It is about Foreigners or Fairness?

By Stefanie Yuen Thio

The issue is not foreign talent but transparency in the process.

DBS was last week named world’s best bank – the third consecutive year it has received such accolade. It was thus more than a little ironic that in the same week, its chief executive Piyush Gupta was cited by a Non-constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) as a disappointing example of a non “home-grown” CEO.

Mr Gupta has been a Singapore citizen since 2009 and has helmed DBS for more than a decade. On his watch, the bank hit new highs, including being named by Harvard Business Review in 2019 as one of the top 10 global companies to have made successful strategic transformations, rubbing shoulders with disruptors like Netflix, Amazon and Alibaba. It is illogical that we cannot count the sterling achievements of our naturalised citizens as our own. Lest the NCMP forget – we (or our forefathers) are all naturalised citizens. My family came from China and Guyana, where my great-great-grandfather had been shipped off as indentured labour. Singapore is a nation built on the backs of sturdy immigrants.

This discussion goes to the heart of our nation’s current self-examination regarding employment of foreign talent in Singapore which, like the rest of the world, is facing an unprecedented economic meltdown and an unemployment rate not seen since the Global Financial Crisis.

From labour leaders to opposition Members of Parliament, loud calls were made to further restrict the issuance of employment passes. In a letter to the Straits Times forum pages last month, a retired senior banker harshly accused the financial industry, citing “common knowledge that certain big, long established foreign banks have been sidelining Singaporean talent in favour of foreign hires”.

In this crisis, all countries will be prioritising jobs for locals. But in the longer term, what should Singapore’s policy on foreign talent be? Instead of a blunt approach formed as a knee-jerk reaction, we should consider what we want Singapore to be like in the coming decades, and work backwards, to achieve that vision. The Covid-19 pandemic has forced this soul-searching on us; it is also an opportunity to do a hard reset.

Singapore needs to stay open

Singapore has positioned itself as a financial and business hub. We do not manufacture low price goods; instead we sell complex financial products, market ourselves as an R&D centre, and aim to be a world beater in all our services. The quality of life our citizens are accustomed to requires us to continue to deal in products and services that yield high returns.

Staying on this trajectory means we must be able to attract international corporates to set up shop here. In addition to our excellent infrastructure, we must be able to assure companies – both home-grown and foreign – that they will be able to hire best-in-class human capital. 

The recent furore about foreign employees has created an impression – among foreigners living here and in international circles – that Singapore’s doors are increasingly closed to foreigners. International media, including the Financial Times and Bloomberg, have reported that we are cutting expatriate numbers. A reputation for being protectionist would be fatal for our economy.

And having the right foreign talent is clearly good for Singapore. Mr Gupta has arguably done more to raise our country’s profile and improve our banking industry than any other erstwhile foreigner. He is surely an example of our foreign talent policy working.

Being protectionist is a luxury we cannot afford

In the wake of the crisis, with mass retrenchments looming, we clearly need to protect jobs for Singaporeans. But a longer term entrenched “Singaporeans only” employment policy would be short-sighted and self-destructive.

Just like any international hub, such as New York or London, Singapore needs to hire from abroad the capability it does not have enough of. To do otherwise would hobble our economic growth.

We also have to maintain our policy of hiring by merit. If a foreign candidate is more capable, then he should be the pick. All things being equal, always choose the most qualified candidate, every time. That is the only way for our nation to stay ahead of the curve in high-value industries. And for overlooked locals, we should have continuing training to upskill them, and raise the bar of our workforce.

We delude ourselves if we think that handing out fewer work passes will protect Singapore jobs. If an employer in Singapore cannot get appropriate staff, it will outsource the function abroad. The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated how easy it is to telecommute. Why get the job done by an employee in Hong Kah, if you can outsource it to a better qualified and more cost-effective provider in Hebei or Hyderabad? The competition we face is not from foreigners on our shores, it is from foreigners everywhere.

A protectionist stance will therefore lead to the double whammy of hollowing out our economy while sending more jobs overseas.

About fairness, not foreigners

Reading the sub-text of the current discourse on the issue, it is not the absolute number of foreign employees in Singapore that is causing the heartburn.

Singaporeans understand and accept that we have to hire foreigners for roles we cannot fill ourselves, such as the construction workers building our HDB flats or the IT specialists that our universities are unable to produce in requisite numbers.

The unhappiness is around the system’s perceived unfairness.

The forum letter identifies one manifestation of this: “… many foreigners hired in Singapore’s finance sector have been for upper-middle to senior management positions. Once hired, these foreign staff can easily and in a short time secure their permanent resident status in Singapore.”

Much of the handwringing has been around the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) between India and Singapore, which many think gives Indian nationals a systemically smoother path to securing a work pass. Coupled with stories of how these new expatriates, having landed senior positions in certain banks, are parachuting their countrymen in disproportionate numbers into the ranks, this has created the impression that such foreigners have been handed jobs that Singaporeans are just as qualified to do.

These stories may be apocryphal in many cases, and such biased practices may be isolated incidents. But that is not apparent to the local eye, which sees a large number of South Asians in suits bestriding the corridors of power in the Central Business District. That needs to be addressed, and clearly governmental assurances that the “Singapore Core” will be maintained are no longer sufficient.

Several banks have put out helpful data evidencing a large percentage of Singaporeans in their C-suite. But while DBS and OCBC have identified what percentage of their leadership positions are held by Singaporeans only (95 per cent and 82 per cent respectively), others disclose the aggregate percentage held by Singaporeans and permanent residents (PRs). As the forum letter points out, these numbers include bankers who come into Singapore on an employment pass and transition to PR status in a short period.

The issue is therefore not whether foreigners should be allowed to work here. It is about transparency in the process so that Singaporeans can be assured that jobs are not going to foreigners unfairly. The current narrative creates alarm that Singapore has become less welcoming to foreigners. Instead, it would be better to get Singaporeans’ buy-in on the decisions. We can do so by demonstrating, with data and clear information about the process, that we hire talent only where an equivalent capability is unavailable here, for example if a majority of the work passes were for IT roles.

Make or break

Singapore is facing our greatest existential crisis since independence. It is not an overstatement that our survival depends on what we do now. If the unhappiness is about perceived unfairness, then no amount of tinkering with minimum salaries for work pass holders will silence the objections. Transparency is the sunlight that is the best disinfectant. But continuing a discussion around whether we want foreigners at all powering our economy, that way lies destruction.

A version of this article ran in the Business Times on 10 September 2020 under the headline “The issue is not foreign talent but transparency in the process”.


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