As we roll into the second week of July, we embark on an extremely exciting week in parliament. Many policies and issues are up for debate and clarifications — EIP, FTAs like CECA amongst many others. When these topics come into discussion, the topic of a foreign workforce in Singapore often gets pulled into the picture as well.
In a pandemic job landscape, opportunities are few and far between. Naturally, Singaporeans are more aware of the jobs that have gone to foreigners instead of Singaporeans than they were before the pandemic hit. But why do we have a substantial foreign workforce in the first place? And what are the many ways that our foreign workforce has shaped our economy, and in turn, our livelihoods?
The most important question we should ask is; Why would talented and skilled professionals come to Singapore? Of all the many countries in Asia, there are many other compelling options for expats to choose from. Indonesia, Philippines, Hong Kong, Vietnam, South Korea, amongst many others.
Aside from the obvious reasons; cleanliness, safety, stability, and so on, Singapore’s FTAs bring out many opportunities that naturally attract talent all around the world. But this is a little bit of a chicken and egg situation. Big companies would not be here if not for the talents in Singapore, and Singapore would not attract talents from around the world if not for many big companies investing here.
Companies like Dyson, which has decided to set up its global headquarters here in Singapore, are drawn to Singapore because we are known to have our own pool of talents and reliable, educated workers. The benefits of Dyson’s move into Singapore extends much further than the creation of a whole lot of jobs for Singaporeans.
When companies like Dyson set up their headquarters here, many talents all over the world move here for work, along with their families. Even if they don’t purchase million dollar homes like Sir James Dyson, they help boost our property market by paying rent on properties that Singaporeans have invested in.
As they settle into their lives here, their kids enrol in schools like UWCSEA that would not even exist if not for a foreign workforce in Singapore. In turn, creating more jobs in the education sector. Our expats also have different lifestyle needs and this includes foods that normally would not have been available here.
Shops and retailers like Little Farms, Jones the Grocer, would not have much of a market to sell to if they only looked at Singaporeans. Thanks to foreigners who live and work here, both imports and exports have boomed over the years from all over the world.
We can even look at Singapore Airlines, and how much expats in Singapore have spent on travel to visit home, and for vacations. When their family and friends come to visit, they also form a huge source of support for our tourism industry.
A portion of the foreign workforce who earn significantly more, also spend significantly more on their day to day living expenses. In a Refinery29 article on a Finance Director who earns about $9,000 monthly (along with her husband who earns double that amount), easily spends over $5,000 a week. This is just a small slice of the pie that are the contributions from foreign workers towards the Singapore economy, which benefits Singaporeans much more than the foreigners here.
Perhaps the most obvious contribution that our foreign workforce makes are taxed. Particularly income tax. In return, very much unlike Singaporeans, our expat friends do not get subsidies. They pay full price on healthcare, housing, utilities, and all costs of living. They don’t really have much to gain from the income tax they pay, which has contributed to so much of our nation building.
On that note when the economy suffers, as it currently is, the foreign workforce really bears the brunt of it. The first group of Singapore Airlines staff to be let go when the company was hit hard were foreign pilots. On the flip side, most Singaporean local staff from Singapore Airlines managed to keep their jobs and most of their pay thanks to efforts by the two unions, SIASU and STSU in conjunction with the NTUC.
It’s always easy to blame external factors when faced with challenges. While we fall short of talent in certain industries which demand it, it is also good to note that many organisations in Singapore like the NTUC are looking into helping Singaporeans mitigate and be more competitive in the labour market. It is also important to take a step back, and take a look at the bigger picture of how far Singapore has come thanks to its cosmopolitan mix of both a foreign and local workforce.