PM Lee on immigration

PM Lee: This year with a booming economy we will definitely need more foreign workers so that we can create our jobs in Singapore.

A few months ago I mentioned to the press that we could need more than 100,000 foreign workers more this year.

There was a big ooh which you could almost hear.

Well, since then we've recalculated, maybe we'll get by with a few less, perhaps 80,000 workers.

But I said this to highlight the trade-off which we face and which we cannot avoid.

You want higher growth which will benefit our workers, that also means accepting more foreign workers to come and work in Singapore.

You choke off the foreign workers, the economy is stifled, growth is not here, our workers will suffer.

This is a very hot topic in Singapore, foreign workers and also immigration.

And we've held many dialogue sessions with the grassroots, with the residents and I think that Singaporeans understand logically if you argue it out with them why we need foreign workers, why we need this immigration.

But they are still concerned about competition for jobs, about crowding, competing for houses or for transport on MRT and deeper things like the character of our society.

And of course there's the psychological aspect too, the sense that they want to be valued, that make sure that Singaporeans are more valued than foreigners.

And these concerns comes through many other channels as well.

Well, we talked to the union leaders, they will reflect some of them, you read in the newspapers columns, the letters which are written, sometimes this shows up, when we build workers' dormitories we have to be very careful.

We remember the sensitivities which can be aroused.

Serangoon Gardens two years ago got very upset because things were not explained well enough.

I understand these sentiments because these are legitimate concerns which we take seriously.

We don't brush them aside but we have to weigh them against the plus side of having the foreign workers and immigrants, why it is necessary for us to let in a controlled inflow so that we can derive benefits from it.

So tonight I can't solve the whole problem, I can't explain all aspects of this problem but I will try and explain why staying open it is going to benefit us and how...and benefit us meaning all Singaporeans and when there are problems what we can do to address these problems.

We are not the only country grappling with this issue, where citizens are queasy about foreign workers and immigration. There are many countries now which host significant foreign or immigrant populations.

So people are coming into contact, mingling who didn't used to mingle, there are frictions, insecurity and political pressures which build up.

So the issue has become hot in many places, many countries, even in Japan which has very few foreigners, in Australia, in Britain, in France, in Germany, Netherlands, even Switzerland, even the US.

The US is one of the most open societies in the world.

They build themselves on immigrants.

But Americans have also grown uncomfortable with the influx and especially of illegal immigrants - people who are there informally, working, no papers but if they all leave America is in trouble.

In Houston in Texas where I was, the Greater Metropolitan area has five million population, about the size of Singapore and many immigrants which contribute to a vibrant city.

They have about a quarter million Chinese immigrants, maybe same number of Indian immigrants, Latins.

But it's a lively city and at the leading edge for medicine and research.

The Texas Medical Centre is one of the largest centres who are doing research and advanced treatment in the world: cancer, RandD, all sorts of things, 49 hospitals, universities, research centres all clustered around Houston, full of foreign researchers.

In every lab, one of the researchers told me, somewhere you will find somebody from the PRC, and I'm sure there will be somebody from India and others, too.

But they are there, they are making it happen.

I met business and city leaders in Houston and they said that the Texas political leaders have shown courage, keeping the state open to immigrants.

And whenever neighbouring states like California and Arizona clamped down and tightened up and pushed out the immigrants, Texas would collect some of the good ones and would benefited.

Doesn't mean that Texas doesn't face problems because of this, but overall because they've stayed open, it's been a plus for them. And they hoped that Texas would continue to stay open.

I also met Bill Gates of Microsoft on the trip. Microsoft is an IT company that you will know about it.

The kind of biz which we want to be as Singapore. Knowledge intensive, innovation intensive, depending on talent and looking to the future.

So I asked Bill Gates, ""Where do you do your research?" And he told me: "I'll show you the map."

I'll just show you the dots. And if you study the map, you will find very interesting where they have gone to do research.

They have research centres in America because Microsoft is an American company. They have research centres elsewhere in the world, because you have to tap talent everywhere. Where are they in America?

Redmond. Washington state up in the northwest. Why? because the Microsoft HQ is there. And it's a good place to live. Where else are they?

Down in Silicon Valley where the brain power is. Lots of IT talent, lots of Indians and Chinese and others. They've gone tracing them. They are in Cambridge (New England).

That's where Harvard and MIT and other universities are, like Princeton.

Overseas where are they? Cambridge (England) because of the University of Cambridge, Bangalore, India, because of the IT companies and the Indian IT talent. And we are there too.

We have an IT, JTC has built, what do they call it? The Bangalore IT, it's a tech park for the IT biz here in Bangalore.

And in Beijing because they got Tsinghua, they got Beijing Da Xue and they got all the talent from China in Beijing. So they go where the talent is.

But there's one more interesting pt about this slide. If you zoom in carefully on Redmond, you will find there are 2 spots.

One on the American side of the border in Redmond, the other one on the Canadian side of the border in Vancouver.

Why are they in Vancouver?

Because the Americans restrict visas for professionals.

So when Microsoft wants to bring in IT talent to Redmond, they can't get enough H1B visas, which is what professionals need to work in America.

So instead they go to Canada, because Canada welcomes these skilled workers, open arms. And if the person has a hundred thousand Canadian dollar job offer, which is about US$100,000, then practically stapled to that job offer is an offer of a Canadian green card. So because of the difference in policies, America has lost out, Canada has gained.

Bill Gates told me that globally, 1/3 of their researchers are Chinese in Microsoft, 1/3 of their researchers are Indian ppl.

Recently, he attended a presentation of awards to 12 top Microsoft employees, those who have the top confidential report staff assessment rankings.

Out of the 12 names, he could only pronounce - Chris Jones - without help. All the others were foreign born and many of them were Asian. So what's the lesson for us?

That immigration and foreign talent are difficult issues everywhere.

They pose very real political problems and social problems. But if we can manage these political and social challenges, then the benefits to us are substantial.

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