.

Where skills are unavailable locally, we will also help to bring in global expertise to build it up through the Capability Transfer Programme.

My message to employers is a simple one. Help us keep Singapore open by ensuring that your teams are diverse and by paying attention to fairness at work.

As good corporate citizens, invest in human capital development to sustain your growth in Singapore. This way, we can all grow together.

  • The writer is Singapore's Minister for Manpower and Second Minister for Home Affairs. She delivered this speech at the American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore's Human Capital Conference on Nov 21.