Foreign talent 'can plug gaps in economy'

Singapore remains open to foreign talent, especially in areas where there is a pressing market need, but it has to strike a fine balance between growing the economy and responding to the population's needs, Minister for Industry S Iswaran said on Thursday.

"So it's about investing in our people ... while also recognising that there are certain gaps in the market - whether it's a transitional issue or something that may be more on a long-term basis - in skill needs," he said.

"And those are the areas where we want to ensure there's an adequate complement of talent from abroad to the talent base that we're nurturing and growing in Singapore."

The minister was speaking at a press conference on the recommendations made by the high-level Committee on the Future Economy (CFE). He is also the CFE's co-chair.

The panel, tasked by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to chart out an economic restructuring path, offered a slew of recommendations on how Singapore's economy can stay relevant, yet competitive.

The subject of foreign talent cropped up only a few times in the 109-page report, but one of the sub-committees suggested that "Singapore must augment its local talent with foreign talent possessing specialised skill sets".

Another sub-committee called for Singapore to continue to remain open to talent from around the world.

A third proposed to review current work-pass schemes to allow in more "startup founders and key executives who are prepared to anchor their growing businesses in Singapore".

But the main committee's views on how overseas talent can figure in its vision for the future barely made it to its final recommendations.

A Maybank Kim Eng report in January calculated that the multiplier effects of foreign talent in technology - a key focus in the CFE report - is large, with 4.3 jobs created for every job in the high-tech sector.

Foreign-worker policies are controversial in Singapore. Faced with demographic challenges, the government had once relied on an influx of foreign labour to stoke growth, but it had to scale back the inflow after a political backlash.

On Thursday, the lack of mention of how foreign labour can contribute to Singapore's future economy was not lost on some journalists. One asked whether the committee's current stance towards foreign labour would stay, or whether there would be room for discussion.

"We have remained open," Mr Iswaran replied.

"Yes, there has been a recalibration in terms of our foreign-worker policies over the years, but that's something that is dynamic, and will continue to respond to the market."

This article was first published on February 10, 2017.
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