Over $2b projects shelved to ease labour shortage

HDB homes, rail network, other urgent developments not affected

[SINGAPORE] More than $2 billion worth of government projects will be shelved to help ease the shortage of construction workers as the government continues to tighten the inflow of foreign workers.

Disclosing this in Parliament yesterday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong described these projects - which include the extensions to Gardens by the Bay and a new Science Centre - as "less urgent".

"When it comes to HDB houses and trains, projects which are urgent, we're going full speed ahead," he said during the debate on the President's Address.

Deferring the projects will save Singapore 20,000 or 30,000 foreign workers, he said.

Mr Lee said imposing higher levies and smaller quotas have helped the government to manage the number of workers needed to do the jobs; it also helps if the government reviews projects in the pipeline.

"They are a significant part of the construction business - and we asked ourselves which government projects need to be built, which can be deferred," Mr Lee said.

While public housing and railways are needed quickly to meet demand, he said other projects "can wait one or two years, we can study them a bit more, or we can phase them out".

This way "we can spread out the demand for construction workers and then we will be able to manage the total number of construction workers in Singapore", Mr Lee added.

Tightening the tap on foreign-worker inflow is part of the government's move to restructure the economy and bump up productivity.

The numbers coming in have slowed to almost half since 2011. Excluding construction, the pace of foreign-worker inflow is a quarter of the level three years ago.

Mr Lee said this has hurt companies, especially small and medium-sized enterprises which are in need of workers. Many are struggling and some have moved operations to Malaysia.

"If we squeeze them too hard, they may not survive - and that will mean that many jobs will be at risk."

Apart from foreign construction workers, the government is keeping a close watch on foreign professionals, managers and executives (PMEs).

"The issue is less about numbers, because the numbers are not huge, but about the quality of foreign PMEs and also about fair treatment for Singaporean PMEs," Mr Lee said.

The government has been managing both the size and profile of foreign PMEs, raising the requirements for Employment Passes and S-Passes for these workers.

In his 90-minute speech, Mr Lee noted the steady progress the government has made over the past three years in providing affordable public housing and expanding public transport services.

"The situation is under control," he said, referring to the housing issue. There will also be "significant improvements" in public transport from next year as more new trains come in.

The speech focused on how the government aims to achieve its vision of a "fair and inclusive society, where every citizen has a rightful place and the opportunity to fulfil his or her aspirations".

Mr Lee's answer: sharing the fruits of progress and boosting social safety nets; keeping pathways upwards open to all; firing up the human spirit; and getting Singapore politics right.

He said the government will go even further and break new ground in social policies, especially in healthcare and retirement adequacy.

This will ensure a good education for all in schools, provide them continuing education after school and maintain an ethos of openness and informality in society, he added.

Firing up the human spirit, Mr Lee said, is important to keep the economy humming. To get its politics right, he said, Singapore must "maintain constructive politics that puts our nation and our people first".

By constructive politics, Mr Lee meant developing effective policies for Singaporeans; putting forward good people to lead; having a robust and open debate; keeping high standards of integrity; and rallying people together around a common cause.

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