By Kenny Chee
Closing Singapore's doors to highly skilled foreigners will cause the country to lose its edge to other cities globally, said Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam yesterday.
"We will lose our edge not just to obvious competitors like London, Hong Kong, New York and San Francisco, but also to new competitors like Shanghai," said Mr Tharman.
Cities like Shanghai are attracting "significant numbers of talented Asians and Westerners", he added at a post-Budget dialogue with about 200 union leaders at the NTUC Auditorium.
Mr Tharman was replying to a question by Mr Wilfred Thiang, a corporate-communications manager of the Singapore Maritime Officers' Union, on why the foreign-worker levy hike was not imposed on highly skilled foreigners working here as well.
Mr Thiang said such foreign talent would compete for jobs with tertiary-educated Singaporean professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs), and he asked if more could be done to help Singaporeans.
Following last Friday's Budget statement, the Manpower Ministry said on Monday that the hikes would affect lower- to medium-skilled foreign workers holding S Passes or Work Permits.
The levy does not apply to higher-skilled foreigners, such as Employment Pass holders, who draw a fixed monthly salary of more than $2,500.
Mr Tharman said Singapore has to be a global city, which does not just drive economic growth but also creates good-quality jobs for Singaporeans, including PMETs.
The Budget has tried to help PMETs by significantly increasing subsidies to help them upgrade, he said, adding that the subsidies are for all forms of training, such as short Workforce Skills Qualifications courses, as well as diplomas and degrees.
The high subsidies would also be the same for PMETs at any point in their careers, Mr Tharman said, adding that this is "a shift in policy". Subsidies have also been increased for younger Singaporeans in the lower- and middle-income groups, to help them further their education, he said.
Mr Thiang agreed with Mr Tharman's points, but said that an issue Singaporean PMETs would have is whether there can be a right balance and mix in the highly skilled foreigners working here, such that Singaporeans can still be employed and yet benefit from the knowledge the foreigners bring to the country.
Mr Muhammad Aswadi, an executive-committee member of the United Workers of Petroleum Industry, said that there has been growing concern in the last few years among PMETs in the petrochemicals sector that highly skilled foreigners might be picked over them.
He said there have been cases in which Singaporean engineers felt threatened when other Asian engineers "willingly undercut" them, salary-wise. Mr Aswadi advised employees to focus instead on improving their skills to become more competitive.
On whether the Budget was tailored for an upcoming General Election, Mr Tharman said that, "if it is an election Budget, that is because (it) is, once again, not just focused on providing handouts in the short term, but fundamentally about the long term".
Labour chief Lim Swee Say added that the Government was like a firm in which bonuses given out in the middle of the year are lower than that at the end of the year - like the end of the Government's term - as there is less certainty then on whether the firm has done well financially.
"I think the Finance Minister has the same considerations," he said of the Budget. Other issues raised at the dialogue included why the Budget did not do more to subsidise re-employed senior citizens' transport costs.
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