In an interview with government-controlled media Mediacorp Channel 5 on Friday (July 31), Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recited the need for a Singapore identity and his responsibilities towards Singaporeans over the unpopular influx of foreigners which have resulted in overcrowding, exorbitant property prices and diminishing employment opportunities. This would have all sounded sincere but not during an election period. The next General Election will be held next month, September 12, according to another government-controlled media The Straits Times’s speculation.

Photo of Lee Hsien Loong from CNA
Photo of Lee Hsien Loong from CNA

According to Lee Hsien Loong, he said he has done his best balancing the immigration numbers and pointed out that the increase has been the slowest in the past couple of years after a decade of mass intake that saw the population jumped 20% from 4 million in year 2000 to 5.5 million today.

Prof Chan: Some people say the Government is being populist when you are now curbing population.

PM Lee: Well, I have two answers to that.

First, we do have to watch to see how the foreign workers and immigrants are fitting in with our community, and you have to watch them mix so that you don’t overbalance the numbers or the tone of our society. So it is not populist to take cognisance of these real problems and to deal with them and to calibrate the inflow.

Secondly, I would say apart from any sentimental reactions or emotional reactions, we do have to look at the overall population size in Singapore and you cannot say that if I want X million and the economy wants that, therefore I will have it. There is a trade-off in terms of the space and infrastructure, the carrying capacity of this island and we have to decide how far we can go.

And so I think what we have tried to do over the last 10 years when in the earlier phase, when the opportunities were there, we needed the growth, we were more generous in bringing in foreign workers and the immigrants.

But in the last five to seven years, since before the last election, we have calibrated, we have brought the rate down. Last year, the inflow was the slowest it has been in a very long time and I think that is necessary.”

The recent influx of foreigners have resulted in lower wages for Singapore PMETs, as the Singapore Government implement a Minimum Wage for S and E pass holders. Singapore employers can get an experienced master degree holder for only S$2,200 from India, but in Singapore, no decent local fresh graduates would even settle for that amount.

Prime Minister Lee however dismissed such allegation saying that the immigration problem is not only highlighted at the foreign PMET level, and that PMETs like more blue-collar workers, while blue-collar workers like more PMETs.

Prof Chan: I don’t think Singaporeans worry about the maids coming or construction workers. It’s your PMETs, the professionals, managers and executives and technical people who worry that foreigners are prepared to come in to work for less pay and they are marginalised … So, how do you stop PMETS from being passed over and lose out as a result?

PM Lee: Well, from the PMETs point of view, of course it is good to have domestic workers, it is good to have the helpers and the nursing assistants who can take care of your old folks and your children. But when a PMET comes to compete with a PMET, I have a political problem.

Actually, if you look at it in a different way, from the point of view of a Singapore blue collar worker, he could say, what I want is more PMETs because they will create more employment opportunities for me. I do not want that foreign sweeper or cleaner or nurse to come here and take away my job or push down my pay.

So, I can understand the sentiments. I think we have to watch to make sure that when we bring in people, where there are blue collar workers, where there are PMETs, we also take care of Singaporeans who may be in that sector and who cannot easily move out of it. And in the old days, the PMETs were a very small portion of the population. And so if you are a PMET, you are at the top 10 per cent. You are presumed to know to how to look after yourself and the numbers are not big, but now PMETs are maybe half the workforce.

So, we can’t quite take a let things be approach and I think that we have to make sure that the PMETs get a fair opportunity, that they fairly treated and that we are not overwhelmed by an inflow which is squeezing our own people.

We have made quite a number of measures over the last few years to do this. We have the Fair Employment (Consideration) Framework. We have the TAFEP (Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices), which is the committee to look at complaints in case there has not been fair employment. We have got schemes to help our PMETs specifically to upgrade themselves to master the skills, get into their jobs and I think that we also have schemes to help the PMETs who are displaced because if you are 40, 45 years-old, middle-aged, PMET, you lose your job, it is not so easy to find a similar job in another.

The response (to the schemes) is not bad but some of the schemes are still new. So we will have to see how the response is and we will have to adjust the schemes as we go along.”

