Singapore

THE government will still keep a close watch to ensure companies don't slip back to over-rely on foreign workers again - even as it has no plans to further squeeze their inflow, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Tuesday.

"As I said last week, I do not expect any further major measures to tighten foreign worker numbers," he said in kicking off this year's Productivity Month at the Suntec Singapore Convention & Exhibition Centre.

"We will give companies time to adjust to the measures and re-tool themselves," he told some 800 executives at the event hosted by the Singapore Business Federation and the Singapore National Employers Federation. "But we need to continue monitoring closely, to ensure that we stay on track in avoiding over-dependence on foreign workers."

The latest manpower numbers show that the tighter foreign-worker policy in recent years is bearing fruit, with foreign worker growth easing to its slowest pace in five years.

"It is now at a more sustainable level and about where we want it," Mr Lee said. "Real wages are rising - both median and, more importantly, wages at the lower end."

Regulating the foreign worker tap is one of three prongs in Singapore's push for higher productivity. By putting the squeeze on foreign workers, Mr Lee said, the government wanted to put pressure on companies to upgrade their workers, rather than simply hire extra bodies.

"But we still give companies enough access to foreign workers to complement their Singaporean workforce, because if we allow too few foreign workers, or freeze their numbers, some businesses will not survive, especially SMEs, and many Singaporean jobs will disappear."

Productivity growth has been fundamental to Singapore's prosperity - and Mr Lee noted that Singapore has been promoting it for over 30 years.

In 1987, when he was minister for trade and industry, Mr Lee likened the productivity movement to a marathon without a finishing line. That remains true today, he said.

The description, quoted from a letter by Kohei Goshi, a former chairman of the Japan Productivity Centre, to then-prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, was repeated by the latter in 1988 because he said that the press had not picked it up.

Now, the current prime minister has reproduced the quote for a third time in his speech: "All world class marathons are designed to test the athlete's endurance and will to win. Flat courses are inevitably followed by 'heart break hills' and any good athlete knows that you cannot maintain the same pace throughout the marathon if you expect to win."

So it's a reminder to Singapore to up the effort to increase productivity, year after year, Mr Lee noted.

Apart from controlling foreign worker inflows, he said, the government is also doing its best to support companies in upgrading productivity, be it in investing in technology, training workers or streamlining of operations. This is another of the three-pronged strategy to improve productivity.

The third prong is to treat the push for higher productivity as a national effort. Mr Lee said that this means, among other things, "society must celebrate individuals for their passion, endeavour and skills, not their qualifications alone".

"Outside their workplace, Singaporeans must be open to change," he added. "Productivity requires changes in mindsets not just in businesses and workers, but also customers. Customers must be ready to embrace new business models, such as self-service formats."