A reduction in the proportion of non-resident foreigners in Singapore, let's say to 17 per cent of the population, would mean immediate vacancies for about 415,000 jobs, the vast majority of which would be incapable of being filled by Singaporeans. The resident unemployment rate (non seasonally-adjusted, again as at June 2011) was just 3.9%, or 81,200 Singaporean citizens and PRs. Improved productivity, higher wages and enhanced training programmes could over time permit a reduction in the number of foreign workers in Singapore, especially in construction. We can certainly slow down the rate of growth of the foreign workforce in Singapore, as the country is already beginning to do. But Singapore will continue to depend on a sizeable number of foreign workers for the foreseeable future. The reality is that there is no easy short-term answer to the question posed in the title of Mr Low's article. A thought experiment may help frame the problem: what if we woke up tomorrow, and all the foreigners were gone?
Who would drive the bus that you take to work? Who would take my blood sample when I do my health-screening examination? Or help build the 43,000 HDB flats currently under construction, and the new general hospital in Jurong? Who would take care of our aged? None of the things we want -- HDB flats available sooner, more hospital beds, more MRT lines and stations -- can be accomplished without foreign workers.
An “us-versus-them” dichotomy in the discourse on foreigners is understandable in the context of contestation for jobs and scarce resources, as well as fears of a dilution in national identity. The upward pressures on the costs of living, the greater congestion in public transport and in parks, the new and sometimes loud cacophony of accents and languages that we overhear in everyday life, have created a sense of disquiet amongst some Singaporeans.
Foreigners, who have historically found locals to be at the very least tolerant of newcomers, are now feeling less sure of their place in this country. Certainly, more needs to be done, not just to provide the right physical, economic and human capital base for Singaporeans, but also to ensure equitable growth and better involve citizens in deciding our future. In the meantime, can we afford to throw out 415,000 foreign workers, let alone 1,157,000 of them, and bring our country to a halt?
I agree with Christopher that a sudden reduction, as it were, of foreigners or foreign workers will have serious consequences for our economy and society. Which is why my article in Yahoo made no such calls.
I also agree with Christopher that more needs to be done which, incidentally, is what my article had called for - in particular for the Government to let Singaporeans know what its plans are, going forward. The National Population and Talent Division (NPTD), under the Prime Minister's Office, has laid out various scenarios for our population into the future. However, these are scenarios and not solutions. The Government will, of course, take these studies and projections into consideration in forming its various policies. Perhaps it could also share with Singaporeans how it sees Singapore's dependence on these foreigners changing (or not changing), going forward.
The point of my article was to make the case that the negative sentiments about the presence of the large number of foreigners here are based, at least in part, in my opinion, on the uncertainty of where our policies - and our country - are headed with regards to population and economic policies. (Both of which are mutually-dependent, it seems.)
Besides the concerns which Christopher mentioned, if we retained (or even increased) the number of foreigners here, there is also the other side of the equation - namely, the social friction which is occurring. While this may not be as pronounced for the moment, the fear is that it will take root and become a serious problem.
These and other concerns were also echoed by other participants at a recent forum: Is Singapore turning into a xenophobic society?
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