When asked if the ruling party has won more support from the reduction in increase of foreign labour, PM Lee Hsien Loong skirted around the issue and avoided answering the interviewer and simply recited his responsibilities to Singaporeans:

Prof Chan: Now with the curb on immigration flow, Prime Minister, have you won more support from people, compared to the angst of the PMETs and SMEs?

PM Lee: I would say we have addressed the issue, we have made the difficulties more manageable. There will always be frictions when you have a foreign worker population or immigrant population in the country and we have to manage that, and that requires good behaviour and adjustment both on the part of the foreign workers and the immigrants as well as on the part of the Singaporeans … I would like to keep this a Singapore-Singapore and that it has to maintain that Singapore character.

I would like to just make one more point about the population. We argue the merits and the reasons and the logic of it and the trade-offs. But finally, this is a very difficult issue and it is one of those things which as a Government we have a responsibility to deal with.

If we were not in the government, it is much easier. We can make recommendations, we can write papers, we can make speeches, and we can rouse arguments, unhappiness, point out all the problems we have where we are standing. But as a Government, we have to deal with this issue and it is an issue where honestly speaking, there are no easy choices. There are trade-offs.

If we have no foreign workers, our economy suffers, our own lives suffer. (If) we have a lot of foreign workers, the economy will do well, (but) we have other social pressures, other problems with our society which are going to be very real and which we have to take very seriously and which we cannot accept.

Somewhere in the middle, we have a mix of evils; on the other hand, we may be able to find a spot where all things considered, this is something which balances our needs as well as our identity, as well as our economic requirements, and enables us to move forward. Then after three, four, five years we look at it again, we revise our view and we adjust our policy.

But as a Government, I cannot avoid having to make this decision, I have to do it on behalf of Singaporeans, we have to think: How does this affect Singaporeans? Because that is where our responsibility is. It not only affects you for now but also affect you for the long-term. For your job prospects, for your children’s future when they grow up in Singapore and what sort of Singapore will they be in.

And it is our job to think of these issues and to make the best decisions which we can, in our judgment, on your behalf and to account to you, and say to the best of my ability this is what I have decided I have to do.

And you may agree with it, you may not agree with it, but I can tell you in complete honesty that I am trying my best to do this on your behalf. And I cannot avoid doing this because otherwise I think I will be letting you down.

I do not owe hundreds of millions of potential foreign workers from around the world an obligation. I owe Singaporeans a responsibility.”

The Prime Minister also does not think that the sense of national identity is a big problem at the moment, saying that he is not worried about whether if the national identity will completely change in 5 years’ time:

Prof Chan: You say that in 50 years, you worry whether Singapore can keep up this identity, which is the commitment of people to pull together and build the country. To be committed to the country. Why in 50 years? Do you not think you have to worry about the problem now, even now?

PM Lee: Well, I think you always have a problem, but if you ask me whether in five years’ time, the national identity can completely change, I would say no, because the generation is there. I mean older ones will pass on, but the core of the population essentially will be the same, and the experiences they have lived through and that sense of togetherness, cannot radically change unless something dramatic happens in the world.

But if you ask whether over 50 years, I can assume that, without doing anything, I would still feel the same when I can still have the same excitement, buzz and cheer when I come to SG100. I would say I am not so certain, because that generation is not yet born. They are going to be born in a very different world, they are going to experience very different growing up environments and opportunities. They are going to travel a lot more than their parents or grandparents.

And their sense of who they are, what defines them – that is yet to be seen.

… You look at so many other countries who are 50 years old. Whether it is Israel, whether it is Korea, there are so many of the countries which have become independent after the war and when you reach 50 years, 60 years, the mood in the country is very, very different from the mood of the founding generation, that sense of pioneering adventure, limitless boundaries, limitless opportunities, the shades of real life close in.

And for 50 years, we have kept the opportunities very open and we have stayed very united. Yes, we have issues, when elections come, they are hot. But when you have National Day, we all celebrate National Day and we feel it proudly. In many countries, these things are passé. So to keep it like that, for another 50 years, I think is a big challenge.”