Speaking at the annual Economic Society of Singapore (ESS) dinner on Thursday evening (7 Aug), Social and Family Development Minister Chan Chun Sing said that Singapore needs to look at strategies that will enable it to “future-proof” its society for the possible challenges ahead.

For instance – how to contribute back to the country, leveraging on Singapore’s strong brand, and developing the right social compact and values.

He said relations between the US and China will be one of the most important geopolitical issues facing Asia and Singapore. And if competition between the two major powers intensifies in the years ahead, this could impact the future of countries in the region.

Domestically, Mr Chan cited challenges such as balancing immigration and integration with the creation of opportunities for Singaporeans.

He also talked about leveraging on Singapore’s brand in terms of standards, law and trust, as another key strategy to stand out amid global competition.

“When I was young, I travel past Serangoon Road everyday on my way to school. I was always very intrigued why Indian tourists came to Singapore to buy gold from India. Recently, I was very tickled when someone told me that the pharmacies in Changi Airport were doing a roaring business. I did not understand. Could it be that there were so many transit passengers that fall sick in the short time that they are with us? Actually, both of these episodes demonstrate the faith that people have in our standards and systems. And strangely, it allows us to make a living,” he said.

He then talked about the need for Singapore to be open to ideas and talent.

He said, “Darwin said that only the fittest will survive. But fitness is not just about strength but more about the speed of adaptation. To adapt fast, we must be open to ideas and talent. Ideas and talent are attracted to systems that protect and reward them.”

Nobody knows what Singapore’s future population size would be

During the Q&A, moderator Yeoh Lam Keong who is also the vice-president of the ESS, asked Mr Chan what population size he thought would suit Singapore.

Mr Yeoh noted that PM Lee said last year at the end of the debate on the Population White Paper that he expected the population in 2030 to be “significantly below 6.9 million”, while former chief planner Liu Thai Ker said Singapore should plan for a population of 10 million.

Mr Chan replied that “nobody knows” what Singapore’s future population size would be.

With technological changes, the type and quality of housing would also change and the living environment we can build is open to possibilities, he said.

“Will it be 10 million? Will it be less or more? Nobody knows.”

He said the focus should not be on the number, but on whether society can adapt to the make-up of the population and any foreigners brought in to meet manpower demands.

“It is not a given that we can or cannot manage six million. Much depends on us. But we also know that it must be at a pace that our society can accept. What I am more concerned with is not just how many people we bring in. What I am most concerned with is how fast we are able to make sure that our middle-income group can compete for those jobs that their level of expertise, skills can be used to replace the people that we brought in because we don’t have those skills today,” explained Mr Chan.

“There are some industries which we don’t have the critical mass yet, so we brought in some of them. The question is how fast we can train our people and incentivise these companies to train up our people so that we reduce our dependence on them.”

Strategy to develop a Singaporean core not working?

However, it appears that the strategy of bringing in foreign talents to develop a Singaporean core is not working very well currently.

Last year, Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin told Parliament that he and DPM Tharman, who is also the Finance Minister, met senior members of the financial industry to urge them to develop a local talent pipeline. Mr Tan said, without going into specifics, that there had been complaints of foreign managers preferring to hire their countrymen and his ministry was investigating the matter.

And in an interview with the media last year, Patrick Tay, director of legal services departments and PME Unit at NTUC confirmed that many local Singaporeans have shared stories of hiring discrimination with him.

Very often, a Singaporean employee will be asked to leave the company with his position being replaced by an foreigner later.

Mr Tay said, “I’ve met many of these local PMEs in various sectors and they have shared with me personally their stories. One particular story is where this IT professional – highly qualified, great credentials – working in quite a large company, sharing with me about his grievance. He was given a golden handshake and asked to leave the company. Subsequently after he left the company, his fellow ex-colleagues shared that a foreigner was hired to take over his position.”

“There are also cases where in terms of hiring practices, certain hiring managers tend to prefer their own kind in the sense that certain hiring managers belonging to certain nationalities may hire people from the same nationality,” he added.

It is certainly very alarming to hear such revelations actually came from an official of NTUC.

So, it remains to be seen how Mr Chan is going to “incentivise” those companies to train up Singaporeans so that we can “reduce our dependence” on the foreign talents.

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