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 said last night.
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 increase of 26,000 in foreign employment excluding maids, down from a growth pace of 80,000 in 2011.
Mr Lee was speaking in an interview with former ambassador Chan Heng Chee televised last night which also covered productivity and the Singapore identity.
On managing immigrants and foreign workers, he said that "there are no easy choices".
"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... 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."
The Government will review 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 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 makes 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". Many Singaporeans might want to see the foreign presence here diminish, but most have ties with foreigners and would not want their helpers or colleagues to be sent home. This same conflicting dynamic arises among professionals, managers, executives and technicians, and businesses.
He said: "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 Aug 3, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.