Immediately following my speech on the Population White Paper in Parliament on 5 February 2013, several government Ministers rose to seek clarifications on the points I raised. Below is the transcript of my debate with them.
Mdm Speaker (Mdm Halimah Yacob): Mr Iswaran.
The Minister, Prime Minister’s Office, Second Minister for Home Affairs and Second Minister for Trade and Industry (Mr S Iswaran): Mdm Speaker, may I seek a clarification from the hon. Member? Am I right to infer from column one of his chart that was distributed that the implication is that under the Workers’ Party’s proposal, between 2013 and 2020, there will be no new additions to our foreign worker pool in Singapore? Indeed, if anything, there may be a slight decline. And secondly, that there will be no new Singapore citizens or PRs?
Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song: I thank the Minister for clarification. Firstly, under our plan, we have proposed a 1% increase in resident labour force growth. So, we do not envision a need to have additional foreign labour except if we cannot attain that 1% growth in resident labour force growth.
Mr S Iswaran: Just to be clear, the Workers’ Party is advocating zero foreign workforce addition for the next eight years, including this year?
Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song: Our goal is to reach that 1% of resident workforce growth as a way to — [Interruption by the hon Member Mr S Iswaran]. I will answer that question. Our goal is to reach that 1%, at least 1% of resident workforce growth. So, our priority is to make sure that we do all we can to increase the labour force participation rate so that we can achieve that 1%. If we can achieve that 1% without having the additional foreign labour growth, then that I think will be a bonus for us.
Mr S Iswaran: Mdm Speaker, I appreciate the Member’s clarification. I paid close attention to this table because it is a serious proposal. And I read the footnote because it is quite clear from the footnote that for the period 2020 to 2030, the Workers’ Party envisages some selective top-ups to compensate for any decline in the resident workforce. But there is no such clarification footnote for the period 2013 to 2020. So, it must be assumed that you are assuming zero foreign worker addition, and there is no new Singapore citizen or PR.
Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song: I think it would be reasonable to assume that. And I do not think there is anything wrong with having zero foreign workforce growth in the next eight years. But that is not primarily our target. Our target is to make sure that we maximise the local workforce participation.
Mr S Iswaran: State it for the record.
Mdm Speaker: Mr Tan.
The Acting Minister for Manpower (Mr Tan Chuan-Jin): Mdm Speaker, if I may attempt to seek clarifications again. I tried to seek some clarifications earlier. I am actually very interested to increase our labour force participation rate. I think I have said that many times – it is important. We do have a fair number of economic inactives. They are older workers and so on. We have put in place a number of measures. We have showed, in terms of labour force participation rate for some of our older workers, after Japan and Korea, we are one of the highest in the world. We can still have some room to grow and we intend to strengthen those initiatives. But a key component of your strategy is to beef up LFPR or Labour Force Participation Rate to such a stage that we actually do not need foreign workers in Singapore. I am very interested to know the initiatives and ideas that will bring that about and that is key. It is not the rhetoric that is important. Governance is about how do you translate ideas, visions into reality, and that is what it is really about; not just rhetoric, not just pressing the right emotive buttons. It is about making things happen so that we can realise a shared vision about how to make things better for Singaporeans.
Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song: Madam, I am not sure why the Minister seems to imply that we are just doing rhetoric. We intend to push for measures to increase the Labour Force Participation Rate. We have mentioned things like flexi work, telecommuting, part-time work. But I think one area that is a very good way of increasing the Labour Force Participation Rate is to raise wages. The reason is because it increases the opportunity cost of people staying at home. People will weigh the cost of staying at home versus going out to work, and I believe that that is one key way in which we can raise the participation rate. I am not saying that MOM is not doing anything right now to raise the Labour Force Participation Rate. We appreciate the work-life balance measures that MOM is taking, but I think that there is more that can be done, and this is one way. If we can raise the wages of workers in Singapore, that might encourage a lot more people to go out to work.
Mr Tan Chuan-Jin: A key component of one of the things the Member said to the latter part of his speech was about re-training, investing in capital, and investing in re-developing skills so that our workers could remain relevant. We totally agree. We do spend a lot on our CET training and we do intend to continue to strengthen that. Our productivity and restructuring – those cornerstones. We need to pursue productivity at all cost, as much as we can because that is key for us. We cannot continue as before and we fully acknowledge that. As we have said – very often – with productivity, wages would also go up. That is something we are working on. I would be very interested to know what more and what else. What I have detected so far would seem to be that all things that the Member has suggested focuses on “Let us do more”. And those things we are doing more, but I would like to explore what other initiatives and ideas specifically that will provide that significant delta. That is what we are looking for and that is really important. If there are useful suggestions, I am very keen to explore what those might be.
Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song: Madam, I have already mentioned some suggestions. I did not take the time in my speech to outline all the Labour Force Participation Rate increase measures but I believe that if we continue on the path of what MOM is doing, with finding ways to increase the labour force, I believe we can achieve that target that we need to achieve in order to increase the resident workforce. The whole crux of our proposal is that we want to increase the resident labour force numbers. Increasing the labour force participation rate is one key component of doing that; it is not the only way but it is one key component of doing that.
Mr Tan Chuan-Jin: Thank you, Mdm Speaker, for your indulgence. I would not fully agree. I would say this: the goal is not GDP growth, the goal is not the number. The goal is to be able to provide a level of economic growth, and the goal is not economic growth. It is to be able to provide a quality of life for our people. We agree with Workers’ Party on that.
