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Foreign Talent policy: of principle and practice

Posted by theonlinecitizen on May 25, 2007

By Choo Zheng Xi

The government’s defense of its foreign talent policy follows a familiar pattern. The government rolls out a policy and frames it within unobjectionable truisms that few can disagree with. In the foreign talent debate, the truisms are ‘cosmopolitanism’ and the need for ‘healthy competition’.

When challenged on the specific implementation of its policies policy, the government often retreats back to broad principles to make critics look insular and anti-competitive.

We need to move the foreign talent debate beyond platitudes of principle and start asking hard questions about how it’s being implemented in practice.

For the record, let me state that I fully agree with the government’s foreign talent scheme in principle. It’s implementation, however, could benefit from a good dose of candour.

Sadly, the lack of clarity in the media coverage of foreign talent schemes makes a joke of the term ‘talent’. Whether this opaqueness is intentional ignorance or incompetence, it is doing the scheme a great disservice. This was most evident in the recent coverage of two Ministry of Manpower ‘foreign talent’ initiatives: increasing the quota for mid-skilled S Pass holders by 10-15%, and the introduction of the Work Holiday Programme (WHP).

How talented is foreign talent?

One of the rationales for importing foreign talent is to bring in people with skills that for some reason are not found in the local talent pool. The medical sector is such an example: it takes a long time to train medical staff, and tweaking medical school cohort entry sizes in response to the demands of an ageing population will simply leave us several steps behind the problem.

However, unlike the clear example of healthcare talent that might be lacking in Singapore, the recently announced Work Holiday Programme (WHP) will bring in 2000 foreign students from the ages of 17-30 into Singapore with an eye to retaining them in the long run. This was announced in a loosely headlined Channel News Asia article entitled ‘New Initiatives to lure talented foreign professionals’.

Sadly, neither the WHP nor the Channel News Asia article offered any clarity in what it defines as ‘talent’.

The WHP brings in not just graduates but also students who are not restricted to any job type, as well as not subject to any minimum salary requirement. The lack of a stipulated minimum salary requirement seems to give them a blank cheque to enter our workforce at any level they wish: from the menial to the managerial.

I also cannot help feel uncomfortable at the sheer size of the 2000 strong cohort of WHP students that are being courted. If, as is the stated aim of the programme, a substantial amount of this group decides to work in Singapore, they will be in direct competition with the Singaporean undergraduate population seeking jobs.

In the same article, Channel News Asia announced the Ministry’s increase in the quota for mid-skilled S Pass holders by 10-15%. These ‘talented foreign professionals’ include technicians and foreign diploma level workers, according to MOM’s website. Isn’t this stretching the definition of foreign talent too thin.

After reading this article one cannot help but arrive at the following conclusion: the definition of foreign talent now includes any foreigner from the ages 17-30 with a tertiary degree, and mid skilled technicians with foreign diploma education earning around $1800 a month (see MOM website, S Pass qualification criteria).

Where previously one understood the term foreign talent to mean bringing in CEOs and ping-pong superstars to fill roles Singaporeans didn’t have the ‘talent’ for, the goalposts are now significantly wider. Certainly no thanks to the mainstream media that has made an ass of the word ‘talent’.

A simple question

The solution is not to react with visceral xenophobia and close the doors to our country. Rather, we need to seek renewed clarity in our foreign talent recruitment methods. While overarching principles like cosmopolitanism and openness are irrefutable in their generality, these are no substitute for clear definitions of what talent our country needs and how much of them we need.

Quotas should also be rigorously justified by the Ministry of Manpower, and not arbitrarily increased without consultation. For mid-skilled workers, which our country is certainly not lacking in, our policy should be put to a simple test: will bringing a foreigner in lead to any Singaporeans losing their jobs? If so, don’t.

Zheng Xi is a law undergrad at the NUS and is also co-editor of theonlinecitizen.

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17 Responses to “Foreign Talent policy: of principle and practice”

  1. quitacet said

    your argument is based on the flawed assumption that the economic pie is fixed. It is not.

