The Dive | WP’s Pritam Singh asked for workforce breakdown. It’s good but it’s not enough

By January 11, 2020Current, The Dive

TL;DR – The real competition is not between the Singaporean versus the permanent resident (PR) here versus the foreigner here.

The Dive is our new weekend feature where we bring you in-depth news, interesting insights and different perspectives on the latest trends or issues that matter.

Yes, like what Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing said in Parliament on Monday (6 January),

“The real competition is Team Singapore, comprising Singaporeans, PRs and foreign workers here, competing with the rest of the world to give our fellow Singaporeans the best chance possible to win, not just in Singapore but across the entire globe.”

And why do we need to do this?

“So the wages of our Singapore workers will continue to grow faster than the rest of the world in other countries.”

In case you’re curious, in answer to Workers’ Party chief Pritam Singh’s tabled parliamentary question (PQ) on the breakdown of new jobs under the Government’s Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs) under the three categories of Singaporeans, permanent residents (PRs) and foreigners, Minister of State (MOS) for Manpower Zaqy Mohamad had replied that employment for the 23 ITM sectors grew 19,500.

MOS Zaqy further shared that this was a result of an increase in employment for 39,300 Singaporeans and 8,600 PRs, and a decrease in employment for 28,500 foreigners. While specific data on each industry undergoing transformation was not provided, Mr Zaqy said that the Manpower Ministry already gives the local-foreign workforce breakdown of broad sectors in its annual employment report.

Good MPs should ask good questions in Parliament

First things first, let’s thank Mr Singh for asking the question. I think it’s legit and I welcome more probing questions from all the MPs.

After all, the functions of Parliament include making laws, taking up a critical/inquisitorial role to check on the actions and policies of the Government and scrutinising the State’s finances. So largely, the Parliament is involved in the these three areas:

    1. Making Laws
    2. Critical/Inquisitorial
    3. Financial Scrutiny

What about Members of Parliament (MPs)?

Well, as Members of Parliament, they are obviously tasked to carry out the above three functions. According to the Parliament’s official site, MPs act as a bridge between the community and the Government by ensuring that the concerns of their constituents are heard in Parliament.

So if Mr Singh’s and Mr Liang’s residents are concerned about jobs and economy, it is only right that they raise these questions in Parliament.

But that should not be the only question Pritam Singh asked

Having the breakdown for a point in time is hardly useful. It doesn’t paint the full picture and just looking at or worse, over-focusing on these numbers runs the risk of people drawing the wrong conclusions or recommending the wrong solutions.

And, it is way too easy for people to misinterpret or misuse the numbers.

I agree that we should seek to understand the point behind the question.

For instance, if we’re trying to find out if economic growth and job creation have benefitted Singaporeans more than foreigners, then more questions need to be asked. Questions like these,

    1. Are Singaporeans’ wages going up?
    2. Of the new jobs created, are the better and higher-paying jobs going to Singaporeans?
    3. Has local unemployment increased with the Government’s balancing act of bringing in foreign investments and growing our economy vis-a-vis bringing in the necessary foreign workforce?
    4. If the new jobs created require skills that our local workforce currently does not have, what are we doing to train up Singaporeans?
    5. Is there knowledge transfer from the foreign talents to Singaporeans?
    6. Does the Government have training and placement initiatives to support Singaporeans to secure the better and higher-paying jobs?

The truth is most of the information is already publicly available. But how many of us will make the effort to do some research and reading?

Yet, a group of netizens are making so much noise about how the Government is not being transparent. Well, this is also the same group who cannot be bothered to be reading about labour market reports, population briefs, etc. And suddenly they’re chasing for the breakdown number as though their lives depended on it

I scoffed.

The world does not operate in linearity and the economic environment we operate in is not just about how many Singaporeans versus PRs versus foreigners.

Even if MOM provides the breakdown under the 23 ITMs or the six major clusters, it is just ONE dimension of the complex issue. Without knowing the other parts of the equation, the breakdown numbers would not be meaningful since you cannot really conclude or recommend anything.

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Unless one wants to politicise the matter.

I will give Mr Singh the benefit of the doubt here. He looks like a nice, earnest man.

So how many PRs and foreigners do we have exactly?

As of June 2019, our total population stood at 5.70 million.

Out of this 5.7 million, there were 3.50 million Singapore citizens. Together with 0.53 million PRs, there were 4.03 million residents.

Non-residents totalled 1.68 million, and include dependents, international students, and individuals who are here to work.

Singapore total population as at June 2019 (via)


Can we afford to lose one-third of our workforce?

According to Ministry of Manpower, our total foreign workforce as at June 2019 stood at close to 1.4 million. So if 1.4 million of foreign workforce and 0.53 million of PRs disappear from our workforce overnight, we’ll be missing a third of them.

In case you’re wondering, we have about 0.54 million foreign domestic workers (FDW) and construction workers in our foreign workforce of 1.4 million, this means that the Employment Pass (EP), S Pass and Work Permit holders totalled about 0.86 million.

