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A Young Man’s View on Singapore’s Current Foreign Labour Policies

By Staff Writer Jia Yao Kuek ‘19

· Jia Yao Kuek

Image from Wikimedia.

A friend recently expressed her positive impression of Singapore as a place to live and work. Therefore, she asked for my opinion on the perceived, strict threshold for foreign residency in Singapore. This is my response in full:

NB: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone. If they reflect the naivety of a 19 year-old college student, then your kind understanding is sought.

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When looking at yours, your friends', or others' prospects (not just in Singapore but also any other foreign country), look up, look down, and look at yourself.

In looking down, it's important to be aware of ground fundamentals (i.e. context). In the case of Singapore, we remain a small, economically, and geostrategically vulnerable nation. We will never have the critical mass to close our doors and survive on our own. Hence, whether in terms of goods, services, or labor, we will always live and breathe trade. The tendrils of Singapore's globalized economic base stretch to our infrastructure, economy (including crucial sectors such as finance), and basic food and water supplies. Despite increasingly pro-Singaporean labor policies, Singapore will never give up on foreigners who are willing to live and work in Singapore, not least because we do not have the skills nor manpower to fill all vacancies (from the construction sector, to knowledge-intensive IT services). In expecting free trade and free movement of people from our partner nations, Singapore will certainly not betray its own principles as well. In sum, my country will never truly insulate itself, no matter how the global economic - or domestic political - climate, pan out. No matter which way the wind blows, the ground on which we stand stays the same.

In looking up, however, members of a transnational workforce must all cultivate a keen sense of situational awareness, and timing. The Chinese economic slowdown has blown towards Singapore's shores as well. Our labour market is tight, and has been for the past two years or so. Furthermore, in fulfilling its mandate, the Singapore government has sought to maximize opportunities for Singaporeans to find jobs first - clear prioritization. This is not borne out of a single-minded desire to score political brownie points, especially after the 2011 general election. Rather, it is a recognition of economic and political realities in Singapore. For many years (since the early 2000s) productivity growth was driven by the introduction of cheaper, skilled labor into our workforce, from manufacturing, to the services sector. We recognize that this is unsustainable. As such, because of domestic realities and global aftershocks, the demand for foreign labor has weakened. However, even as dark clouds signal the coming of rain and storm, these rough patches don't go on forever. In my layman's view of the world, economic growth is always cyclical. I look forward to seeing how the global economy progresses in the next two years or so, even as Singapore will make every effort to remain economically relevant, and stay ahead of the game - in the region, and in the world. With a pinch of pessimism, if/when the economy starts picking up again, then many sectors will certainly require (and welcome) injections of skilled talent from all around the world.

Lastly, we've also got to look at ourselves. Just above, I mentioned that certain sectors of growth will require overseas talents to sustain their momentum. Why wait ‘til then, and not catch the opportunities now? Optimistically, Singapore still has many bright and growing industries - fintech, or even international legal arbitration. 所谓秦人失鹿,捷足先登 (‘When an opportunity arises, the one with the fastest feet stands to gain)。There are still many niche opportunities out there, amidst ongoing economic shifts on a macro-scale. With many big projects yet to be fully carried out (for example, our Smart City Initiative) in Singapore, the Singapore government is still eager to court the best and brightest in specific fields, with the funding and support to boot.

Singapore remains a small country with no resources continuing our strident efforts to maintain our global relevance. Looking into the future, this relevance will stem in large part from our international people-to-people links (e.g. track 3 and track 4 diplomacy). I end with a quote from Sunzi’s ‘Art of War’:  “天时、地利、人和,三者不得,虽胜有殃。”

“Timing, environmental factors, and interpersonal relationships, only with all three can you maintain lasting success.”

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