    An additional 2000 foreign students coming to SG to work creates additional demand for goods and services that local firms will have to cater to. These students will bring with them new ideas and enrich the marketplace of ideas in SG, and create new relationships that lead to new business and new deals. The human and social capital accumulation enriches both locals and foreigners, and multiplier effects cascade to create new growth and new jobs. The pie becomes bigger for everyone. I say let them all come, let a hundred flowers bloom.

    Not all locals will win. There will be losers who lack the ability or will to create their own opportunities. Although we may sympathize with them, I think we as a society will prefer the risk-takers who have chosen to leave their comfortable homes and contribute to our economy. This has always been a migrant nation built on the backs of people who risked everything to come here to build a better future for themselves. Who are the real Singaporeans? Those who by accident of birth have a pink IC? Or those who embody the entrepreneurial spirit of the founding fathers?

  2. Drizzt said

    Quitacet, personally i do not think that these 2000 students would have much impact on any demand on goods and service. 2000 is too small a number to affect any thing significantly.

    “These students will bring with them new ideas and enrich the marketplace of ideas in SG, and create new relationships that lead to new business and new deals”
    Are you been too optimistic about the quality of these 2000 students? i am very skeptical about how many of these people that are still studying for their first degree would have the experience and connections required for translating and implementing new ideas for the new business and deals that you are talking about. If these 2000 are graduates with many years of real industrial/private experience, then it is a different matter.

    As the author Choo Zheng Xi has said, if the government restrict these students coming to a selected few area that can complement and not unduly compete with the existing local talents such as in possible growth areas like health care and maybe digital media in the future then the scheme might actually benefit singapore instead of causing even more anger and worries from the locals.

  3. Why does Government need to define what is talent? Is the Government in the position to define talent in your cited context?

    Your argument is quite disingenious because it assumes that employers are idiots. Due to security issues, most of the jobs taken up by these foreigners are offered by the private sector and not the Government, so tell me who do you think should decide?

    Even if they are not better, they are cheaper (and therefore better). If they are lousy and more expensive, which idiot will employ them?

    Do you have any idea how much a plumber makes in Britain? Are you willing to pay 100 pounds to unchoke your sink? Well, turns out you won’t have to ‘cos we can import cheap plumbers, or there is possibility of importing cheap plumbers if the locals charge too much.

    While much has been said about cheap foreign labour suppressing wages, that’s something that actually benefits consumers — but people want both cheap services and high wages. How do you think the sums can work out?

    It seems likely the Government hasn’t spelt out what it means to be foreign talent ‘cos that’s for firms to decide and honestly, that seems about right.

    There are employers who are Singaporeans too and suppose they come to you and ask you why they want to employ this foreigners and you say cannot and that you now insist that they must employ Singaporeans. How are you going to answer them? Singaporeans can make their businesses more profitable? You know how to run their businesses better than them?

    As you mentioned, protectionism actually exists in Singapore in the form of local/foreign quotas, so it really isn’t a free-for-all.

  4. Ned Stark said

    Since the policy is implemented by the government, then is it not logical therefore for the government to define the details of such a policy?

    Wrt to the ability of employers to choose the right person for the job, that is only the case in the presence of perfect information in the market. In the absence of perfect information there is no easy way for an employer to find out whether the person is a talent or not.

    Even if wages are suppressed it may not necessarily lead to lower prices. The cost of living will still increase due to external pressures as a result of Singapore being an open economy and thus lower wages could put a strain on people. If thats the case it is possible that consumers may cut back on spending and demand in domestic market could go down.

    Wrt to your point about expensive plumbers, this could make people decide to be more reliant on themselves to do such repairs so it is not necessarily a bad thing.

  5. Ned Stark,

    Since the policy is implemented by the government, then is it not logical therefore for the government to define the details of such a policy?

    This piece is arguing that the Government should provide details on how it will define “talent” (unless the KTM misunderstood the author’s intent). The KTM’s point is that it’s irrelevant ‘cos we can leave it for the employers to decide. What other details do you want? You want to know how these fella should go about applying for a visa?

