As Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat continues to appear poised to become Singapore’s fourth Prime Minister in the near future – what with his recent appointments as Deputy Prime Minister and first assistant secretary-general of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) – some have been comparing his views on a variety of topics to the views of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
Of particular interest is DPM Heng’s views on foreign workers. Some have felt that Mr Heng’s views contradict the views of the late Lee, after receiving a clue on the DPM’s thoughts when he addressed hundreds of students at the Nanyang Technological University’s (NTU) ministerial dialogue in late March.
The Minister called on Singaporeans to remain open to foreigners “so that we can have the confidence to interact with people of all races, languages and cultures from around the world.”
The Minister also cited former chief planner Liu Thai Ker’s views that Singapore should plan for a 10 million population, as he asserted that the projected population of 6.9 million by 2030, that the Government announced to widespread backlash in 2013, is not excessive.
Mr Heng added: “We don’t want a world where people build walls around themselves. Our pledge – regardless of race, language or religion – is not to be taken lightly…but really as a way of life for Singapore.
“Beyond that, we ought to deepen our understanding of other people… whether they are new immigrants, our immediate neighbours, students from NTU, National University of Singapore or other universities.”
Asserting that Singapore will have no place in the world if its people draw an exclusive circle for themselves, Mr Heng shared the story of one constituent who approached him and told him that he is uncomfortable with foreigners working in his company.
Calling this situation a “difficult trade-off,” he said: “On the one level, many Singaporeans understand, rationally, we should have more people join us because our workforce is declining.
“But at the same time, emotionally, we don’t feel comfortable that there are people who appear a little different from us and I would like to keep this to my circle. This almost tribal feeling is a very deep one.”
He concluded that Singapore must be wary of propagating the notion that only people exactly like us are our people, even as it seeks to retain its own identity and culture.
The DPM’s comments at the NTU dialogue echoed his earlier remarks at a book launch a few days prior, when he said that Singapore must remain open to the world and stay open to talent and ideas.
He said: “No one group or country has all the ideas or expertise to tackle the many challenges that the world is facing. In a world that is rapidly changing and increasingly interconnected, we need to remain open and collaborate to achieve better outcomes together.”
Noting that people in Singapore and other countries are questioning the value of globalisation even though they benefited from it, Mr Heng added:
“People feel that they are left behind. They are frustrated that wages are stagnating and lives are not improving. They lost faith in their political systems and governments. These have led to a weakening of social cohesion.
“These winds of change remind us about the importance of remaining open to the world and being resourceful.”
Mr Heng urged Singapore to brave these “winds of change” by ensuring that it remains multiracial and multicultural despite tensions and fault lines like religious polarisation, xenophobia and social stratification.
The PAP heavyweight received widespread flak for his comments. Many netizens felt that the Minister shouldn’t blame Singaporeans for not being open to foreigners when many locals are being pushed out of jobs they are qualified for by cheaper foreign labour.
Many also criticised DPM Heng’s allusion to the 10 million population argument.
Calling the 10 million population argument “outdated” and “fundamentally economically and socially flawed,” ex-GIC chief economist, Yeoh Lam Keong, said that he was especially disappointed that the Finance Minister uncritically cited this argument since he is an economist himself and “should know better.”
Backlash against DPM Heng for citing the 10 million population argument does not seem to have died down. Earlier this month, the Singapore Democratic Party said DPM Heng’s allusion to the argument could be one reason why Singaporeans are frustrated with the current immigration policy.
The opposition party asserted that Mr Heng’s allusion to the 10 million population argument does not provide relief to Singaporeans who feel “the effects of an overcrowded city” thanks to the high rate of PMET retrenchment, the high cost of living and the influx of foreigners.
Some also drew comparisons between DPM Heng’s views and former PM Lee Kuan Yew’s views on the foreign workforce.
In 2018, Mr Lee said that Singapore should reduce its need for foreign workers in a five-year time period. That was nine years ago.
Speaking at a public dialogue, the then-Minister Mentor (MM) called on the Government to scale back on the inflow of foreign workers within half a decade and invest in upgrading the skills in the local workforce instead. He had said:
“The next five years, we have decided we will tier down our need for foreign workers. We will pay for help to educate people, continuing education and training, which means a lot of money, probably co-payment with the employer to send him (the worker) for training so that he’s paid whilst he’s doing the training, then he increases his skill.
“We’ve grown in the last five years by just importing labour. Now, the people feel uncomfortable, there are too many foreigners. Trains are overcrowded with foreigners, buses too, property prices have gone up because foreigners with permanent residence are buying into the market.
“The answer is simple: We check the flow of foreigners, raise your productivity, do the job better, so that instead of two workers, eventually you’ll do it with one worker, like the Japanese do.”