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.
(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.
(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.