    Isn’t it quite obvious that a simple way to implement the scheme is for the applicants to find someone here who is willing to hire them and then submit proof to ICA or something. What the Government will probably be spending more effort on is to figure out how to prevent this new scheme from being used as a loophole for vice activities. You dun have to worry lah, the Home Affairs Ministry is not going to make it too easy for these fellas to get in. 🙂

    Wrt to the ability of employers to choose the right person for the job, that is only the case in the presence of perfect information in the market. In the absence of perfect information there is no easy way for an employer to find out whether the person is a talent or not.

    If you are right and the employers cannot tell whether a person is a talent, you mean to say that the Government can do better? Or YOU or author Choo Zheng Xi can do better than both the employers or the Government?

    In any case, the KTM thinks that your statement that employers cannot tell whether someone is talent or not is pretty bogus. Even if the employer cannot figure out at the start, he can still fire the fella later on if he turns out not to be a talent. Why are you worried for the employer?

    Even if wages are suppressed it may not necessarily lead to lower prices..

    Suppression of wages merely controls inflation. Didn’t say that it can lower prices.

    The cost of living will still increase due to external pressures as a result of Singapore being an open economy and thus lower wages could put a strain on people

    You are probably right, but not suppressing wages will probably increase the cost of living even faster.

    Wrt to your point about expensive plumbers, this could make people decide to be more reliant on themselves to do such repairs so it is not necessarily a bad thing.

    If you like to do your own plumbing, good for you. See if you can get people to agree with you that they should do their own plumbing. 🙂

  6. CZX said

    KTM,

    “Let the market decide” seems to be your main line of argument. Sadly, you’ve failed to address the main issue I raised in my piece, which I hope we’ll start asking hard questions about: what kind of labour does our economy need.

    Lumping every foreigner from plumber to CEO under the common term ‘talent’ (as you do) obfuscates our attempt to answer two important questions that is on the mind of government, employers and private citizens seeking jobs :
    1) what kind of labour does our country need, and how best can it be supplemented
    2) is the solution to import foreigners to do these jobs, or can Singaporeans do them at comparable prices?

    “The KTM’s point is that it’s irrelevant ‘cos we can leave it for the employers to decide. ”

    Your attempt to provide a “Let The Market Decide” hands off approach is nothing short of irresponsible. Not even the most economically liberal First World countries would open their borders to the extent that you advocate. Every job can be done at a cheaper rate by someone else: by an extension of your logic, we should import ourselves a cheaper workforce across the board.

    Apart from being economically dubious, you completely ignore the social implications of immigration. The problem with you, as with the government’s line of reasoning, is that it might impeccably in a vacuum (even Marxism does). In pure theory, Wee Shu Min makes a perverse hardnosed sense. However, the failure to think about the social dimension of our foreign talent policy is really the hallmark of technocracy at its worse.

    In a forthcoming article, I hope to highlight some of these concerns from a human perspective.

    Whether the reason is economic or social, it is clear the government has a role to play in immigration and labour policy.

    An open door policy doesn’t mean you let all and sundry into your home. It means you do so with adequate discretion as to what type of characters you want in your house. The Singaporean household consists of more than employers: in fact, the majority of the family are employees. What you propose is an economic boon to employers, but nothing less than badly thought out policy for everyone else.

  7. Ned Stark said

    hehe…KTM, of course i won’t want to learn the process of them applying for a visa, its irrelevant to the matter of foreign talent at hand. And i don’t think its helpful to bring me and Zhengxi in the matter; i was merely trying to highlight the fact that your point

    “Even if they are not better, they are cheaper (and therefore better). If they are lousy and more expensive, which idiot will employ them?”

    is valid if there is perfect information in the market. And nope im not worried for the employer but more concerned about the average local out there.

    And regarding plumbing, its a possibility that someone would want to do it himself. Nought was said of everyone deciding to do their own plumbing. 😛

  8. CZX,

    Dunno which tree you are barking up, but it’s probably the wrong one. You had suggested in your article that the Government should lay out its definitions on what is foreign talent (unless the KTM read wrongly). The KTM says “no need ‘cos can leave to the employers to decide”.

