THE drumbeat that the economy must restructure to rely less on foreign labour has been sounding for years but the message seems to have been largely missed by human resource (HR) professionals.

An informal survey conducted yesterday among HR executives - who play the key role of hiring and firing - found that most are against closing down inefficient companies so that manpower can go to more efficient industries.

Such restructuring happens regularly in global economies and could also reduce Singapore's dependence on foreigners.

About 62 per cent of participants either "disagreed" or "strongly disagreed" with such a move in the poll of more than 70 HR professionals held during an industry discussion session.

Only 28 per cent said they "agreed" or "strongly agreed" while 10 per cent said they "neither agreed nor disagreed".

One participant at the session, organised by Human Capital Singapore at its Hoe Chiang Road premises, said entrepreneurs are important and so the country should help every local small and medium-sized firm to succeed.

The HR professionals also felt Singapore could not function well without foreigners.

About 60 per cent said many public services could not be delivered if the quota of foreign workers was reduced while 27 per cent said services would be able to carry on. The rest were undecided.

Still, there is an openness to new measures to use local manpower to remain competitive, with 77 per cent saying their companies are receptive to the idea.

While cheap foreign labour or well-trained overseas talent may help firms boost their bottom lines, there has been public unhappiness about the social cost, such as increased crowding and higher housing prices.

The Government has looked to cut down on the economy's dependence on foreign labour while seeking to grow productivity, but several sectors are still clamouring for more foreign workers.

One session participant said some sectors such as child care and nursing cannot be automated and so should have higher foreigner quotas.

But Mr Then Yee Thoong, divisional director of the labour relations and workplaces division at the Ministry of Manpower, said every sector would argue that it is unique and requires more manpower.

The key is to help firms raise productivity, he said, noting that the construction sector, for example, has a lower productivity level than the industry in Japan or Hong Kong. The local sector has a very generous foreign labour quota but firms still say it is not enough, he said.

"The fact remains that if we don't do anything (in terms of policy), they are not going to change their methods," he said. "You still see (construction) people holding stop-go signs (to direct traffic)."

Mrs Josephine Teo, Minister of State for Finance and Transport, said the public needs a change in mindset and businesses need to change the design of jobs.

"We are not the only country in the world where there is a health-care system. We are not the only country where there are hotels, nursing homes and so on," she said.

"What makes us think that there is something so unique and special about Singapore that we cannot overcome the challenge of finding the right people?

"There is something very peculiar... that makes us believe that unless we open our doors, we cannot persuade enough (people) to do the job."

Mrs Teo said that "something has to change" in the psyche of the country to give due respect to all jobs, such as construction personnel.

Singapore has already made such a mindset change: in the early days of independence, the job of a soldier was looked down on, but now soldiers are given respect, Mrs Teo said.

Singapore could take a leaf from the book of some Taiwanese companies. Human Capital Singapore chief executive Ho Geok Choo said she visited Taiwan eatery Wang Steak during a recent working trip.

Graduates were working as waiters there, she said, and they were very enthusiastic and provided excellent service.

The secret was that staff would be given a share of the profits of the steakhouse. That gave them a sense of ownership in the business and made them willing to work there long term, she added.