Population White Paper: Debate with PAP MPs

After several PAP MPs made their speeches during the Population White Paper motion in Parliament, I responded to them on the issues of assisting SMEs and the use of foreign labour. This is the transcript of the exchanges.

After several PAP MPs made their speeches during the Population White Paper motion in Parliament, I responded to them on the issues of assisting SMEs and the use of foreign labour. Below is the transcript of the exchanges.

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(Click here to read Mr Inderjit Singh’s speech, which I responded to below.)

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song: Mr Deputy Speaker, I just want to address one point that was made by the Member that gave the impression that the Workers’ Party does not care about companies’ folding up because of lack of manpower. I share the Member’s concern for the well-being of our companies. But the question is not if companies should go through economic restructuring, but when. So I would say that there is no better time than now to go through this economic restructuring when our budgets are healthy. Economic restructuring will not come without costs. The Government must be prepared to bear significant part of this burden.

Mr Inderjit Singh: Sir, if the Workers’ Party cares about SMEs, then I think we would not have seen this proposal of zero growth in the foreign labour, simply because if you have your feet to the ground, you would have got the feedback from the SMEs that they all are suffering right now, with the current policy of still growing but growing at a slow rate. We are not at a zero rate, we are still growing and yet companies are suffering. We just heard yesterday from the Chambers of Commerce that they too are going to leave Singapore if we do not address this issue. So I am surprised because the paper that was presented seems to show that you do not really care.

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song: Sir, if the Government really cares about the SMEs, they will help the SMEs go through the restructuring and bear the costs of that because that is where the long-term benefits will come to the SMEs, when they can benefit from a more productive environment and rely less on foreign labour.

Mr Inderjit Singh: I own a couple of businesses. I know that restructuring is going to take some time and in fact, not here that I was going to talk about it, I was going to talk about it at the Budget debate, that, “yes” we need to slow down the tightening of the labour workforce and focus on productivity improvements but it is going to take us a bit more time. Because companies have got a certain business model that they are used to. Business models cannot change overnight. If we really care about companies, then we would not tighten the labour workforce any further. Give them a chance, a longer time horizon to restructure and then talk about tightening the labour force. But what the Workers’ Party is proposing is just shut off the tap right now. That is not going to accelerate restructuring. It is going to kill companies. [Interruptions]

Mr Deputy Speaker: Can I remind Members to seek your clarifications through the Chair?

Mr Inderjit Singh: In answer to Mr Low, slowing down population growth is not the same as zero population growth. I think the Paper has proposed a certain level of growth. I am suggesting a level of growth that is lower, but I am not suggesting zero growth as the Workers’ Party has proposed.

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(Click here to read Ms Jessica Tan’s and Mr Vikram Nair’s speech, which I responded to below.)

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song: Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to address two points made by both Ms Jessica Tan and Mr Vikram Nair. First, is this thing about we are shutting the tap to foreigners. We are not shutting the tap to foreigners. We are still keeping the 1.4 million foreign workers here who will be able to continue to add to the workforce and continue to keep our economy vibrant. By no means are we saying “shut the tap to foreign workers”. Secondly, on Ms Jessica Tan’s point that we are going to cause the companies to shut down. I am very aware of the sentiments and concerns of our companies. I was a small business owner before and I know the concerns of what small business owners go through. But we have to decide now to embark on this economic restructuring, and not to postpone it to later because it is going to get worse and worse later on, when we have more and more foreigners that we have to depend on.

Mr Vikram Nair: First of all, let me just address the point whether or not we are shutting off the tap to foreigners. The point is that even if we look at public works alone, there is a lot more work that needs to be done for which you need more foreigners. Let us take a smaller example. I asked about the Aljunied Town Council just because I wanted to know whether or not you were actually following your own prescription of paying high wages and therefore you do not need foreigners. The reality is that you are not. But if you were to get more blocks of flats, you will need to expand the Town Council cleaning force. If you had zero additional foreigners, then you have to find some way of getting Singaporeans to fill that. So do you want, say, the spouses, the old folks, and so on, to do the Town Council cleaning works? Some might want to do it. But is that something you want as a matter of policy or do you want to allow more foreigners to deal with the expanded capacity? The reality is even if you just want to meet your current objectives, you need to grow the workforce and for a lot of jobs like construction and cleaning, and so on, you may want foreigners to do it. I think there is some scope for raising the wages and getting more Singaporeans to do it, which is what we are doing, but it is a combination of measures. You cannot solve it completely with just one measure.

Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song: Sir, the Member is actually proposing a growth model that depends on foreign labour inputs and not on productivity. It is productivity that will help the companies to be able to do more with less. That means, instead of adding a foreign worker or a worker, you automate or use technology in order to be able to do more and be more productive with less labour inputs.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Last clarification, Mr Vikram Nair.

Mr Vikram Nair: Sir, I agree that productivity growth is essential. And I think that raising wages is one way that you can encourage that because if it gets more expensive to employ people, you will innovate. But all I am suggesting is you do so on a more gradual way. So you tighten the tap of foreigners. So people will get fewer workers in the construction sites. You are not turning it off straightaway. You are moving there slowly, not a sudden cut.

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Read Part 1: Debate with Ministers.

Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

6 thoughts on “Population White Paper: Debate with PAP MPs”

  1. Immigration law fallout hits Alabama

    By Anna Fifield and Christopher Booker in Albertville, Alabama

    When Alabama state lawmakers passed a tough new law aimed at forcing out illegal immigrants and creating jobs for local people two years ago, they probably did not have Jorge Polanco in mind. But Jorge Polanco is what they got.

    The 34-year-old Puerto Rican is one of numerous new legal arrivals into the southern state. Just as Mr Polanco needed a job, Alabama needed workers – particularly in the agricultural and poultry sectors – to fill the gaps left by the unauthorised immigrants who fled after the 2011 law was passed.

    “I heard about the pay, and also that everything was much cheaper to buy here,” says Mr Polanco, sitting in the tambourine-laden pews of the church, Casa de Oracion, that he attends in the bleak Alabama town of Albertville, home to the state’s chicken processing industry.

    Alabama is one of a handful of states that, fed up by what it says is federal inaction, has taken immigration matters into their own hands. While Arizona blazed a trail with its controversial 2010 law, Alabama went a step further, introducing a bill in 2011 that required proof of immigration status to carry out the most basic of daily transactions.

    This became the model for Mitt Romney’s “self-deportation” plan under which the Republican presidential candidate said he would make life so miserable for illegal immigrants that they would choose to leave the US.

    While Alabama’s law is the most extreme of the five states to have acted, more states could take action if Congress fails to pass the comprehensive immigration reform that President Barack Obama has put at the top of his agenda this year.

    Officially known as HB56, Alabama’s law was widely disparaged as draconian. Everyone from landlords and utility companies to school districts was required to ask for papers, making normal life almost impossible and causing many undocumented immigrants to flee.

    Flee they did. The Pew Hispanic Center has estimated there were about 120,000 illegal immigrants living in Alabama in 2010, the year before the law was introduced. Sam Addy, an economics professor at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, suggests the exodus has been in the range of 40,000-80,000 people, costing the state between $2.3bn and $11bn. “We didn’t fully think through the economic effects of the law,” Mr Addy says. “We’ve shot ourselves in the foot.”

    Businesses in northern Alabama, already one of the poorest parts of one of the poorest states, are reeling. Marjorie Centeno, who runs the Tienda el Sol supermarket on Albertville’s main street, says customer numbers have halved. “Before people used to come in and buy phone cards to phone their home countries but those people aren’t here any more,” she shrugs.

    The poultry and agricultural industries, which have long been reliant on cheap labour, struggled to find replacements, despite lawmakers’ contention that the law was needed to safeguard jobs for Alabamians.

    Instead, businesses discovered that Alabamians did not want to do difficult and dangerous jobs that paid $9 an hour.

    “The plants have trouble finding workers here,” says Mr Polanco, a shy man who has been cutting wings off chickens for the better part of two years. He lost part of an index finger when his supervisor ramped up the speed at which the birds came down the line to compensate for the lack of workers.

    “Every day there are people who are quitting. Say 15 workers are hired each day – 11 will quit right away,” he says.

    Recruitment agencies have been scouting in Puerto Rico – a US territory – and enticing refugees from countries including Ethiopia and Myanmar to offset the exodus.

    “Companies have gone to great lengths to look outside of Alabama for workers who might be vulnerable to exploitation and bring them in,” says Tom Fritzsche of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a non-profit organisation that tracks racist groups. This shows that the legislation was never about creating jobs for Alabamans, he says, but about racism.
    Mixed message

    However, complicating assessments of the impact of the law are economic statistics that show Alabama’s unemployment rate has fallen from 9.3 per cent when the law was passed to 7.1 per cent now.

    “We saw a great increase in the rate of decline of unemployment,” Scott Beason, the state senator who was one of the law’s sponsors, told the FT, adding that “if we have put one Alabamian back to work, we’ve done a good thing”.

    But Mr Beason regrets that the Obama administration challenged the Arizona law and “shackled” Alabama along with it. “We’re seeing a gradual increase of the number of illegal aliens back into the state because they realise the federal government is not going to help Alabama enforce its law,” he says.

    Mr Addy says their return may be the reason the economic data looks so positive. “Our economy has picked up,” he concedes, but adds it is too early to tell why.

    In the meantime, Alabama’s tiny Hispanic population, including new, legal arrivals like Mr Polanco, find themselves the victims of racial profiling every day.

    “It’s in the way people look at you and in the service you get,” he says, recalling the Walmart cashier who shouted at him when he tried to buy beer with his Puerto Rican ID, “because she thought I was Mexican”.

  2. The article on illegal immigrants in Alabama is slightly off topic. In Singapore, we have plenty of legal foreigner workers. What we need to do is close the gate a little so companies are forced to restructure to be more productive.

  3. The clear parallel between Alabama and Singapore is how the anti immigration laws have cost the state between $2.3bn and $11bn, the devastating impact to its business and the fallacy that housewives and seniors can pick up the slacks left by construction workers, because legislators didn’t fully think through the economic effects of the law, and end up shooting themselves in the foot.

    whether the workers are legal or not is beside the point.

  4. Dear Gerald,

    I hope the WP is NOT going to vote for the approval of the budget which was presented by finance minister Tharman.

  5. Decided to drop by…

    Productivity…

    Everyone talking about productivity…

    But who really know what productivity they talking about…?

    LOL~

    So funny…

    Scope.

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