THE foreign manpower issue appeared to be a top concern for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) here, as the subject dominated a post-Budget panel discussion organised by the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises (Asme) on Tuesday.
Questions posed by members of the audience include how the government intends to address the perceived lack of short-term fixes in the Budget to help SMEs with rent and manpower issues, as well as whether there is a need for foreign worker levies in sectors where locals are not keen to work in.
Sim Ann, Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry, who was guest-of-honour for the event and part of the panel, encouraged a conversation on the foreign manpower ratio in particular. Singapore currently maintains the ratio at 2:1, meaning two locals for one foreigner employed in the workforce.
She asked the floor - consisting of about 200 SMEs - if the proportion of foreign manpower should be challenged. In a show of hands, the majority of the audience voted to tweak the foreign manpower ratio in favour of having more foreign labour.
Fellow panellist Kurt Wee, president of Asme, proposed a foreign manpower ratio that can be adjusted for businesses to address their labour and productivity needs, as long as quality controls are in place. He said that it is a topic that he has been thinking about for the last 12 months.
"The 2:1 ratio is not optimal. We are not necessarily wanting to go (in the way of) Dubai, which is one local to about nine or 10 imports. But if you consider the (current) ratio 2:1, it's not inconceivable that when we have further developed our infrastructure to eventually consider 1:2."
Mr Wee added that the proposed ratio of 1:2, or one local to two foreigners, is still manageable and would give businesses more capacity.
However, he stressed that there is no magic figure, and suggested that the adjustment can be done in a gradual manner, such as one foreigner to one local, before the ratio becomes 1:2. "If the ratio is relaxed without compromising on quality control, you might have a little bit of breathing space for businesses."
In response, Ms Sim, who is also Senior Minister of State for Culture, Community and Youth, said that the government was very conscious of the business sentiment on such matters. "It's something that we have been thinking very hard on for many years - how we can ensure competitiveness in Singapore, how we can ensure that our businesses have a ready supply of manpower they need.
"At the same time, making sure our amenities, our infrastructure are able to continue to keep Singapore running without people having an overwhelming feeling of crowdedness. But in our conversation with residents - especially those not in the business sector - many have said that we could do with fewer foreigners."
She urged businesses to speak up and let their perspectives be known more as it would benefit discourse in Singapore at large. "I hope there will be more public discussion on this issue, because perspectives haven't really met one another . . . Businesses are key to Singapore's future. Understanding that there's a business perspective to how we organise society is very important."
Aside from Ms Sim and Mr Wee, other panellists include Spring Singapore assistant chief executive Chew Mok Lee, Info-communications Media Development Authority of Singapore senior director Andrew Khaw, Ministry of Finance director Yeo Wen Shan and Nanyang Technological University chief development officer Victor Tay, who was the moderator.
The panel discussion is part of Asme's post-Budget Convention 2017, which is in its fifth iteration.