LIFE is all about people and demographics. This is all the more so in talent-scarce Singapore. I will always remember when this first struck me. I was a very green undergraduate and took Population & Migration 101 as one of my degree's modules. I won't tell you how long ago that was. I took the module to add diversity to my history degree.
I learnt what you all know - that people and populations and the way they migrate around the world are the key to the sustainability of the human race, countries and businesses.
Singapore's transformation over the past 50 years has brought us all many benefits and an enviable quality of life. It has, like all good things, brought us a number of unintended results too. I believe we need to deal with these as a business community and as a society in order to sustain both.
In my capacity as a 30-year advocate of and for Singapore, and in my current role as chief executive of the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce, I would urge my fellow Singaporeans to give some thought to the following three core points.
First, our manpower policy. I think we are tackling the foreign manpower issue incorrectly. The overall thrust of our manpower policy is sound. We have finite space, we certainly do need to improve our productivity level and we need to be weaned off our 30-plus-year addiction to cheap foreign labour.
However, my contention is that the execution of the policy can and should be improved to benefit Singaporeans, our businesses and, therefore, our society. Instead of a "one size fits all" execution of the policy, our government should take a more focused approach. Would it not make more commercial and societal sense to ensure that Singaporeans get the jobs they want rather than increasing business costs by wage inflation to try and attract them to jobs that they don't and never will want to do?
If we took this more focused approach, it would remove the government's concern that easing manpower restrictions for one sector would only result in every sector saying "we're unique and special too". The other advantage of a much more focused approach would be that both business and government would no longer spend a disproportionate amount of time on S and E pass appeals.
This would make our manpower policy easier to implement and free up business to spend time on executing growth strategies, improving capacity, productivity and value-add to society at large. With the exception of ensuring a fair, living wage for the least well paid among us via a minimum wage or other mechanisms, it is not the government's role either to tell businesses whom to employ or how much to pay them. It is the government's role to ensure a level playing field for all talent to allow free and fair competition for jobs. Our government has delivered this well in line with many other governments around the world.
My second point concerns the Fair Consideration Framework (FCF). It means what it says. It is fair to all. It is not and never was intended to be a Singaporean first or Singaporean only model. It should never be either. It is simply not in our society's best interests to cut off the flow of global talent completely. It is, however, in all our best interests to be judicious about what sectors we employ more or less global talent.
Modern Singapore has been built by Mr Lee Kuan Yew, his very talented team and its equally talented successors working with Singaporeans to execute a clearly articulated vision. Part of that execution is the clear realisation that no one owes us Singaporeans a living. We succeed by hard work and by not taking anything or anyone for granted. There is no room in any economy and certainly not in a small city state like ours for complacency or a misplaced sense of entitlement by any sector of our society. No one owes any of us a living: no employer, no customer, no government and no other country.
Singapore must remain a global hub for talent for the simple reason that we don't have enough of our own to grow and sustain our economy. That was true in 1965 and is still true today. What we do need to do is to accept that a better educated population is not going to want to accept a wider spectrum of jobs. This is exactly the same in other developed economies.
We should allow sufficient foreign workers in to do the jobs that we Singaporeans do not want to do while taking full advantage of technological developments. At the same time, we should facilitate the employment of more Singaporeans in those jobs and sectors where they want to do the jobs and have the skills to do them. It is good to see the financial services industry taking positive steps in this direction but it can do much more and should be made to.
Last but not least, we have to wake up and stop treating people of different ages as some kind of unique silo being alternatively courted and condescended to. We are all human beings and the only things that matter when it comes to employment are character, health, values, skills and potential. Age is not important.
Discrimination is bad everywhere. Here in Singapore it is simply illogical given our tight labour market.
We have a discriminatory attitude to young people and anyone over 40. Does it mean the only time we're taken seriously is in our 30s? It's time to stop age discrimination at both ends of our lives and treat people equally. It is time to pay people the same salary provided they can perform.
We should not be giving financial incentives to employers to employ anyone. Instead, we should ensure that all working Singaporeans are paid the same and have the same CPF rates for doing the same job. That's equality.
When I became chief executive of the chamber in June this year I went on record to say that my key priorities revolve around human capital. The chamber wants to raise awareness of and debate issues such as ageism, education, workforce attitudes of a misplaced sense of entitlement and enhancing Singaporean executive talent by overseas postings.