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Singaporean core dominates debate

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The theme of the Singaporean core in the workforce continued to dominate discussion in Parliament yesterday, with the focus turning to white-collar jobs and invoking an emotional response from Manpower Minister Josephine Teo.

Once again, the issue boiled down to whether enough such jobs - especially in the financial sector - were going to Singaporeans, and whether Singapore would suffer any backlash by limiting the number of foreigners in senior positions in the sector.

Mrs Teo, who teared up at one point during her speech, said quotas for Employment Passes (EPs) were not advisable.

It was a highly charged issue, in which statistics and logic could not address all of the grievances borne out of experiences on the ground.

As the debate into the President's Address continued into its second day, the House heard that for every EP or S Pass given out in the last five years, about four more locals, including Singaporeans and permanent residents (PRs), took up jobs involving professionals, managers, engineers and technicians.

Meanwhile, the population of PRs remained stable at about 500,000, and many of them were spouses of Singaporeans.

Despite the numbers showing that the situation was under control, there was no lack of examples from MPs of residents who found themselves surrounded by foreigners in the multinational companies, or were passed over for job opportunities despite having relevant work experience.

They urged the Government to tamp down foreign competition for these positions, proffering suggestions ranging from quotas for work passes to impos ing a timeline for talent transfer.

Mrs Teo said imposing quotas on EPs would be unwise and it would be better to use salary requirements to ensure that companies can access foreign professionals of the right quality while committing to build up their local staff over time.


''Without such flexibility, many of the top-quality investments would have been lost to our competitors, and the job opportunities along with them,'' she said.

The financial services sector in particular came under scrutiny.

Figures released recently by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), and cited yesterday by Minister for Transport Ong Ye Kung, showed that about 44 per cent of senior roles in the sector are filled by Singaporeans, sparking questions about whether this was good enough.

Of the rest in these roles, 20 per cent are PRs, and 36 per cent are foreigners who hold work passes.

Mr Ong, who was speaking in his capacity as board member of the MAS, said the number should not be interpreted as Singaporeans getting the short end of the stick, as the absolute number of Singaporeans in senior roles had grown from 1,700 to 2,600 in the past five years though the proportion had remained largely the same.

Mr Ong said that many Singaporeans understood the international character of the Republic's financial centre.

''But (they) want to see Singaporeans do better, with greater assurance of fair hiring practices that put them on a level playing field.

''These are valid concerns,'' he added.

Pointing to the increase in the minimum salary to qualify for EPs and the various government schemes to reward companies that hire Singaporeans, as well as programmes to train Singaporeans for top jobs, Mrs Teo also said: ''We must therefore not miss the wood for the trees, by focusing narrowly on keeping foreigners out, and missing the larger picture of growing the pie and giving Singaporeans the chance of the best slice.''

But she stressed that each and every instance of discrimination erodes trust in the system and called on employers to be fair to Singaporeans when hiring or retrenching.

''What we lose then is not just a job opportunity for a local, but the trust that the system is fair, that the odds were not stacked against people who are trying,'' she added.