THE Workers' Party fleshed out its alternative population road map in Parliament yesterday, one that envisions growing the local workforce at 1 per cent a year and capping the inflow of foreign labour at current levels.
It drew immediate questions from the PAP front bench and backbenchers, who warned that the plan would kill companies.
The WP plan projects that local workforce expansion, coupled with productivity gains, will create economic growth of 2.5 per cent to 3.5 per cent from now until 2020, Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam said.
Beyond that, as productivity gains slow, the WP is aiming for economic growth of 1.5 to 2.5 per cent from 2020 to 2030.
It wants to see the workforce grow primarily through attracting economically inactive locals back into the labour market, he said.
According to the Labour Force Survey of 2012, there are 418,000 such residents, of whom 90,000 are willing to work.
By expanding the local workforce, the WP wants to then stop the inflow of more foreign workers.
Mr Giam stressed that forcing local businesses to restructure away from their dependence on foreign labour and focus on productivity growth would raise wages for locals - which in turn would attract more locals to enter the workforce.
He noted that the workers' wage share of gross domestic product here, at 42.3 per cent, is small compared to that of most other developed countries.
But several PAP backbenchers and ministers said that the WP's plan to turn the tap off on foreign labour was unrealistic and would sound the death knell for many small and medium enterprises.
Describing the WP's plan as a "zero tolerance approach" towards foreign labour, Second Minister for Trade and Industry S. Iswaran asked if the WP would deny even sectors that Singaporeans shun, like construction, more foreign labour.
He probed Mr Giam repeatedly on whether the WP wants to freeze immigration before the NCMP replied that the party would take in new citizens of up to 10,000 a year, considerably lower than the 15,000 to 25,000 a year that the White Paper projects.
Mr Giam said that the need for low-productivity sectors to restructure is not a matter of "if" but "when", and that the Government should help them to do so now while the budget is healthy, rather than later when the country is "bursting at its seams".
To further questions, he emphasised that the WP is not an "anti-immigrant party" and that it welcomes foreigners who can contribute.
But it wants to keep the foreign workforce at the current level of 1.4 million - replacing those who leave with newcomers. Its goal is not to turn the tap of foreign labour off, but rather see local workforce expansion power economic growth, he said.
But Mr Inderjit Singh (Ang Mo Kio GRC) said that the approach was callous to local SMEs, which will need time to change their business models. The WP's plan, he said, "is not going to accelerate restructuring; it's going to kill companies".
The "how" of the WP plan also drew a flurry of questions from the PAP side.
In his speech, WP MP Chen Show Mao (Aljunied GRC) zeroed in on senior citizens and the foreign spouses of citizens as groups that can be tapped further to augment the resident workforce.
Currently, foreign spouses here on long-term visit passes must apply for work permits before they can take up jobs, and about a fifth are rejected, he noted. It is especially hard for those who want part-time work, so that they can take care of their kids, to find arrangements, he said.
There is also scope for senior citizens to contribute more and for longer, he said, adding that the Government should stop seeing senior citizens as a drain on the country's resources.
"An ageing population is a triumph of development," he said.
To this, Acting Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin (Marine Parade GRC) pointed out the schemes already in place to attract more homemakers and seniors to the job market.
For example, there is the Special Employment Credit to incentivise employers to hire older workers.
He asked the WP MPs for concrete new proposals on how to boost the labour force participation rate of senior citizens, which is already one of the highest in the world at 64 per cent.
Mr Chen said that Mr Tan's call reminded him of "the person who claims that quitting smoking is easy because he has done it a hundred times".
"We may well have programmes already in place, but unless we are saying there is no more room for us to grow in these directions, (the WP) is proposing that we focus (more) resources in these important directions instead of importing more foreign workers," he said.
Mr Tan rejected the suggestion that this was the Government's approach, pointing out the measures in place, from skills retraining to boosting productivity.
In all these, the Government's goal was to "generate the level of growth (at which) we can provide for our people".
If this can be achieved through productivity gains or more locals entering the workforce, then "it obviously allows us flexible space in terms of the foreign labour numbers as well".
To this point, Mr Giam said: "This is not in contradiction to what we have said.
"With increased labour force participation, we can achieve a reasonable GDP growth without having to import a whole lot more of foreign workers."
When the session ended, both men were seen deep in discussion in a corner of the chamber. Mr Tan said on his Facebook last night that he had a "nice long chat" with Mr Giam on his team's suggestions. There were common perspectives, but also differences, he noted. "Some differences lie more with degree rather than trajectory. But best to debate it in Parliament!"