Creating a more welcoming home for all Singaporeans

How to persuade overseas Singaporeans to return was an issue raised yesterday by a number of MPs, such as Ms Jessica Tan (East Coast GRC), Ms Foo Mee Har (West Coast GRC) and Non-Constituency MP Lina Chiam.

During the debate on the budget of the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), which oversees the National Population and Talent Division, they talked about strengthening the Singapore core, including getting Singaporeans who ventured abroad to eventually come home.

This is not a new goal. But in the light of Singapore's ageing - and eventually shrinking - citizen population and workforce, it has become more pressing than ever.

In Parliament on Monday, Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin projected a sharp slowdown in local workforce growth, from 95,000 new workers last year to just 20,000 a year in 2019.

Bringing back even some of the 212,000 Singaporeans overseas, as of June last year - up from 207,000 in 2013 - is likely to make a tangible difference.

How, then, to accomplish this?

This is also not a new question. But this year, the Government's response is stronger than ever, going by what it detailed during the Committee of Supply (COS) debates in

Parliament yesterday and last week. For those who see Singapore as too expensive to live in, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said during the debate on his ministry's budget yesterday that falling home prices - engineered by government policies - have brought housing affordability back to 2009 levels.

At their peak in 2013, HDB resale flat prices were 49 per cent higher than 2009 levels.

But they are now just 37 per cent higher than in 2009, while median household incomes have risen a comparable 38 per cent in that time.

While homes are still less affordable than in 2005, at least prices and incomes are going in the right direction, for now.

There is also comfort for those who worry there are not enough jobs and opportunities for them in Singapore, or who are turned off by the infamous paper chase here.

The tight labour market is likely to result in continued strong hiring across most sectors. This is a far cry from many developed countries, where wages are stagnating and unemployment is high, Mr Tan said on Monday.

Minister in the PMO Grace Fu also assured overseas Singaporeans yesterday that they will be in demand here because of their "skill sets and global outlook".

And more is being done to level the playing field between the academically inclined and the less so, to make Singapore more inclusive and less obsessed with grades.

Yesterday, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said the civil service will hire non-graduates on the same scheme that most graduates come under. All officers in the same grade, regardless of whether they have degrees, will also be assessed in the same way.

These moves are likely to go some way towards making Singapore a more attractive home to live and work in - but only if they result in real, permanent changes.

Housing cycles need to be actively smoothened not just for a few years but over a longer period to ensure better price stability and affordability in the long term.

Equal opportunities also mean more than placing everyone on a single pay scale and leaving them to fight out it against colleagues who may have had a stronger head start.

Appraisal criteria must be reassessed to ensure they are transparent and fair, and focus on measurable job performance indicators.

Finally, to signal that Singapore is truly becoming more inclusive and compassionate, perhaps what is needed is a sea change in one symbolic area, such as putting single mothers on the same level as married ones.

Nominated MP Kuik Shiao Yin yesterday said that the Baby Bonus and Child Development Account, which unmarried mothers do not qualify for, can add up to $12,000 worth of benefits.

A move to give all mothers the same treatment may persuade Singaporeans living in countries they see as more tolerant and sympathetic to return home.


This article was first published on March 11, 2015.
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