The question is how do you bring that about? These things do not happen naturally. There are challenges, there is competition. Whatever we do, other countries are doing as well; so we need to be in cognisance of that. Labour Force Participation Rate is important – and we recognise it not because we do not – we do want to let go on that. There are many things that are on-going concurrently. If we are able to be successful in bringing up Labour Force Participation Rate, if we can improve our TFR, for example, the workforce will only kick in probably in the post 2030-2035 timeframe. What do you do in-between? If we can increase our Labour Force Participation Rate, if we can also reach our productivity target and even exceed it, that gives us policy space to not necessarily ramp up the foreign labour force, as needed. The target is not to reach that level of foreign labour force; the target is to generate the level of growth that we can provide for our people. We are actively turning our back on economic growth, to scale down because we cannot sustain that level of growth. It needs to be sustainable to meet a range of options that we can provide for our people.
Mdm Speaker: Mr Tan, if you could just close the clarification you seek.
Mr Tan Chuan-Jin: If we can achieve those numbers, then obviously it allows us flexible space in terms of the foreign labour numbers as well.
Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song: Madam, what the Acting Minister said in his last statement is not in contradiction to what we have said. What we are saying is that with increased Labour Force Participation Rate, we can achieve a reasonable GDP growth without having to import a whole lot more of foreign workers.
Mr S Iswaran: Madam, thank you for your indulgence. May I just clarify with the Member? Does the Workers’ Party’s zero tolerance for foreign workers in this period extend to sectors like construction and others where we are having great difficulties finding Singaporeans to do the job? Secondly, this implies zero immigration; meaning no new Singapore citizens or PR. I am trying to reconcile that with the statement by the Workers’ Party Chairman who advocated extending citizenship and PR to selected groups. Could the Member clarify?
Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song: Two responses to the Minister: firstly, we do not have a zero-tolerance policy towards foreigners. The Workers’ Party is not an anti-immigrant party and we welcome foreigners who come here to be able to contribute to our economy, contribute to our life here. Regarding the specific question on things like construction, we have said that we do not see a need to increase the foreign labour force numbers. It does not mean that we kick out all the foreigners right now. We maintain the numbers that are here and replace those that leave. [Interruptions] I am saying that we can hit zero if we increase our resident labour force. It is not our goal to hit zero foreign worker increment; our goal is to hit that 1% resident workforce and we believe in with that 1% resident workforce increase, we can hit the growth that we need to be able to sustain a better life for all Singaporeans.
Mr S Iswaran: Madam, the Member has not quite given a clear answer but I am surmising from this that the Workers’ Party’s position is: you presume 1% growth in the resident workforce and, in that context, there is no increase in foreign worker numbers in Singapore, even if it means construction and other sectors that are having difficulty getting those workers from the Singapore pool, are unable to do so.
Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song: The short answer to that question is: yes. And I believe that we can attract workers into the different sectors if the wages are raised and proper re-training is made available to the workers.
Ms Grace Fu Hai Yien: Thank you, Madam. I would just like to follow up on the assumption of immigration. What is your position on immigration? Are we assuming zero immigration from 2013 onwards?
Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song: I believe I answered that question earlier on. We have said that we do not see a need to import more foreigners within the next eight years if we can achieve the resident labour force growth that we need.
Ms Grace Fu Hai Yien: Which means there would be no foreign wives, no new PRs, no new SCs from now?
Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song: Is the Minister asking about new citizens?
Ms Grace Fu Hai Yien: Yes, that is my question.
Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song: I do not expect new citizens to be working in the construction industry. Just to state our position: we are not anti-new citizen and we believe that there is room for up to about 10,000 Singapore citizens to be brought in per year during this period.
Ms Grace Fu Hai Yien: So 10,000 is the limit for citizens, every year from now to 2020, and thereon as well? Beyond?
Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song: Thereafter we will see how our TFR has increased and we can calibrate accordingly.
Ms Grace Fu Hai Yien: And the TFR, I think you have noted that you would like to raise TFR. Is there any target TFR that you have in mind?
Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song: Our target is as much as possible; and if it can hit 2.1, it is great. We are not chasing TFR targets. We are chasing the measures that will allow Singaporean parents to want to have more children.
Ms Grace Fu Hai Yien: To the extent that we all want as high a TFR as possible, I think we are aligned on that. I would like to see what is in your assumption in arriving at your number? What is the TFR that you have assumed and also I noticed that you have assumed the TFR to increase from 2013, and therefore, giving you some additional workforce. To have additional workforce from TFR today, it means that the child born today will start working in 2030, and he is only 17.
Mr Gerald Giam Yean Song: Answer to the question on what is our assumption for TFR: 1.3. That is the assumption that we use for our calculation. It is not our target but we have taken a conservative approach because we do not want to assume that we can increase TFR to 2.1 tomorrow. As far as TFR’s contribution to the workforce is concerned, it does not factor in to our numbers over here; it factors into the final population number but it does not factor into the workforce participation rate and the workforce numbers. Because even if tomorrow the TFR is increased to 1.3, you would not see these babies working until about 2033.
(Source: Parliamentary Hansard)
After-note: I said during one of my responses: “I do not expect new citizens to be working in the construction industry.” I meant to say: “I do not expect many new citizens to be working as construction workers.”
Part 2: Debate with PAP MPs.