Wednesday, May 04, 2011

On the influx of foreign workers

I have been observing the arguments crafted by various opposition parties. PAP has been an easy target for opposition parties to attack, but not all opposition parties can come up with better alternative plan. The most common argument picked up by the opposition party is to blame the incumbent ruling party for allowing too many foreigners into Singapore. They argued that the foreigners took away jobs from S’porean, lowered the wages, and jacked up the property market prices.

Without the foreign workers, S'poreans will be paying more for our services. What’s more, S’poreans only go for better paid job. We are witnessing globalization on our doorstep and it is inevitable for foreign workers to come here as they are willing to work more for lesser pay. If we were to stop companies from hiring foreign workers, these companies might shift overseas to cut cost and this will impact all connected local industries. I believe PAP has pointed a way out, i.e. increase local productivity. But this will create another inherent set of problems, i.e. those who are not able to increase productivity, perhaps due various challenges such as illiteracy or physical handicapped or long-term illness, may be left further behind in the rat race.

At the same time, the influx of foreign workers has crowded our public transport system, and they are using the same public facilities as the local residents. Opposition parties have pointed out that our infrastructure is currently not able to cope with the sudden influx of foreign workers. There were an estimated 4.5 million inhabitants in S'pore in 2005, about 5 millions in 2010. In the last five years, there was an increase of 500,000 inhabitants without proportional increase in public transport system. Prime Minister Lee has also apologized yesterday for the lack of hindsight in government's planning, though he has not hinted how this problem could be rectified. Perhaps an increase in the number of our service trains and public bus services could alleviate the problem. Slowing the trickle of foreign workers through higher levied tax and setting quota limit could be another way.

With S'pore's declining birth rate, it may be necessary for us to accept foreigners to be part of S'pore story. In the earlier half the decade in our 21st century, the policy was to import foreign talents, and most S'poreans bought into that policy. In the later half of the decade, it was not much about foreign talents any more, but whoever can lower the payrolls of the employers. I know U.S. policy strictly demands employers to justify why they employ foreigners over local Americans. This suggests why highly educated foreigners are more easily employed, and the U.S. has been a magnet of talents. Yet, there is also an existing stream of undocumented workers who work for lower wages and who are willing to live in less desirable housings in the U.S. Our market demands low-waged workers, and I believe S'pore has not seen critical mass of undocumented workers yet perhaps because of the harsh punishments on dwelling owners who dare to habour undocumented workers (the punishment on employers is less stiff though). How do we accept foreign workers without concurrently lower our quality of living is a hard question. Other than controlling quotas such work permit, employment pass, and social visit pass (some undocumented workers come here on social visit pass), we may have to explore alternatives such as diversifying our talents or skills so that our industries could be encouraged to employ local workers. This implies that our industries have to shift towards skilled labours, and the manufacturing sector has to explore automation. Those sectors that are still heavily dependent on local unskilled workers such as cleaning may be here to stay but I suggest even these jobs may have to be more specialized in the long run.

It is only when our infrastructure and society as a whole can absorb foreigners that our foreigner friends can integrate better into our society and be able to relate to us and to share with us in shaping the Singapore story. This means that the rate of foreign influx though necessary, may have to slow down until our infrastructure and society can absorb them. If the living pressure in S'pore can ease a bit, and there were more rooms for different lifestyle, the incentive for having children would be higher and there will be less challenges from social integration.

No comments: