[Photo above” Straits Times, 1 Jan 1982]
“A wholly Singaporean workforce without any work permit holder at all by 1991.”
No, that is not a slogan of a protest campaign. It was, in fact, the aim of Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, in 1982.
Mr Lee, who passed away in 2015, had announced the 10-year target in his New Year Message that year.
“Workers we want to retain beyond 1990 should be those who will raise our level of productivity,” the prime minister 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.”
He said that “nations which used immigrant labour to do their heavy and tough jobs have inherited grave social problems.”
He then cited the Japanese as an example which Singapore could follow.
“They have no social problems or riots. Instead, they have high productivity from their homogenous workforce,” Mr Lee said.
The Prime Minister’s plan was to stop all work permits from 1983.
“From January 1983, as their work permits expire, they will begin to leave.
“Thus, all non-traditional country workers will leave by Dec 31, 1984, except for construction and shipyards, and domestics.”
He also proposed that “Singapore married women” be employed in “four-hourly shifts” in place of foreign women.
Of course, Mr Lee’s plan did not come to fruition as circumstances changed in the following years and decades. Singapore’s birth rate, for example, became a source of worry from 1984, when Mr Lee first raised it in his public speeches. Up till this day, the Government is still struggling with the issue.
More than 3 decades after Mr Lee set that 10-year target, Singapore is now home and work place to more than 2 million foreigners on its shores.
Mr Lee was also not the only one in government who was sceptical of a large foreign labour force.
I0 years earlier, in 1972, then Finance Minister Hon Sui Sen had also warned of “the dangers of foreign labour”, describing such a situation as “politically undesirable.”
“Immigrant labour may also provide a temporary supplement to our labour resources but it is plainly undesirable on political and social grounds that we should have to depend on more than a limited and regulated supply of such labour,” Mr Hon said in a book marking the 50th birthday of Mr Lee.