“What is the point behind the question?”. Quite a number of points, actually.
A debate in Parliament on Monday (Jan 6) on the government’s Industry Transformation Maps saw this rather loaded question arising out of a clash between Pritam Singh and Chan Chun Sing. The Workers’ Party secretary-general had tabled a question asking for the number of new jobs created in each of the 23 sectors covered under the ITMs. He wanted a detailed breakdown – Singaporeans, Permanent Residents and Foreigners.
(ITMs are roadmaps to drive industry transformation – each ITM consists of a growth and competitiveness plan, supported by four pillars: productivity, jobs and skills, innovation and trade and internationalisation).
Minister of State for Manpower Zaqy Mohamad replied that employment for the sectors grew 19,500 overall, a result of an increase in employment for 39,300 Singaporeans and 8,600 PRs, and a decrease in employment for 28,500 foreigners. Presumably since the ITMs came into existence in 2016.
Not satisfied, Singh pressed Zaqy for more data (writer: my nativist interpretation) – such as a broad picture of how many true-blue born and bred Singaporean PMETs have lost or gained jobs in recent times. Having such figures in the open would result in better and healthier public discourse so that, Singh stressed, “you don’t have a corrosive conversation about Singaporeans losing jobs to foreigners, et cetera.”
Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing then jumped in to deliver a mini rah-rah speech on how important it was for Singaporeans to stop looking for divisions within this society and instead always regard everyone as part of Team Singapore. They should appreciate how foreigners have helped grow the economy and so on – and thank their lucky stars?
Over time, with more jobs created and more Singaporeans being trained, they may one day take on the top job that was once occupied by a foreigner, Chan added.
He then threw a small data bone to Singh: Local employment increased by nearly 60,000 between 2015 and 2018.
Singh: “If that is the case, then for (the increase of 60,000 in local employment between 2015 and 2018)… How many were for Singaporeans and how many went to PRs?”
Chan: “We can get you the numbers. But let me say this: What is the point behind the question? Has local unemployment increased with all these efforts?…
“It’s not the data — it is the point of (Singh’s) question.”
What is the point?
For a start, Singaporeans have the unquestionable, in fact, inalienable, right to know. Born and bred Singaporeans bore the brunt of having built up post-independent Singapore. They were not invited here to be part of the process of creating or developing the country. It was not a matter of choice, as PRs and foreigners had, enticed as they were by the lure of jobs or the search for a better life or somewhere to park their money.
True-blues had nowhere else to go to except to make good here – or die trying. So now they seek this piece of information so that they can judge for themselves whether they have been sidelined or been treated decently by the government. Call it one of the effects of globalisation, this anxiety which needs to be assuaged.
Giving true-blues or nativists or inward looking Singaporeans (whatever you sarcastically call them) the truth is not the government’s prerogative. It is its non-negotiable responsibility.
Next, it is absurd to imply that providing the statistics would lead to divisions or hostility towards PRs and foreigners. The DNA of this society is multi-almost everything, whether we like it or not. Many Singapore leaders were born in other countries – the late DPM S Rajaratnam was born in Sri Lanka and Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan in Penang.
One of the government’s own fears has always been we may end up neither here nor there and that we should work to retain a core to retain our values and anchor us as we deal with all the waves of change. Now, when it suits its purpose, suddenly hostility rears its ugly head. No, hostility exists only in the government’s own imagination, insecurity or inability to present its case convincingly to the public for keeping such figure so unnecessarily hush-hush.
The ball is in the court of the government to explain why any Singapore PMET has to become a security guard – with statistics. Even one Singapore graduate with an MBA working to be a guard or tuition teacher is a big indictment of our manpower management.
The ball is in the court of the government to persuade Singaporeans that they have not been disadvantaged by having to serve national service – full-time and reservist – as part of the much-lauded Team Singapore. While we are at it, are there figures showing how many true-blue Singaporeans have migrated to avoid having to be part of a system which works AGAINST them? Think of the unconscionable number of native talents we have lost in the relative neglect or preference for easy solutions.
Above all, for heaven’s sake, the request for data was raised in Parliament and not heckled around recklessly in the Geylang redlight district between questionable characters. An MP has raised a perfectly legitimate question and expect a civil answer.
Hence, the question true-blue Singaporeans wish to ask the government is: What is the point of asking Pritam Singh what his point was? He was just doing his job.
Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of The Independent.SG, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.