We simply do not have enough people in our workforce to support our economy, let alone grow it.  A loss of one-third of our workforce will be detrimental to our economy. In fact, I’d go so far to say that it will cripple us.

There ARE enough jobs to go around and we need the PRs and foreigners to fill some of these jobs and fuel our economy.

What is important is to ensure that Singaporeans get the cream of jobs.

The bottom-most layers of the lower-income job categories where Singaporeans do not compete in can go to the foreigners, for instance domestic helpers and construction workers. We should concern ourselves with the better-paying jobs.

So are better-paying jobs going to the foreigners?

Let’s have a look at the breakdown of foreign work passes in Singapore.

Foreign workforce numbers (via)

Since we’re concerned about the higher-paying jobs, we should be looking at the Employment Pass (EP) numbers for the  PMET jobs. This is the category of work pass that brings in higher salaried foreigners.

According to MOM, Employment Pass allows foreign professionals, managers and executives (PMEs) to work in Singapore. Candidates need to earn at least $3,600 a month and have acceptable qualifications. S-Pass and Work Permits are for lower skilled and lower salaried jobs.

Looking at the EP numbers from 2015 and June 2019, we can see the total number of EPs has been quite controlled and remained stable every year.

So if you ask me, it is clear that in order we continue to fuel a vibrant modern economy, we need a Singapore Core and not a Singaporean Core for our workforce.

Or in Minister Chan’s words, Team Singapore which comprises Singaporeans, PRs and foreign workers.

It’s the balancing act of what kinds of jobs go to whom that is the more important question. And just as important is the question of how do we reskill and upskill our local workforce to take on the better paying job today and tomorrow.

So are you Team Singapore or Team Singaporean?

What if MTI and EDB have been super-effective in attracting foreign investments to set up businesses here in new and high-growth industries, and we do not yet have the necessary skilled workforce to handle the work?

Do we want to wait till we manage to train up our local workforce before bringing them in? But then we may lose the competitive edge to other markets if we miss the timing.

For instance, if we’re lacking in talents in the areas of cyber security or artificial intelligence, can we let the foreign businesses hire overseas experts and we facilitate the knowledge transfer to our local workforce? We can protect Singaporeans by ensuring that these EP holders leave the country once they’ve helped to set up the operations and transferred the skills to the local workforce. And in the meantime, we should also start training our local workforce to be equipped with the skills needed for tomorrow.

Did you know first time EP candidates can only work here for up to two years, and renewal is up to three years? We spoke with Lal, a Singaporean global program manager with an Indian MNC based in Singapore, about his experience hiring EP holders.

“…MOM already states that those on EP can only stay for up to 2 years (if they’re first timers), and EP renewals can stay for 3 years maximum. This means that when their contract is up, they need to fly home first.”

“There is no option to extend the EP beyond the stipulated duration of 2 or 3 years, MOM is very clear and strict on that.”

In my mind, we should be looking at Team Singapore and ensuring that our foreign workers are in the lower-paying job categories that Singaporeans do not aspire to do, and also top foreign talents at the top rungs with skills and experience that are missing from our local workforce. This way, the latter group can help us drive the new and high-growth industries and  our local workforce can also learn from them.

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Our economy is still growing and we can afford to be cautiously optimistic. There are still jobs and new jobs will continue to be created. Singapore should not turn away some investments that lead to high-paying jobs that Singaporeans are not yet ready for. The challenge is to upskill and reskill our local workforce to fill the cream of jobs.

Is there Government effort to help Singaporeans get better jobs and lead better lives?

This is where we should look at the Government’s effort to help Singaporeans with employability (i.e. training and readiness) and placement. I had a look and realised there are plenty of programmes if you bother to look.

And yes, all for Singaporeans.

Fair Consideration Framework (FCF)

Before we even go into the programmes supporting Singaporeans, we should look at the Fair Consideration Framework (FCF) which is a part of the Government’s overall effort to strengthen the Singaporean core in the workforce.

The guideline that is set out by MOM requires employers to consider Singaporeans fairly for all job opportunities before hiring foreigners. Here’s an interesting pictorial explanation of the FCF done by one of our own contributor-writers.

At the start of this new year on 1st January, Minister for Manpower Josephine Teo announced plans to update the FCF.

Mrs Teo said in her Facebook post that we can “expect stronger deterrence for discrimination against Singaporeans when hiring, but also stronger support for employers who are committed to giving our people a fair chance.” 


Skillsfuture is a national movement to provide Singaporeans with the opportunities to develop their fullest potential throughout life, regardless of their starting points. It’s not just about the $500 that all Singaporeans aged 25 and above gets to go for training and upgrading.

The SkillsFuture Work-Study programmes offer opportunities for Singaporeans to pursue a work-study pathway from the Diploma to Post-Graduate and Degree levels offered by the Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs) and private providers appointed by SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG), as well as the industry.