    Dunno why you are going on and on about “lumping plumbers with CEOs” and going off on this tirade accusing the KTM of being irresponsible and economically dubious. 🙂 If you are serious about have a discussion with the KTM, then you should address the question of whether you think that “employers got enough brains to decide on who is talent and who is not” and “why you think the Government is in a better position to define talent”.

    The social implications of rising income inequality are crystal clear to the KTM. Indian PM Manmohan Singh just made a speech about the same issue by the way. The problem with your article is that it muddles economics with social consciousness/politics. 😛

    In case you didn’t know, the fact that “not even the most economically liberal First World countries would open their borders” has precious little to do with economics and everything to do with politics. 🙂

    Ned Stark,

    “Even if they are not better, they are cheaper (and therefore better). If they are lousy and more expensive, which idiot will employ them?”

    is valid if there is perfect information in the market.

    The KTM’s point is that it actually doesn’t matter if the employers got no perfect information (and this applies equally to local applicants) at recruitment ‘cos the employers can always fire the useless fellas what (and this also applies to the locals too!). Also, Government got more perfect information meh?

  9. scb said

    It seems to me that if any employers(including the Government)in Singapore want cheaper foreign talents(labours), all they need to qualify for foreign talent employees is for the ‘would be’ employers to claim the FTs suit their requirements; that is if we go by KTMs’ logic. With the whole world open for a tiny country to source for FTs in the liberal manners ascribed by KTM, I cannot help but feel threatened!

  10. NoName said

    “Even if they are not better, they are cheaper (and therefore better). If they are lousy and more expensive, which idiot will employ them?”

    Check out the IT industry in Singapore…
    Sadly, the real world is imperfect.

    NoName

  11. aygee said

    i’m also curious about the make-up of these incoming WHP undergrads – from which countries? Asian, European, Americas, Mid-eastern?

    How do these WHP undergrads apply for this programme? who executes them in the various countries? what is the screening process?

    where am i getting at? The govt has openly said before they’re worried about the changing racial make-up of Singapore and thus wants to keep the Chinese majority (whether we agree to this or not as a very racist policy is another argument). Now, the make-up of the WHP programme will show whether the “cosmopolitanism” story is supported, or whether its something to build upon the racial makeup of Singapore.

  12. Clarence said

    Well I’ve seen both sides of KTM’s and CZX and Ned’s arguments. Both have their own merits.

    CZX argues that the Government should classify/define talent. KTM says doing this would be counter to businessmen’s good sense.

    I’m not sure what CZX/Ned wants the Govt to do. Validate foreign universities that will have their degrees counted under the Talent Scheme, or identify qualifications (e.g. only degree holders), or identify professions that require foreign talent and only import such professionals? I’m not sure how feasible classification/definition will be, because the more specific you want to be, the more tedious the implementation, the more loopholes will be created.

    Yet I believe a simple definition would be to only accept degree holders or maybe even those with postgrad qualifications, according to what the industry needs. I do not believe that the industry needs more diploma holders, because many diploma holders I know are trying to upgrade to degrees, citing lack of employability as a factor.

    I do not agree with KTM’s argument of letting a free market decide. As we know in Economics, a lot of the times the Govt will need to intervene in the market because of social externalities. For e.g., we all know that street lighting is GOOD. Dimly lit streets are more prone to crime and more traffic accidents. Yet which businessman is going to provide street lighting, knowing that no one will want to pay for it?

    In much the same vein, letting the free market decide what is the talent it wants may not be the best solution. It will necessarily mean to deprive the not-so-skilled people in SG of any jobs at all. Getting a job is hard for them, what with competing foreign “talent” that is cheaper? Then going on to the degree holders in SG. Given a foreign male who has zero NS obligations and is a cheaper “talent”, which employer in his right mind will hire a SG grad who is troublesome (with reservist obligations taking up to 40 days a year) and is more expensive? Even without the cheaper part, we’re already at the losing end with NS obligations!

