You know, work pass holders are also our colleagues and friends.

Singapore CBD

Anecdotes of “that foreigner who got my job” abound. But as we champion a Singaporean-first hiring approach, perhaps let’s not forget that more often than not, these foreigners are also our colleagues and friends. Every country facing economic lull will have voices questioning the presence of foreigners in the labour market. But unpopular opinion – their presence has benefited Singaporeans more than you know. Some time back, I came across this post by Benjamin Chan, a Singaporean in the banking sector.

In his Facebook post that has since garnered close to 1,000 likes, Chan shared that we are the nation most-favoured by MNCs and global financial institutions not because we have a large hinterland to tap but a competitive market with the depth of talent pool to match. He also shared his hope that Singaporeans and our elected MPs will be sensible enough to “thread the fine balance of promoting the Singaporean agenda and not lose our real competitive edge by eroding the meritocracy-based system we had created”. For the rest of us, we have to understand that taking on a xenophobia stance is myopic. It is key to have Singaporeans in top positions, but it should only be by our own merits rather than merely birthrights. True that.

The goal is to have the world’s best and brightest to be with Team Singapore – to complement our workforce and benefit Singaporeans. Not to replace us. Taking on a xenophobia stance is myopic.

We began as a nation of immigrants.

Singapore began as a nation of immigrants. Protectionism would be disastrous for us. Have no doubt that it will damage Singapore’s standing as a global and regional hub, and cost us jobs and valuable opportunities! Turning inwards goes against our values of being welcoming to the world and accepting others who are different from us. Remember these were the values that helped us develop into the cosmopolitan and global city we are today?

Engagement findings by NTUC with over 9,000 PMEs

That said, there have been some concerning findings from engagements that NTUC conducted with over 9,000 PMEs since October last year. Based on a dipstick survey done in December 2020 on 3,500 PMEs, the top three areas polled by PMEs where they need most help with are Protection against job losses, support in employment opportunities and support in job-related training. It seems to indicate that our PMEs need more support to compete, and that’s something NTUC has been looking into.

Source: NTUC

NTUC also learned that mature PMEs find it tough to seek employment and they attribute that to their age. Half of them expressed that they faced discrimination during the job search or at their workplace. Many also attributed the key reason to the company not being open to workers who are aged 40 and above.

The number of local PMEs grew by more than 380,000 between 2005 to 2020

As we look to support these Singaporeans, we must also understand that Singaporeans are not competing with foreigners who are physically here in Singapore, we are competing with people all over the world. Foreign workers are essential to growing Singapore’s pie of wealth, and not necessarily “stealing” Singaporeans’ job. Singapore’s foreign worker policies are shifting towards quality rather than quantity. They help grow our economy during good times. In bad times, well, they are the first to be let go. Fact.

Did you know that while the number of Employment Pass holders in Singapore has increased from 65,000 in 2005 to 177,000 in 2020, in comparison, the number of local PMEs grew by more than 380,000?

But of course, that’s not to say that the fears of our Singaporean PMEs should be cast aside. The Government understands the concerns and pressure from the competition from foreigners.

To protect our local workers, concrete steps are taken to ensure foreigners who do come in on Employment pass are of high quality with relevant experiences and qualifications. In 2020, the EP cut-off was raised two times. Criteria for EPs and S Passes will continue to be tightened over time, so that we bring in work pass holders in industry where we most need them.

The Government and Union will also ensure that all employees are fairly treated at the workplace.

Now, financial and IT companies indeed have a larger share of work pass holders. The thing is, they have also recruited many Singaporeans and groomed them to take on senior positions. Many Singaporeans have benefited from these opportunities. That said, there are bad apples in these sectors and these companies have faced penalties for discriminatory hiring practices under the Fair Consideration Framework.  

PM Lee has also shared in his National Day Rally speech that over the years, the government has received repeated requests to toughen up TAFEP. MPs in the Labour Movement have pushed for anti-discrimination laws that carry penalties. The Government will enshrine some of the TAFEP guidelines in law. A similar Tribunal will also be set up to deal with workplace discrimination. A strong signal that discrimination of any kind will NOT be tolerated. Good news!

For some time now, Labour MP Mr Patrick Tay has been lobbying for Tafep to be given ‘more teeth and bite’ to boost fair hiring practices in Singapore. Just this week, NTUC also announced key recommended focus areas for the PME Taskforce as it works towards releasing a full set of recommendations by year end. Based on the findings, NTUC recommends for the taskforce to focus on addressing workplace discrimination and providing unemployment support and benefits, amongst others.

At the end of the day, work pass holders are also our colleagues and friends.

Singapore must closely monitor the social impact of a large foreign population here. But at the end of the day, remember that work pass holders are also our colleagues and friends. They are part of our story. The goal is to have the world’s best and brightest to be with Team Singapore – to complement our workforce and ultimately, to benefit Singaporeans. And PM Lee’s promises at NDR2021 have served to reiterate this.