Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Singapore’s ‘foreign talent’ debate and the Temasek dilemma

Media reports suggest that Temasek has started hunting for a new Chief Executive Officer. After last year's Goodyear controversy, I suspect the authorities will proceed more cautiously this time around.
Already, a debate about the ideal CEO's nationality has begun to simmer. Not surprising as the debate is part of a long standing discussion about immigration and the role of 'foreign talent' in Singapore.

As far back as 2008, Ministers were addressing the issue in Parliament. Minister Mah Bow Tan said, "If we want more foreign workers, we must collectively make adjustments to resolve the social problems. If we want fewer foreign workers, we must be prepared for slower growth, higher costs, lower service levels and delays in the completion of our flats, our roads, our rail lines."
There are two separate issues at play.
Firstly, there is the import of unskilled labour for menial and semi-skilled jobs which adds numbers (but not necessarily skills) of people and fills a genuine gap. Singaporeans generally refer to this pool when complaining about rising crime rates, littering or poor English language skills.
Secondly, there is the category referred to as 'foreign talent.' Ostensibly, these are qualified professionals who arrive in Singapore to fill specialized jobs which the domestic labour force cannot satisfy. Bankers, scientists and researchers fall into this category – as will the new CEO of Temasek if she is a foreigner.
The second category sometimes establishes new businesses and creates demand and jobs within the Singapore economy. It is members of this category that occasionally make Singapore a permanent home and bring with them different cultural, even religious, norms which potentially cause social dislocations.
It is easy to blur the lines between the two categories, as many Singaporeans do.
Broadly speaking, the great mass of immigrants; the ones that fill up trains and buses, litter the streets, indulge in petty crime and cannot speak English are part of the unskilled labour pool necessary for the normal functioning of Singapore. They deal with the city's garbage; maintain the roads, cut the grass and so on.

Singaporean unhappiness with the second (skilled) category is of a different nature. At times, it is believed that incoming 'foreign talent' has no special skills and the jobs they 'take' can easily be filled by locals. This feeds into the view that permanent residency (PRs) and citizenship criteria are too lax and most new Singaporeans are not committed to the city-state.
On the contrary, many believe that these immigrants either use Singapore as a 'half-way house' for greener pastures in the west or as a way to enrich themselves through subsidies provided by the Singaporean state, e.g. HDB housing grants.
The truth, of course, is always found in the shades of grey.
Surely, there are many foreigners who have little short term commitment to Singapore while others have planted deep roots within their community. Some 'foreigners' try to extract subsidies from the state while others pay more to the treasury in taxes in one year than many Singaporeans will pay during their entire working lives, a 'reverse subsidy.'
It is hard to generalize. However, within the debate, a few facts are apparent.
Singaporeans must distinguish between the two categories of foreigners within their midst. One is a temporary group with social skills that are typically a product of the poor economic environment from their home countries. While that does not give such foreigners a license to litter or spit one must be sensitive to their backgrounds and implement policies accordingly.
Also, 'true-blue' Singaporeans deserve more transparency regarding long term immigration policies. A Singaporean's stake in her society extends beyond just her state subsidized HDB apartment - her involvement must permeate debates surrounding contentious social issues such as immigration, race, etc.
Discussions surrounding the choice for Temasek's CEO has implications far beyond the management of Singapore's sovereign wealth: it may help determine the framework for the role of foreign talent in Singapore's future.


Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors, Imran improves the profitability of small and medium sized businesses. He can be reached at


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