PM: Policy on foreigners must be sustainable

Singapore needs to manage the complex issue of foreign workers and immigration carefully, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told a gathering of French businessmen on Tuesday.

It has to be done in a way that is "sustainable over the long term for our society, politically, and also achieves the demographic and economic objectives which we have", he said.

Singaporeans must be able to adapt to the inflow and new immigrants must be integrated into the society and not be so overwhelming that they dilute the country's core, values and ethos.

Foreign workers and immigration, however, are issues that many countries - including France - grapple with, he noted.

But, seeking to paint a picture of the delicate balancing act the Government has to achieve, Mr Lee told the entrepreneurs that Singapore requires foreigners for its economic needs.

"You need that range of skills and experiences and talent which no society can generate on its own, and you have to get them from all over the world - Europe, America, China, India," he said at a France-Singapore Business Forum here.

Foreigners also help demographically as Singaporeans are not having enough babies. Singapore's fertility rate is far below the 2.1 replacement level.

Mr Lee also made the point that when it comes to the foreigner issue, Singapore must do things in an open way to maintain its links with other countries, and develop "win-win mutually beneficial relationships".

When introducing Mr Lee, Mr Jean Burelle, the chairman of the French Business Confederation, Medef International, had flagged work permits as an issue of concern to French businessmen eyeing opportunities in Singapore.

In a 10-minute speech, Mr Lee told the businessmen that Singapore was at a transition point.

Its economy has grown steadily and it must now find a way to continue to upgrade itself and improve its people's lives.

Singapore is investing in infrastructure and its people, to make them more productive in "sunrise industries", he said.

At the same time, they have to be complemented by professionals like scientists from all over the world to make Singapore a vibrant economic hub. There must also be a certain proportion of foreign workers to make up the numbers in such sectors as construction and manufacturing.

Mr Lee noted that there are now 1,000 French companies in Singapore. This was a 50 per cent increase from 2008, the last time he visited Paris.

French companies, he said, supply the "demand for lifestyles and for styles" of societies with a growing affluent middle class. He cited products like Hermes bags, drawing laughs from the audience.

Further, the upcoming European Union-Singapore free trade agreement will bring economic benefits through, for instance, immediate duty-free access for imports from the EU and France.

It will lead to estimated savings of nearly €300 million (S$512 million) per year.

On Monday, Mr Lee met French President Francois Hollande. They reaffirmed their countries' strategic partnership and discussed ways to improve trade and investments. Singapore also thanked France for hosting its air force facility in Cazaux.

Mr Lee leaves for Poland today.

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.