What a splendid programme. a new one year course for Polytechnic and Institute of Technical Education (ITE) graduates to be a professional hawker. I really admire the brilliant brains of Singapore Inc to come up with this course. So I googled to check if other countries have something similar. We are indeed unique. Being the only country to conduct such a course, perhaps we should start taking in foreign enrollments. Some new scholarships for foreign students would be encouraging, plus an incentive for auto-PR to operate a food stall here after graduation.
Our demographics have shifted dramatically. I estimate 2 out of every 5 persons in Singapore are foreigners. The government fudges the statistics by embedding foreigners with PR status together with local residents. The actual figures of foreigners are thus not transparent. A lax barrier to entry of foreign workers (and their dependents), especially CECA (the FTA with India) caused a flood of foreign workers into the market. The frustrations and anger of Singaporeans at having their jobs stolen has been brewing for a decade.
All over the world, advanced countries have to grapple with the problem of filling the lower level jobs that locals do not want. Singapore is no exception. So for years, we relied heavily on the good people in our region to fill up the low and unskilled jobs. In the last decade, something changed. The jobs being taken over by foreigners now are PMETs. Even the C-suites are now gone.
There is now a glaring anomaly. Singapore has excellent institutions of learning, and a well-educated, disciplined workforce. These are factors which played a critical role in the roaring success of the Lion City in the past. But this same workforce is now shunned in deference to imported labour from countries that are rated generally much lower than Singapore by all measures of quality metrics.
The rational is pretty straight forward. The government pursues GDP cold-bloodedly on the backs of cheaper foreign labour at the expense of the locals. As we crossed over into the higher value economy, we have hit the diminishing returns on productivity. All businesses big and small, resort to cheaper imported labour to maintain their bottom lines. This is the cold reality.
Our skilled work force is a casualty of the neoclassical economics as we see a tectonic shift of PMETs forced into the gig sector, taking up jobs as Grab driving, food delivery, hawkers, tutoring, freelancing, etc. Ministers who once spoke of the vital importance of human resources given Singapore’s lack of natural resources, now see no urgency in the national pool of talent gone to waste. Left unaddressed, this trajectory will lead to a serious problem of a hollowing out of our own local talent pool. A sociopolitical timebomb is in the works. Singaporeans have been pushed into the cul de sac, a place where Lee Kuan Yew was well aware, people carry hatchets there. It’s a powder keg but the ruling party, with the confidence of a police state, fears no ‘stop-the-steal’ scenario. With votes guaranteed by calibrated naturalisation of foreign workers, no serious change in imported labour policies is on the horizon.
Where are the voices from our industry leaders? ABSOLUTE SILENCE. Is there any who has voiced concerns? Any suggestions? Anyone that said the unemployment situation is bad so I’m going to keep the jobs for Singaporeans? None of these. As corporate animals, they all want record bottom lines to satiate the bank balances of the most important stakeholders, the top executives. Why should they pay top dollars for a Singaporean manager when a 30 year old MBA from India can fill the post at half the cost, does’nt matter the quality of the certificate. The Singapore elites have abandoned the ordinary Singaporeans. Corporate greed over jobs for Singaporeans.
The government dumbs down on Singaporeans with Explainer #1 – foreign talents are critical for the new economy skills our country lacks. Singaporeans are cosmopolitan enough to appreciate that foreign talents are useful and top talents are headhunted by corporations all over the world. These would be the top tier talents in the latest and emerging technologies, the deal makers, the marketers with international connectedness, the level 1 executives of industry sector that Singapore wants to develop. The core of Singaporean push back of foreign PMETs are those executives in general management such as HR, Administration, Facility Management, Operations, Purchasing, Customer Services, Public Relation, Promotion, Advertising, Accounting, Finance, Treasury, IT systems development, etc.These foreign PMETs take away Singaporean jobs, they are not here to create jobs. Do we need hundreds of thousands of them here? The government is afraid, very afraid, to provide the real data of what type of foreign talents are really here. It will out their lies.
