Sunday 22 June 2014

Foreign labour pool will grow, but at slower pace: DPM Teo

By Chia Yan Min, The Straits Times, 21 Jun 2014

THE pool of foreign labour will keep growing, but at a slower, more sustainable pace, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said yesterday.

The process has been painful for companies, but is necessary to raise productivity in sectors that are still lagging, he added.

The minister was responding to questions at a luncheon during the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce's (SICC's) 173rd annual general meeting (AGM).

Manpower issues were the foremost concern among chamber members and senior business leaders at the event, held at the Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel and attended by about 200 people.

"We have no intention of cutting back the total number or freezing the total number (of foreign workers), but each company has to look at its own business operations and become more productive and efficient," said Mr Teo.

He was replying to Mr Arnoud De Meyer, the moderator and president of Singapore Management University, who noted the business community's concerns that the Government might be moving too quickly in its push for higher productivity.

Mr Teo reiterated the Government's intention to help companies lift productivity in traditionally labour-intensive sectors like food and beverage by encouraging firms to take on best practices from around the world.

The Government has been providing support, but "companies themselves have to do the work" of making sure their businesses are sustainable, he said.

"Those which are not (productive) have to move on - not because the Singapore Government says so, but because the international competitive environment says so," he added.

Mr Teo, who is also the Home Affairs Minister, said in his speech that Singapore needs to continue positioning itself as the first port of call for both global and Asian businesses seeking to expand their regional reach.

To do this, it will have to build on the key attributes of its business environment - trust, knowledge, connectivity and liveability.

Foreign businesses are an important part of Singapore's economy, and there are about 60,000 registered here, the minister said.

As Asia rises in importance on the global stage, it is especially vital that Singapore maintains its competitive edge, he added.

In response to a question from the floor about whether the implementation of the Asean Economic Community might be derailed by political unrest in Thailand and the Indonesian elections, Mr Teo said the endeavour requires time and patience, and is a work in progress.

Successfully implementing an economic community in Asean will also not spell the end of efforts to boost integration, he added.

Mr Teo also said recent turmoil in the Middle East might directly affect Singapore in the event of oil supply disruptions, and poses security concerns due to "the potential for growing a generation of people who have extreme, violent tendencies, and have formed networks and built up skills through combat".

Mr Victor Mills, who was previously SICC's acting chief executive but officially took on the position after yesterday's AGM, said the chamber was encouraged by the minister's speech and his "remarks on working in partnership with business to achieve win-win outcomes".

Note of caution from friend of S'pore
By Adrian Lim, My Paper, 20 Jun 2014

FOR the past decade, he has been the voice for multinational companies (MNCs) in Singapore, their bridge to policymakers.

And, although Phillip Overmyer stepped down from his position as chief executive of the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce (SICC) two months ago, he is still ready to speak up for them.

In a broad-ranging interview with My Paper last month, Mr Overmyer acknowledged that many companies here continue to struggle with manpower.

Expressing his views in a personal capacity, he said he had some reservations about whether the Government's foreign-labour policies could affect the development of growth industries in Singapore.

Citing the example of the aerospace sector, he noted that, while there are many high-value jobs such as engineering and R&D in these companies, their operations can be sustained only with the support of a base of lower-level staff.

"Many operations, like test driving the engines, are done 24/7 and require skilled technicians, which may be hard to find among Singaporeans," Mr Overmyer said. Such jobs may also be labour-intensive and shunned by Singaporeans, he added.

In this respect, the Government could look at calibrating its policies to suit the varying needs of different industries, he said.

Singapore had targeted the right growth industries - such as pharmaceutical research and development, medical technology, wealth management and hospitality - he said.

"If you break out the history books, garments and toys were the two main products manufactured here in the 1960s," he said.

Its package of good governance, strong intellectual property laws and a base of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) was attractive to MNCs, even if the costs to run their businesses here may be higher.

"But Singapore's strong reputation as a choice investment destination cannot be taken for granted... the need to continue to grow is a must. Countries in the region have younger populations that are also hungry for success," he said.

In attracting the best talent from overseas, Mr Overmyer questioned if an upcoming national jobs bank for professionals may affect Singapore's competitiveness.

Firms now have to advertise job vacancies for two weeks, before they can apply to hire a foreigner.

Mr Overmyer said that individuals with the desired skill sets are highly mobile today, and are in high demand, usually having two to three job offers at the same time.

Having to wait for two weeks may run the danger that they would no longer be available.

"If we don't get the right people at the right time, we may miss many things," he said.

Moving ahead, the Government must also develop the capabilities of the SMEs.

These companies must "add value" to the MNCs' businesses through new products and technologies, rather than play a "passive role" in doing what MNCs contract them to do, he said.

Looking back at his SICC stint, Mr Overmyer said that, when he first took over the reins in 2003, the chamber was run in a largely "top-down" fashion.

He set about an organisational change in which staff would focus on different sectors and work more closely with companies on the ground, and put forth their own ideas.

This has helped the SICC become the "go-to" business association for MNCs today.

Now, he is ready to pack his bags and leave the first country outside the United States that he visited and worked in. Before he took up the SICC posting, he had spent some 12 years in Singapore working for telecommunications giant AT&T.

He hopes to return next year to celebrate Singapore's Jubilee. But, before that, there is a little granddaughter, not yet three, waiting for him in Texas.

"It's time to be a grandfather now," he said affectionately.

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