A food vendor scrolls through his phone at his small food stall, as his business has moved to delivery due to the Covid-19 outbreak in Singapore. Photo: AFP / Catherine Lai

When parliamentarians from the various political parties in Singapore gathered on Tuesday to debate the widespread anxiety over the loss of job opportunities to foreigners, all hopes were dashed when the 10-hour debate quickly degenerated into chaos.

It soon become clear that the politicians from the ruling People’s Action Party were taking turns to silence Leong Mun Wai, whom the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) had nominated to file the motion, by virtue of the PAP’s overwhelming majority in parliament.

It was heartening to see some parliamentarians from the Workers’ Party (WP) arguing passionately on behalf of Singaporeans against the defensive arguments of the PAP.

But as the government kept refusing to release data by citing the need to keep them private, it was ironic that Pritam Singh, the leader of the WP opposition did not see it fit to use his office to demand release of those data prior to the debate.

These are classic examples of fighting ruthlessly to win every battle but ending up losing the war, and in this case, the golden opportunities to do right by the people were lost by the leaderships of both the PAP and the WP.

Compromising the Singaporean Core

Before the spectacular rise of China, Singapore was the shining example that many other economies sought to emulate, and one of the key factors of its success in drawing foreign direct investment (FDI) to grow its then nascent economy was due to the diligence and trustworthiness of its workforce.

Coupled with the shrewdness of the first generation of leaders like Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Kheng Swee, a success story was created.

But as Singapore transformed into a developed economy, it failed to recalibrate its policy on foreign talent and adapting its “Singaporean Core” to the changing socio-economic challenges.

As a result, when many foreigners were granted citizenship or permanent residency, the dynamic of the Singaporean workforce was detrimentally altered.

This also resulted in a massive strain on its infrastructure, upset the affordability of its public housing and created a massive loss of employment opportunities for many of its citizens, known locally as the Singaporean Core.  

Socio-economic imbalances

The first wave of massive foreign influx from Northeast Asia resulted in the formulation of a white paper on population in 2013.

Unfortunately, that did not result in any meaningful resolution, as the importation of foreign talents has become a major revenue generator for the government in the form of levies, demand for dormitories and housing, income generated from training and certifying foreign workers, and the collection of goods and services tax (GST) from a whole range of other services.

But when a second wave of foreign PMETs (professionals, managers, executives and technicians) from South Asia invaded almost every sector of the economy yet again, driving many of Singapore’s own PMETs and young graduates into unemployment or underemployment as private hire-car drivers, couriers, security guards or other interim jobs, the call for action become much more vocal.

To make matters worse, the PAP even discarded its Confucian value of filial piety by raising the retirement age when the savings in the Central Provident Fund (CPF) accounts of many retirees were grossly insufficient to substantiate the supposedly “First World” standard of retirements due to the high cost of living in Singapore.

Many of these elderly Singaporeans ended up cleaning tables, washing dishes or doing other menial jobs while sovereign wealth funds (SWFs) like Temasek, which is a beneficiary of the national saving scheme, did very little to help close the wide income disparity.

Falling behind the curve

For a country that is known to be obsessed with planning ahead of the curve, its prevailing socio-economic woes tell a very different story.

Failing to align the education of its youth toward good job opportunities when they graduate, failing to use its SWFs to reduce the income disparity or supplement the retirement of its elderly, failing to regulate foreign PMETs from taking away good job opportunities from its citizens or controlling the exploitation of Singaporeans in the gig-economy, and the lack of explicit economic planning to guide its people forward – these are just some examples of the glaring incompetence of the government.

To make matters worse, the blurring of the line between the PAP and the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) placed the workforce at a disadvantage when most unionists are inclined to keep to the government’s narrative instead of standing resolutely on the side of the workers like the founding fathers of the NTUC.

An example is the Progressive Wage Model (PWM), which was introduced in 2012 but remains a work in progress, showing the lack of urgency in addressing pressing issues.

After years of running down recommendations to review the critical need for a fair living wage and income disparity in Singapore, unionists and politicians ought to stop citing the need for financial prudence when the city-state has already adopted a form of welfare state for its politicians, senior civil servants and senior unionists.

Ministers, mayors and other senior office holders are not only extremely well paid but are lavished with employment benefits while in office and lucrative retirement benefits when they retire.

As such, how can they then cite the need for financial prudence when addressing the systemic challenges faced by the Singaporean Core?  

Economic impacts of weakened Singaporean Core

When the Singaporean Core is weakened, it not only affects Singapore’s comparative advantage in attracting FDI but also the competitive advantages of its government-linked corporations (GLCs).

An example is when one of its leading GLCs replaced many of its Singaporean engineers with cheaper foreign engineers to create value for its shareholders but ended up shaken when several of its major customers simply threw the tender documents into their dustbins, as these foreign engineers were clueless about the complexities of the oil and gas sector and lacked the end-to-end engineering finesse needed to put up credible and compelling bids.

Several of the government-linked blue chips on the Singapore Stock Exchange have also been performing badly over the past few years and the government has had to step in to rescue and restructure several of them.

Blaming Covid-19 is not helpful as many of these GLCs were no longer as dynamic or as compelling as before and the pandemic has just hastened their economic deterioration.

Can Singapore afford to keep spending billions to keep its GLCs afloat while neglecting its small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), its entrepreneurs and its workforce that formed the backbone of its economy?

Looking ahead

While a democracy like Singapore is ideologically different from the Chinese system of governance, it can still learn much from China by putting the well-being of Singaporeans at the center of its economic policies and planning.

This would reduce the severity of any socio-economic upheaval that might undermine the harmonious relationship between the people and the government.

By keeping its people economically viable and socially contented, China has realized that this will in turn galvanize the prosperity of the central government.

If the Singaporean government is still unable to comprehend this simple logic or be humble enough to learning from the Chinese, then the road ahead for many Singaporeans will get even more daunting with every missed opportunity.

Joseph Nathan has been the principal consultant with several consultancy agencies in Singapore for about three decades. He is a Singaporean and holds an MBA from Macquarie Graduate School of Management, Australia.