In a 10 year plan announced during the new year in 1982, then-prime minister Lee Kuan Yew spoke of having a fully Singaporean workforce that was not dependent on foreigners by 1991.
His message: “A wholly Singaporean workforce without any work permit holder at all by 1991.”
“Workers we want to retain beyond 1990 should be those who will raise our level of productivity,” the late Mr Lee said. “We shall give such workers permanent residence with a view to citizenship. Then we shall have a more homogenous workforce, working together as a team, because they all feel committed to Singapore. Then the principle, from each his best, to each his worth, which has been the basis of our progress, will work under optimal conditions.”
In an ominous warning to those who would disregard his advice, he said “nations which used immigrant labour to do their heavy and tough jobs have inherited grave social problems.” Citing the Japanese as an example, he praised their system which resulted in “no social problems or riots. Instead, they have high productivity from their homogenous workforce.”
The Prime Minister had planned to stop all work permits from 1983, except for the construction, shipyards and domestics industries. To make up for the labour shortfall, he suggested that Singapore married women be employed in “four-hourly shifts” in place of foreign women.
What happened between the years 1982 and 2011? Speculation says that rapid population decline started to rear its head in 1984, causing the People’s Action Party to reverse its stance on foreign labor.
Now more than 35 years later, Singapore hosts over 2 million foreigners in the country. With companies and even everyday Singaporeans addicted to cheap foreign labor, it has become more difficult for Singapore to restructure its workforce in favor of a local workforce.
If we are to stop the influx of foreigners, there is no time to waste while waiting for the economy to adjust. New solutions need to be put in to manage the declining population of Singaporeans while boosting the productivity of local workers, which would make employers reduce their reliance on foreigners. Punitive measures will need to be applied fairly and consistently to wean companies off the addiction of “cheaper foreign labor”.
Only then can we bring Singapore back on course.