Singapore 'firing on all cylinders' to attract MNCs; capabilities can be acquired over time: Chan

ATTRACTING global heavyweights remains a key prong of Singapore's strategy to create more jobs and keep the labour market tight, even where the Republic currently does not have all the capabilities required, said Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing on Monday.

In recent weeks, Thermo Fisher Scientific and Hyundai Motor Group unveiled major investment plans in Singapore. Thermo Fisher will set up a S$130 million biomedical facility to house two new sterile filling lines, to support the development and manufacture of therapies and vaccines. Hyundai will invest S$400 million in a new innovation centre to enhance automotive manufacturing processes and develop smart vehicles.

Citing these examples, Mr Chan reaffirmed the role of global "queen bee" companies in catalysing local industries, and benefiting the supporting ecosystem of small and medium enterprises. This is in addition to Singapore's efforts to foster startups and help companies expand abroad, as part of a multipronged strategy, he said.

Mr Chan was briefing reporters on the sidelines of a joint visit to semiconductor giant GlobalFoundries Singapore with Manpower Minister Josephine Teo. He noted that the electronics industry offers a bright spot amid the economic gloom.

As at September this year, the industry has already recorded S$5.7 billion of fixed assets investment and S$376 million of total business expenditure, and is expected to create about 1,100 jobs over the next three to five years, according to the Ministry of Trade and Industry.

The manpower ministry's (MOM) tenth weekly jobs situation report was released the same day, and similarly highlighted the electronics industry as a lone bright spot for manufacturing jobs. In the second quarter of 2020, amid the largest contraction on record, the electronics industry managed to increase total employment by 1,000 locally. This was partly due to a demand surge for digital goods and services amid "circuit-breaker" travel restrictions, safe-distancing measures and remote working arrangements.

At the same time, MOM's report indicates friction in hiring Singaporeans for the roles available. According to the report, over 130 electronics companies have offered more than 2,800 jobs and training opportunities since April. Salaries range between S$1,800 (for technicians) and S$8,500 (for executives and managers). Yet, of the 2,800 opportunities identified, only about 220 individuals have been placed.

Mrs Teo described the low take-up rate as a "great pity". Companies were doing their best to reach out to workers, but jobseekers may not know that the industry is hiring, she said. They may also be deterred by the mistaken impression that a technical background is always required, she added, pointing to less technical roles such as in sales and business development.

"If the companies are not able to fill these positions, either they cannot grow as fast as they wish, or they will have to find some way of filling the positions - which will be a loss to Singaporeans," said Mrs Teo.

At the briefing, Mr Chan noted that Singapore had progressively built up its capabilities in the semiconductor industry, which now contributes about 7 per cent of GDP, up from less than 1 per cent in its nascent years. Over the decades, the industry has created many good job opportunities, he said, with some workers starting in basic job roles and later taking up more complex positions in engineering, R&D and design.

Mr Chan went on to emphasise that any current lack of capabilities should be no deterrence to bringing in new investments. "Never be afraid to go into particular industries, just because we don't yet have the skillsets," he said. "When economic agencies go around the world to attract investments, we ask ourselves which investments will best create jobs for this generation and the next generation of Singaporeans.

"If these good long-term investments - be it in semiconductors, biopharmaceuticals, or an emerging industry like electric vehicles - are not here today, the next generation of good jobs will inevitably be lost to our competitors. And our next generation will end up having to work elsewhere rather than in Singapore," he added.