In my meetings with business leaders, I often hear them lament that despite the availability of growth opportunities in Singapore, the key constraint to realising these opportunities is neither capital nor ideas, but the availability of talent. This dearth of talent has led companies to curtail their expansion plans, with some even contemplating taking their business offshore.
In the past, foreign workers and professionals have augmented our local talent pool. However, there is a limit to how many foreigners our society and infrastructure can accommodate. The government has given the assurance that the share for foreign talent will be limited to one third of the workforce.
As we approach this limit, it is more important than ever to find ways to tap on the talents of every Singaporean. Furthermore, Singapore has one of the fastest aging populations and one of the lowest birth rates in the world. This highlights how critical it is for us to nurture every citizen and bring out the best in our people.
Mr Deputy Speaker, Sir, I would like to speak today on how we can better support two groups of Singaporeans on this.
First, I would like to begin with a subject that is close to my heart, and that is how we can better realise the full potential of women in Singapore. Research has shown a clear link between gender equality and a country’s economic strength. Indeed, Nordic countries that lead the world in many indicators of gender equality rank amongst the strongest global competitors with the highest standards of living.
The opportunity with women in Singapore was recognised early on. Back in 1975,our former Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew said and I quote:“Societies which do not educate and use half their potential because they are women, are those which will be the worse off. Those that do, and face up to problems of new social and family relationships to help working wives to bring up the next generation, are those most likely to provide better lives for their people. We cannot not educate and use the energy and ability of our women.”Unquote.
Singaporean women today have more opportunities than in the past. We have seen more and more women leading in their respective fields. However, we still have 58,000 women with university degrees not working, 3 times more than that of men. And despite recent gains, women’s labour force participation remains low at only 57% as compared to that of men at 77%. Amongst women who work, few make it to leadership positions. Women occupy only 27% of ‘executive’ level positions, and only 6% of board positions in Singapore listed companies. Singapore only ranked 56th amongst 134 countries in Global Gender Gap Index by World Economic Forum.
Sir, deploying more women in the workforce contributes far beyond having more pairs of hands, or achieving egalitarian ideals. Women bring unique talents, skill sets, life experiences and perspectives to the workplace. There is a body of research which suggests that companies with a strong women representation at board and top management roles are also the companies that perform best.
The challenge of juggling family and work demands is the key reason for low women representation in our workforce, as women continue to be the primary caregiver. Close to 90% of women stop work due to family responsibilities. Over the years, I have counselled many female colleagues who struggle with the choice of staying at home or continue working, usually after having children. They are typically at the prime of their career potential. They feel a strong sense of guilt about not having enough family time, yet they also feel a great sense of loss in giving up the career they have built and the financial security that comes with it. Juggling work and family can be a delicate balance. I remember my days as a young mother, rushing home to see my sons during lunch break, was the best reward of a working day, even when this usually meant a precious 15 minutes at home, before rushing back for the next meeting. Being away on business trips was often a miserable experience.
In modern Singapore, women who choose to work, should be supported so that they can work and take care of their families at the same time. But in order for this to happen, they need ready access to child and elder care services, they need their husbands as joint partners in raising their families, and they also need employers and government to adopt family friendly policies. We still have some way to go in providing these.
For example, despite the many discussions in this house around flexi work arrangements, women here continue to struggle with the painful choice between full time work or no work, as flexi and part time work arrangements, including home based work, are not readily available. 61% of women who are not working, have indicated they would work, if flexi and part time arrangements were made available. Being one of the most highly connected and technologically advanced countries in the world, Singapore has all the natural levers to support flexi work. Not leveraging this to enable women to stay in the workforce is truly a missed opportunity.
In addition, more can be done to help women to go back to work, especially those in the lower income group, as this will mean helping their families with extra income to lift living standards.
NTUC’s Back to Work programme, has helped 8,000 women return to the workforce, but there are still more than 235,000 economically inactive women between the prime ages of 25-54 that could be re-inducted. I have met a number of female residents who are frustrated at not being able to even land a job interview despite pursuing numerous training programs. The reason is simply that employers are not confident about their ability to adapt to the work environment and the pace of work, especially with older women who have stopped work for some time. So in many cases, the employer’s concerns have less to do with the applicant’s relevant skills, and more about her fitting into the working environment.
Sir, taking inspiration from the successful Job Credit Scheme, can we not consider a special grant to encourage employers to offer re-induction to women returning to the workforce? Under this scheme, which I will call the Re-entry Scheme for the purposes of this discussion, companies can obtain grants from the government for a limited period of time, perhaps 3 to 6 months for hiring female returnees to the workplace. This is to ease the re-induction of women into the workplace, by immersing themselves in the operating rhythm and orientating themselves to the rigour of a new job. The Re-entry Scheme will help offset the employer’s cost for on-the-job training as well as any redesign of work arrangements necessary. Yes, this will be an investment by the government, but this is an investment that is completely targeted to developing the vocational skills of the worker for the task she is already employed to do, rather than training given in the hope that she will find a job. I would further recommend that this scheme be extended to older workers for the same purposes.
Sir, the experience of other countries and our own suggests that meaningful changes will not occur naturally. Instead, they are the result of determined and sustained government interventions, regulations and provisions. We have only seen a mere increase of 5 percentage points in women labour force participation in 20 years. In the meantime, our fertility rate has slid to a historic low of 1.16. This contrasts starkly with countries such as Norway, where gender equality and female friendly employment policies make it easier for women to raise families whilst enjoying successful careers and financial security. Norway’s women labour participation is at a high of 80%, whilst the fertility rate a respectable 1.96. Our lack of progress in this field is all the more conspicuous when stacked up against our achievements and progress in many other areas such as the economy, education, environment and heath.
What does it take to keep this issue at the top of the political and social agenda, to drive it to resolute and urgent action? Today, the issues highlighted are spread across government agencies co-ordinated by an ‘office’ within MCYS, which itself oversees a wide portfolio of concerns from social welfare, youth, sports, community bonding to aging. Can women and family not be represented by a dedicated Ministry, as in other countries such as Sweden, New Zealand and Malaysia. There should be enhanced levels of resources, a strong mandate and authority to prescribe and enforce, rather than to be left to the best efforts of the occasional campaign or promotion by different agencies. The integration of work and family is a national concern, and deserves to be addressed with the right policies, and a comprehensive strategy. Society should be educated and stakeholders should be given clear targets to aspire to.
Mr Deputy Speaker, Sir, it is time for us to give this area the impetus it deserves. Our success in doing so will mean higher household incomes, more fulfilling lives, and happier families. And very likely, it will also mean more babies. And we will have provided employers in Singapore an enlarged pool of talent who bring unique skills. Sir, this is a win-win-win scenario for the country.
I would now like to address the issues faced by another group, Singapore’s Professionals, Managers and Executives. This is a significant group that make up more than half of our workforce. Riding the wave of our vibrant economy, many professionals and executives are going places and making the most of the many opportunities available to them. However, many of my constituents are also anxious about their access to quality jobs and career prospects. Some have shared their concerns of seeing large numbers of foreigners in their workplace. They fear being marginalised by the liberal inflow of foreigners and having their wages depressed.
The reality is that business is all about pragmatism – given a choice, businesses will tend towards the most expedient, convenient and cheapest options to fulfil its objectives. And with the trend of business cycles becoming shorter and more volatile, business leaders are focusing on capturing immediate opportunities rather than on investing in longer term solutions. So if there is an easily accessible pool of well-qualified and low-cost foreigners to tap into, there is less urgency for employers to invest in grooming Singaporeans for the same jobs.
This concern is amplified by global trends that shift growth drivers from West to East. Whereas in the past, the competition for jobs had come primarily from other lower cost Asian countries and primarily for lower-skilled opportunities, Singaporean executives now also encounter competition from developed but job-scarce nations of the Western hemisphere. Head-hunters tell me how attractive Singapore has become to qualified candidates from the US and Europe, willing even to take a pay cut to learn about Asia from the most cosmopolitan city– that is, Singapore! We area small country with a limited number of jobs on offer, yet we have become a magnet for talent from all over the world. What measures do we have in place to ensure Singaporeans remain at the core of our workforce?
Sir, let me be clear about the point I am making. It is not about Singapore’s need to access a diverse, globally competitive pool of talent, about which there should be no doubt. My point is about (1) how to ensure employers sustain a preference to employ ‘Singaporeans first’, and (2) where it is not possible, how to persuade them to invest in developing Singaporeans with the necessary skills to step up to those jobs.
The recent changes to Employment Pass (EP) scheme will help level the playing field on pay and increase the overall quality of EP holders. It is definitely a step in the right direction, but can we do more? I must say our EP system is one of the more liberal system internationally with qualifying criteria based on min threshold of salaries and education qualifications.
Here are the questions that Singaporeans commonly ask: Will locals remain at the core of our workforce if employers are not subjected to quotas on their intake of foreigners? How can we be sure that employers adopt a Singaporean first policy by trying their best to employ local talent before hiring foreign talent? Where employers claim that it is not possible to hire a Singaporean because of the nature of the job, how can we be sure that those particular jobs are correctly specified or paid? If those skills are indeed so rare, how can we persuade employers to train Singaporeans to fill those jobs? I believe these are very valid and important questions and we must says to address them in a systematic and thoughtful way. Many other countries, even the Gulf States, which welcome foreigners to supplement locals, have put in place measures that deal with the issues highlighted. This allows the admission of high quality foreign talent without adversely affecting the job opportunities and wages of locals. The possible introduction of quotas can also play a key role in protecting strategic industries and guard against vulnerability from over-reliance on foreigners in selected sectors.
Of course, Sir, it is also important that we do not take any steps suddenly, as this may shake the confidence of companies who have invested in Singapore and adversely impact our global competitiveness. At the same time, we certainly should not wait till the situation becomes so dire that drastic corrective action becomes necessary. Instead, the initiatives discussed above may be introduced in a gradual and phased manner, so as to allow businesses to adapt to the changes. But the message will be unmistakeable: That their human resource planning must adopt a “Singaporean first” policy and cater for the placement of Singaporeans at the core of their workforce. They can then take gradual but resolute steps to systematically prepare Singaporeans for the best jobs.
Sir, I wish to point out that employers stand to benefit significantly from having Singaporeans at the core of the workforce. It is a common practice among the enlightened employers to groom local executives in their succession planning. They understand that having a strong local team enhances business continuity and operational resilience, as Singaporeans are here for the long term. They possess a special connection to the local community, and a finely nuanced understanding of the local environment, a key lever for being competitive.
In conclusion, Sir, I recall once again, our President’s call for us to help all Singaporeans realise their fullest potential. For the last 46 years, we have proven time and time again that whenever we put our minds and our collective will to surmounting a challenge, we can succeed. I believe that Singapore can also lead the way in realising the full potential that women can bring to society. I believe that we can, and we should give Singaporeans the first chance at the best jobs amidst globalisation. And I believe our best days lie ahead of us, Singapore will be a city of opportunities, where people learn and grow, and be the best they can be.
Mr Speaker, Sir, on that note, I end my speech by re-affirming my support for the motion.