Moves to impose curbs on immigration and the size of the foreign worker population are not because the government has decided to be populist, but are a recognition of real problems that can affect Singapore society and the need to address them, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said.
Besides how foreign workers and immigrants are fitting in and affecting "the tone of our society," he said that the space, infrastructure and "carrying capacity" of the country were also important factors.
"Last year, the inflow was the slowest it has been in a very long time and I think that is necessary," he said, referring to the 26,000 growth in foreign employment excluding maids, down from a growth pace of 80,000 in 2011.
He was speaking in an interview with former ambassador Chan Heng Chee televised on Sunday night which also covered, among other issues, efforts to improve productivity, and how the Singapore identity will develop over the next 50 years.
On managing the flow of immigrants and foreign workers, he noted that it is easy to have a view when one is not in Government.
"But as a government, we have to deal with this issue (where) honestly speaking, there are no easy choices," he said.
"There are trade-offs. If we have no foreign workers, our economy suffers, our own lives suffer. We have a lot of foreign workers, the economy will do well, (but) we have other social pressures, other problems...which we have to take very seriously and which we cannot accept.
"Somewhere in the middle, we have a mix of evils; on the other hand, we may be able to find a spot where all things considered, this is something which balances our needs as well as our identity, as well as our economic requirements, and enables us to move forward."
And government will relook the situation after a few years and adjust policies if necessary, he added.
The Government does not shy away from tough choices as it has a responsibility to Singaporeans: "It is our job to think of these issues and to make the best decisions which we can, in our judgment, on your behalf. And to account to you, and say to that, to the best of my ability, this is what I have decided I have to do," he said.
"And you may agree with it, you may not agree with it, but I can tell you in complete honesty that I am trying my best to do this on your behalf. And I cannot avoid doing this, otherwise, I think, I will be letting you down. "
He expressed hope that Singaporeans understood this: "If I did not think it make sense for you, why should I want to do this? I do not owe hundreds of millions of potential foreign workers from around the world an obligation. I owe Singaporeans a responsibility."
He described resolving the issue as one of "squaring a circle".
While many Singaporeans might want to see the foreign presence diminish as a whole, most have a web of ties with foreigners and would not want their helpers or colleagues to be sent home.
This same conflicting dynamic arises when each socio-economic segment does not want foreign competition in their own sectors.
Professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) want domestic workers and nursing assistants to help with their old folk and children, but do not want competition from foreign PMETs. But blue-collar locals want foreign professionals who create employment opportunities for them - but not foreign sweepers, nurses or cleaners who may take jobs away or push wages down.
"I can understand the sentiments. I think we have to watch to make sure that when we bring in people, we also take care of Singaporeans who may be in that sector and who cannot easily move out of it."
This article was first published on August 2, 2015.
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