    That is why the SG Govt has never taken the path of “we’re cheaper, so choose us!” and instead chose to keep to the “we’re more knowledgeable (and better), so hire us” route instead. Costs-wise, we can never compete with developing economies, and we should NEVER aspire to do so. So maybe this might be a wake-up call to Singaporeans as a whole, to take on even more qualifications – MBA, CFA etc. Well, hell, I’m not really a fan of getting more degrees, but the way ahead might be such. (Sigh?)

    We should not be taking the short-cut of hiring cheaper foreigners to fill our ranks to lessen inflation. Increasing unemployment is a serious issue which is a possible side-effect of the “foreign talent” policy, if it is not implemented in a well thought-out way. And then, what?

  13. Cynic007 said

    CZX,

    It seems to me you are in disagreement with the government’s foreign talent policy in the first place despite your claims to be supportive of it theoretically.

    You ought to know that it is common (and perfectly legal) for a big boss organization (government or any other leading body) to use loose terms or the presentation of part of the truth to have the public support (or rather subdue the public scorn) of a policy.

    In this case, as obviously seen by the whole “lumping plumbers and CEOs” act, they have no qualms about bringing in foreign workers less or equally qualified to available Singaporeans for the job. By raising this concern as a problem with the definition, you will not only be taken lightly by readers (who think why is there a need to squabble over small matters like defitinion of a term?) but also not be making a change within the government with your views.

    If they actually look into your feedback of changing the definition of “foreign talent”, what I foresee happening is this:

    1) The definition of “foreign talent” is narrowed down as you wished, to become only the CEOs, CFOs (other huge corporate titles), academic, scientific research and medical experts in the top percentile of income earners.

    2) A NEW category is created for the formerly known as “foreign talent” who belong, to put it in your words in the plumbers side of the chart. I speculate the new category will be called “foreign menial talent”, and truism of cosmopolitanism will still be applicable. Also, the need for “healthy competition” will be made applicable to the entire workforce.

    By then, we’d have to accept the policy “lumping plumbers to CEOs” not as a looseness in definition, but a looseness in application entirely. And I am sure that was not your intention.

  14. klan said

    http://singaporeseen.stomp.com.sg/singaporeseen/viewContent.jsp?id=11257

    more problems at klang lane where indians disturb the peace at hdb void decks and also block the roads of klang lane and belilios.
    these indians gather in large groups and drunken with beer at 671 and 672 klang lane hdb void decks

  15. blangah said

    i’m sure banglas make our world a better place. that’s why we have foreign talent. ang mos also make our women happier. ang mo are superior right ? according to all the singaporean girls and maids who manage to hook some ang mo…

  16. singh said

    yes it was scary. i once visited a friend who staying at klang lane.
    the entire bus lane was swamped. buses and taxis had to swerve to avoid indians and other foreign workers standing in the middle of the roads in hundreds.
    these indians and bangladeshi workers also were standing and sitting and lying on the floor of the void decks.

    in fact, there were poles and road dividers erected on belilios road and klang lane but they were knocked down by the lorries and vans driven by these illegal workers. ha ha. very interesting place. sure worth a visit

  17. wenhao said

    i thought to bring foreign talent from overseas to singapore is very important. actually most people thought its very dangerous if these foreigners are unable to work for singapore and singapore even cant believe some foreigen are safe such as some foreigen may bring war to singapore or done bad thing in singapore.

    however i thought its just something very easy to check and not important.singapore is a small country.it well-develp and well- peace just because much foreigen come singapore,they give to singapore different culture .skills .language.knowledge…and not just because made by local singaporean.foreigen come singaporen just because they believe singapore and their own country friendly with singapore thits why to allow their people come singapore to work..thats all@ and this can build friendship between different country.if oneday malaysian or chinese not come singapore anymore.

    this mean the relationship between them are weak.should this be a good news for singapore?i thought if this happened,the singaporean will really know what actually the foreigen talent is important.without foreigen or friendly oversea support or trust,will the small country be well-develop or famous?its unable,beacuse we must clear singapore reallyt is a small island without any natural source.therefore the foreigen talent actually affect much important points.singaporean should think this carefully.

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