Under these programmes, individuals will undergo a combination of classroom training conducted by IHLs/appointed private providers and structured on-the-job training with a company. This facilitates a stronger linkage between the curriculum taught in school and the needs of the workplace and industry.

As of July 2019, some 4,500 individuals and about 1,100 companies have benefitted from work-study programmes since it was launched in 2015.

Adapt & Grow

Adapt and Grow is an initiative designed to help Singaporeans adapt to changing job demands, re-skill and explore new careers with good growth opportunities.

Run by Workforce Singapore (WSG) and NTUC’s Employment and Employability Institute (e2i), Adapt and Grow has a suite of programmes to help Singaporeans to upskill and re-skill so that they can get into jobs that are of higher pay and with career growth opportunities.

For the Professionals, Managers, Executives, and Technicians (PMETs), there are currently three schemes available – the Career Support Programme (CSP), Professional Conversion Programme (PCP) and the P-Max.

According to this report, more than 76,000 job seekers found employment through the Adapt and Grow initiative from 2016 to 2018.

We have also reported here on that in 2018 alone, about 30,000 jobseekers found jobs through the Adapt and Grow initiative.

Career Support Programme (CSP)

The Career Support Programme (CSP) is a programme that encourages employers to offer suitable job opportunities to PMETs who are unemployed and have been actively looking for jobs for six months or more.

Under this programme, employers can receive up to 18 months of wage support capped at $42,000 for every eligible Singaporean PMET employed, to help them defray a portion of the salary.

In 2018, over 1,200 individuals were placed under CSP.

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Professional Conversion Programme (PCP)

The Professional Conversion Programmes (PCPs) supports PMETs, including mid-career switchers by helping them to re-skill so that they can take on new jobs in different sectors or different job scopes.

Through the Place-and-Train and Attach-and-Train programmes under the PCPs, individuals will be provided with on-the-job training by companies to acquire the skills required for the new job.

In 2018, close to 5,000 individuals (including mature and older jobseekers) were placed through PCPs.


P-Max is a Place-and-Train Programme that aims to help small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) better recruit, manage and retain newly-hired PMETs. It is a scheme that encourages SMEs to adopt progressive human resource practices through training and basic HR toolkits.

Under this scheme, SMEs will benefit from a one-time $5,000 grant if they successfully implement the recommended HR processes and retain PMETs hired under the programme for at least six months. SMEs can also concurrently receive salary support if they place and train eligible Singaporean citizens under the CSP or PCPs.

For the Rank-and-File Workers, the Adapt and Grow initiative has also developed the Place-and-Train programmes and Career Trial programme to strengthen the support for the rank-and-file workers.

Under the Place and Train programmes, rank-and-file workers who have been unemployed for 6 months or more, are provided with trainings and salary support to help them reskill so that they can take on new jobs in different sectors.

The Career Trial programme is also available to allow Singaporean jobseekers to try out jobs for a period of time to see if it’s the right fit.

More transparency with labour market statistics is good

More transparency with labour market statistics is good, provided we know how to read the numbers with context. Giving just the breakdown of new jobs going to Singaporeans, PRs and foreign workers is but one group of data at a single point in time.

What good does it do if we don’t learn to read these numbers with other related information and statistics for more context and understanding? It will just be too easy to politicians or keyboard warriors to just take those numbers and say, “See, see, the PRs and foreigners are taking away jobs from Singaporeans!”

Let me recap.

Our economy needs the foreign workforce to support and for us to build and grow new industries. What is important is to focus on Team Singapore and get our balance right.

Ideally, we should move Singaporeans from the bottom and lowest paying jobs upwards and get foreign workers to fill the void. And at the top, we should be attracting top talent with the most sought after skills that are scarce there to help us with the new and high-growth industries. This is so that we continue to have growth and renewal in our economy and also for transfer of knowledge.

Minister Chan was on point when he said this,

“Getting the local-foreign workforce balance right not just in terms of quantity, but also quality, is something the Government looks at closely.”

“It is a never ending balancing act with difficult trade-offs”.

“But the short answer to the twin questions on whether economic growth and job creation have benefited Singaporeans, and more so than foreigners, “is a resounding yes”.”

Read more personal stories from Team Singapore

1. I worked with “foreign talents” in a tech company
This is a story about a Singaporean man who did a mid career switch from non-tech to tech. Armed with just three months’ coding bootcamp training, a bunch of foreigners hired him to work with more foreigners. He even met a unicorn there!

2. Singaporean man fell in love with Thailand, gave up expat offer in Germany for a local job in Thailand
This is a story about a Singaporean man who worked in three different countries and came back to build a startup for a market research app.

3. Watching SpaceX launch a rocket and other adventures while living over 1000 days abroad
This is a story about a Singaporean woman who ventured overseas in the States and lived to share her adventures.

4. The Employment Pass (EP) holder who helps underprivileged women into jobs
Meet the EP holder who is not here to steal Singaporeans’ jobs, but to help the underprivileged and contribute to nation-building. She also has some advice for us!


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