Thursday 31 October 2013

PM Lee Hsien Loong: Policy on foreigners must be sustainable

He paints picture of balancing act in speech to French businessmen at the France-Singapore Business Forum
By Sumiko Tan, The Straits Times, 30 Oct 2013

SINGAPORE needs to manage the complex issue of foreign workers and immigration carefully, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told a gathering of French businessmen yesterday.

It has to be done in a way that is "sustainable over the long term for our society, politically, and also achieves the demographic and economic objectives which we have", he said.

Singaporeans must be able to adapt to the inflow and new immigrants must be integrated into the society and not be so overwhelming that they dilute the country's core, values and ethos.

Foreign workers and immigration, however, are issues that many countries - including France - grapple with, he noted.

But, seeking to paint a picture of the delicate balancing act the Government has to achieve, Mr Lee told the entrepreneurs that Singapore requires foreigners for its economic needs.

"You need that range of skills and experiences and talent which no society can generate on its own, and you have to get them from all over the world - Europe, America, China, India," he said at a France-Singapore Business Forum here.

Foreigners also help demographically as Singaporeans are not having enough babies. Singapore's fertility rate is far below the 2.1 replacement level.

Mr Lee also made the point that when it comes to the foreigner issue, Singapore must do things in an open way to maintain its links with other countries, and develop "win-win mutually beneficial relationships".

When introducing Mr Lee, Mr Jean Burelle, the chairman of the French Business Confederation, Medef International, had flagged work permits as an issue of concern to French businessmen eyeing opportunities in Singapore.

In a 10-minute speech, Mr Lee told the businessmen that Singapore was at a transition point.

Its economy has grown steadily and it must now find a way to continue to upgrade itself and improve its people's lives.

Singapore is investing in infrastructure and its people, to make them more productive in "sunrise industries", he said.

At the same time, they have to be complemented by professionals like scientists from all over the world to make Singapore a vibrant economic hub. There must also be a certain proportion of foreign workers to make up the numbers in such sectors as construction and manufacturing.

Mr Lee noted that there are now 1,000 French companies in Singapore. This was a 50 per cent increase from 2008, the last time he visited Paris.

French companies, he said, supply the "demand for lifestyles and for styles" of societies with a growing affluent middle class. He cited products like Hermes bags, drawing laughs from the audience.

Further, the upcoming European Union-Singapore free trade agreement will bring economic benefits through, for instance, immediate duty-free access for imports from the EU and France.

It will lead to estimated savings of nearly €300 million (S$512 million) per year.

On Monday, Mr Lee met French President Francois Hollande. They reaffirmed their countries' strategic partnership and discussed ways to improve trade and investments. Singapore also thanked France for hosting its air force facility in Cazaux.

Mr Lee leaves for Poland today.

Singapore remains a sampan, but an upgraded one: PM Lee
Country not a cruise ship, and still must stay on its toes and work hard
By Sumiko Tan, The Straits Times, 31 Oct 2013

SINGAPORE will be in trouble if it thinks it has arrived and can afford to relax, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong indicated yesterday.

The country is small, and while it is no longer as poor and defenceless as it used to be, it must continue to be on its toes and work hard to improve.

Speaking to the Singapore media at the end of his official visit to France, he said "my eyes popped out" when he read a commentary in The Straits Times likening Singapore today to a cruise ship.

Commentator Koh Buck Song had argued in Monday's Opinion pages that Singapore politicians' oft-used metaphor of the country as a sampan, easily tossed about by the waves of global competition, was no longer valid.

He said it risked promoting small-mindedness and cramping national self-confidence and ambition.

Instead, Mr Koh said, Singapore was more like a well-oiled cruise ship that caters to every need.

As it offers the smoothest of journeys, passengers can relax because they feel secure, he added.

Mr Lee, however, warned: "Once you think you are in a cruise ship and you are on a holiday and everything must go swimmingly well and will be attended to for you, I think you are in trouble.

"We are small, we are not as poor as we used to be, we are not defenceless, we are able to fend for ourselves and to make a living for ourselves, and we are better off than before, and I think that we need to keep on working hard, to continue improving."

As to what might be a more appropriate metaphor, he said with a laugh: "I think we have upgraded our sampan. It's sampan 2.0."

He made these remarks when asked about the meetings he had held with French business leaders since he arrived on Sunday.

Mr Lee said the businessmen had a strong regard for the Republic and saw it as very useful because they could do business in the region from Singapore.

"So it's not just Singapore, but Singapore in the context of the region," he pointed out.

The businessmen were keen to find out more about Singapore's long-term strategy for economic development, and asked about the tightening of foreign talent and workers in recent years as it might have an impact on their business plans.

Mr Lee reiterated that Singapore had to find a balance when it comes to foreigners.

He said the number of foreign workers is "still a little higher than what we would like", but that was dependent on the state of the economy. It is now strong, and hence, there is a need for construction.

