Anxious after Covid, Singapore plans to fine-tune foreign worker policies

Foreign labor has been a flash point for over a decade amid competition for good jobs and better wages, putting the government constantly under pressure to explain its approach.

Singapore is seeking to cut its reliance on foreign workers | Photographer: Wei Leng Tay | Bloomberg
Foreign workers in Singapore| Photographer: Wei Leng Tay | Bloomberg

Singapore: Singapore will recalibrate its foreign worker policies to strike a balance between accepting overseas workers and addressing the economic and social concerns of its citizens, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said.

The government is aware such anxieties over the foreign worker population have worsened because of uncertainties caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, and authorities are addressing them, Lee said in a televised message Sunday on the eve of the country’s 56th National Day. Other tough issues that have come to the fore during this period that need to be dealt with include support for low-wage workers and the challenge of maintaining racial harmony, he said.

“We have to adjust our policies to manage the quality, numbers and concentrations of foreigners in Singapore,” Lee said. “If we do this well, we can continue to welcome foreign workers and new immigrants, as we must.”

Singapore’s success as a financial hub has long been tied to its openness to global talent, and the island’s low taxes and modern infrastructure make it one of the most attractive places in Asia to do business, particularly as Hong Kong gets caught in the crossfire of U.S.-China tensions. But foreign labor has also been a flash point for over a decade amid competition for good jobs and better wages, putting the government constantly under pressure to explain its approach.

“Turning inwards is against our fundamental interests,” Lee said. “It would damage Singapore’s standing as a global and regional hub. It would cost us jobs and opportunities.”

The island’s economy is forecast to rebound 4% to 6% in 2021, with the projection due to be revised this month. After recent virus outbreaks forced Singapore to delay its plans for reopening the economy, officials on Friday announced an easing of restrictions on daily life as well as a slight loosening of border controls, with over two-thirds of the population fully vaccinated.

“We are in a more resilient position,” Lee said. “We can now look forward to a careful, step-by-step re-opening of our economy.”

‘Strained fault lines’

Even as Singapore moves toward a new normal, Lee said the pandemic has “taken a toll on all of us” and “strained fault lines in our society.” He highlighted a need to support lower-wage workers who have suffered the impact most acutely, and who will need sustained backing as Singapore becomes a more skills-based economy.

Lee also spoke about recent incidents of racial and religious intolerance, saying that “maintaining social harmony takes unremitting work.” The country prides itself on its multiculturalism, with its people ingrained especially since independence to set aside such differences to ensure peace and prosperity.

“It took several generations of sustained effort to bring our races and religions together, and grow the common space that we now share,” Lee said, adding that it’s the government’s duty to manage the balance of social cohesion. “With every new generation, our racial harmony needs to be refreshed, reaffirmed, and reinforced.”-Bloomberg

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