Some four years ago, the inflow of imported labour emerged as one of the hotly debated issues during the 2011 General Election. With the Government having taken decisive steps since even before the elections to curb the numbers of foreign workers, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has reiterated the dilemma facing policymakers in what he described as a “very difficult issue” fraught with trade-offs and long-term implications.

However, as the Government of the day, it is a decision that he and his team cannot avoid, he said.

“If we were not in the government, it is much easier. We can make recommendations, we can write papers, we can make speeches, and we can rouse arguments, unhappiness, point out all the problems we have where we are standing,” Mr Lee said in an interview with Ambassador-At-Large, Professor Chan Heng Chee, which was televised tonight (Aug 2). “But as a government, we have to deal with this issue and it is an issue where honestly speaking, there are no easy choices.”

The topic of foreign workers came up during the interview where Mr Lee spoke on – for the third time in about five weeks – the challenges that the Republic faces over different time horizons: Economy in the next decade, population in 25 years, and national identity in 50 years. Mr Lee had previously talked about these challenges when he delivered a speech on June 30 at the Ho Rih Hwa Leadership in Asia Public Lecture Series, and in an interview with TIME magazine which was published last month.

Adding that there are trade-offs between economic growth and social pressures, Mr Lee said it is the Government’s job to “think of these issues and to make the best decisions which we can, in our judgment, on your behalf and to account to you, and say to the best of my ability this is what I have decided I have to do”.

“And you may agree with it, you may not agree with it, but I can tell you in complete honesty that I am trying my best to do this on your behalf. And I cannot avoid doing this because otherwise I think I will be letting you down.”

Prof Chan noted that “some people say the Government is being populist when you are now curbing population”.

In response, Mr Lee pointed out that the Government has to “watch to see how the foreign workers and immigrants are fitting in with our community, and you have to watch them mix so that you don’t overbalance the numbers or the tone of our society”. He said: “So it is not populist to take cognizance of these real problems and to deal with them and to calibrate the inflow.”

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