He also reiterated the need for society to integrate such that foreigners adapt to Singapore norms, and Singaporeans are open to them "in order to help ourselves prosper".

Integration has to happen in activities on the ground, as well as public messaging, he said, adding that intemperate language on the Internet that hits out at foreigners in a dismissive way does a lot of harm to Singapore.

"This is going to be work in progress for some time to come but we have to persevere."

Mr Lee left Paris for Warsaw, the capital of Poland, yesterday.

In the next two days, he will meet Polish leaders and also visit the port city of Gdansk.

Singapore heading for 'slower but better growth'
By Sumiko Tan, The Straits Times, 29 Oct 2013

SINGAPORE is entering a new phase where, as its economy matures, it expects "slower but qualitatively better growth", said Trade and Industry Minister Lim Hng Kiang yesterday.

Addressing French businessmen in Paris, he said Singapore continues to welcome talent and investments, while being mindful of its physical and social constraints.

"We will maintain a pro-business environment which helps companies succeed in Singapore," he added.

"We may not be the cheapest place to do business, but we stand firmly on a solid foundation built on efficiency, predictability and high standards of excellence."

The minister was speaking at a seminar on linking Asia and Europe through trade and investment, organised by the French Agency for International Business Development (UbiFrance) and the Singapore Business Federation.

Mr Lim, who is part of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's delegation to France, noted that Singapore has the most extensive network of free trade agreements (FTAs) in Asia, and will continue to expand this network.

The FTAs provide companies with greater market connectivity, one example being the landmark European Union-Singapore FTA, he noted.

Its legal text was recently initialled by both sides and now awaits ratification.

The FTA will give consumers more choices and, notably, "bring France even closer to the hearts of the average Singaporean", said Mr Lim.

Currently, agri-food products and consumer goods make up more than a quarter of French exports to Singapore.

"This is no surprise since France is well-known for its gourmet food, and eating happens to be one of Singaporeans' favourite pastimes," he said.

Singaporeans can already experience the different facets of French culinary culture when they step into French Michelin chef Guy Savoy's restaurant in Singapore, or when they buy a brioche from French artisan baker √Čric Kayser, the minister noted.

Protection of intellectual property rights for uniquely French food products will be further enhanced under the pact.

"This will strengthen the market position of distinctively French gourmet products, especially well-known cheeses, cured meats and wines," Mr Lim said.

In addition, the reduction of import duties will improve market access and result in cost savings for companies.

The FTA also tackles significant non-tariff barriers to trade, with a focus on the automotive, pharmaceuticals, medical devices and electronics industries.

Singapore is France's largest trading partner in South-east Asia and third-largest in Asia, after China and Japan, while France is Singapore's second-largest trading partner in the EU after Germany.

Last year, the Republic's bilateral trade with France reached an all-time high of €11.3 billion (S$19.3 billion).

But Singapore's investments in France remain modest, Mr Lim said, and urged for more to be achieved with the Singapore businessmen who accompanied him.

They come from a diverse range of sectors, including logistics, urban solutions, health and wellness as well as architectural services.

PM Lee meets Singaporeans, calls on Hollande
By Sumiko Tan, The Straits Times, 29 Oct 2013

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who is on an official visit to France, called on President Francois Hollande at the Elysee Palace yesterday afternoon.

Earlier, he was given a welcome ceremony at the Hotel des Invalides, a complex of 17th-century buildings containing museums and monuments. He later met Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

After arriving in Paris on Sunday morning, Mr Lee met about 25 Singaporeans based in France in the evening. For 11/2 hours at the Shangri-La Hotel, the group chatted with PM Lee and Mrs Lee, as well as MPs Christopher de Souza and Chia Shi-Lu, who are part of the delegation.

There are an estimated 700 Singaporeans living in France. Among them is Mrs Lee Lee Camilleri-Chu, 56, who was working for a French company in Singapore when she decided, at the age of 19, to find out what it was like to work in France.

She loved it there, got married, had three grown-up sons, and has called France home since. But she has retained her Singaporean passport.

"With my face, I would never look French," said Mrs Camilleri-Chu, who runs a shop selling shoes with orthopaedic soles.

Others said that unlike cities such as London where Singaporeans get together more often, the Singapore spirit is not as strong in Paris, partly because they live in different parts of France.

When the Singapore Club holds events, it is hard to get Singaporeans scattered around the country to come to Paris, said Mrs Camilleri-Chu.

But at Sunday night's reception, the Singapore spirit was palpable, and the evening ended with laughter as the Singaporeans gathered for a group photo with PM Lee and Mrs Lee.

Today, Mr Lee will meet his counterpart Jean-Marc Ayrault, France's Minister of Economy and Finance Pierre Moscovici, and President of the Senate Jean-Pierre Bel.

High on the agenda will be the European Union-Singapore Free Trade Agreement, whose legal text was recently initialled by both sides. PM Lee will be seeking French leaders' support for early ratification of the pact, which will bring benefits such as making a wider variety of European goods available in Singapore.

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