The Government rubs it in with Explainer #2 – foreigners help to create jobs for locals.The foreign talents that come here and create jobs are the investors and entrepreneurs. and there can’t be 1 million of them here.
Admission of failure is implicit in Explainer # 1. The Ministry of Education failed to plan for the market requirements of the new economy. Back in the 1980s, when Singapore decided to shift away from labour intensive industries to high value added economy, we underwent a wholistic structural change. That included educational curricular refocus for learning institutions to churn out the technically and professionally relevant graduates. In contrast to Iskandar Technology Corridor of Malaysia, Johore in the 1990s. Malaysia made no change in school curriculum to produce the technicians. When industries moved into Iskandar, there was a big problem of lack of the right labour skills. If our government now says we lack the skills for the new economy, its another way of saying, like Iskandar then, MOE did’nt plan the educational system well this time.
The nouveau business trend is ‘hubbing’. Basically, the MNCs are reshapping their business models into regional hubs where regional HQs control a geographical sphere of operations. Singapore has a significant share of the action for various reasons such as political stability, good infrastructures, skilled labour force (and now lower cost and readily sourced from India and elsewhere), strong financial market, pro-business government, clear legislation. sufficient pool of professional support in various spheres of business, etc. A concentration of HQs on the island means big corporate decisions are made here, such as regards maintenance of supply chain, distribution, telecommunication, commodity sourcing, etc. In order to support these big corporate decisions, our financial markets, risk mitigation markets, the commodity exchanges, international law professionals, etc, have developed in tandem. The overall picture is a rosy one. But the never-mentioned part is MNCs site their operating units in the region, such as Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia etc. The issue with this is HQs in Singapore generate no tax revenue to the government. The point then is, tremendous economic activity is created around this hubbing model, but we don’t have any metrics to understand the net impact given the influx of foreign workers. Has the benefit trickled down to Singaporeans or foreign workers?
The government constantly defends CECA by dumbing down on the lack of skills of Singaporeans in emerging technologies. Whilst it is of course true there are always some top of the heap skills that not just Singaporeans, but every other country. do not have, the rationale has been totally quoted out of proportion. It’s got to a point Singaporeans are having a crisis of self-doubts. A depressive mood has replaced the confidence we once had under the 1st gen leadership. I like to pooh-pooh this crap mentality with a real life story of a young Singaporean I know well. Let’s call him Lowian. He worked in the Singapore office of one of the world’s biggest FMCG corporation. Their data analytics was outsourced to a specialist big data company. About 3 years ago the company decided to set up their own big data capability. Lowian was sent to Vietnam to set up the company. One year later, the company was in operation and Lowian is the head honcho there. Lowian is no scientist nor electronic engineer. He is just a young Singaporean with some humble IT background. The company is now running big data analytics with 100% Vietnamese employees. There are no Indian IT experts.
With a population of 3.5m true Singaporeans, and having built an economy and infrastructure and services for 6.9m, Singapore is in a situation similar to United Arab Emirate. We have painted ourselves into a corner. The policy of dependence on foreign workers cannot be reversed without causing a collapse of the property market and wrecking the whole economy. And so the government does lip service with band aid regulatory changes designed to constraint employers’ predatory recruitment practices that disadvantage Singaporeans. Most of these have been seen to be ineffective. The government also funds several palliative skills upgrading courses. One really wonders what additional skills can managers in HR, admin, facility maintenance, finance, procurement, sales, etc add on to help them retain their jobs.
And so this new hawkerpreneuralship course is yet one more brilliant idea of the government. Dressed up beautifully for the public but addresses not the real problem of stolen jobs. But who really cares. MP Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State, has her sight set on many ribbon cutting events for new food stall openings. There is no more need for her to cut ribbons for new bus stops and garbage bins. At least for her, there is an upgrade of sorts.
* The author blogs at Going down the rabbit hole.