Comment: Forward S’pore is also an important conversation about jobs in S’pore 

30/06/2022

By Malminderjit Singh 

On Tuesday (June 28, 2022), Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong launched the Forward Singapore initiative. This year-long exercise will help the PAP government review its social compact with Singaporeans and other stakeholders, including businesses and civil society.  

Some naysayers may say that this is a futile exercise, providing only lip service. Others may say that this is political grandstanding. This cannot be further from the truth.  

Forward Singapore is an initiative that will not only help the 4G leaders build a new social compact with the electorate and deepen the mutual trust and understanding, it also takes an important, collaborative approach to solving the complex challenges facing Singapore.  

That the 4G is taking Forward Singapore seriously and not as an academic exercise can be seen in how they have structured the initiative: It is organised into six pillars, each led by 4G leaders. The Pillar Leads will also involve other political office-holders to widely engage with all stakeholders in the course of their work. 

With 20 political office holders (including DPM Wong) and potentially more involved, it shows that the PAP Government is placing a lot of weight on this year-long exercise. 

It is also not just a broad-ranging feedback collection initiative. Forward Singapore will be an honest and difficult conversation with all stakeholders on a focused and critical set of issues. The six pillars selected as the focus of the exercise – empower, equip, care, steward, build and unite are critical to Singapore’s future.  

Creating jobs more challenging

Let us focus on the empower pillar for this piece as it will be discussing essential issues around economy and jobs. This is a critical area for Singapore and Singaporeans and one that the PAP government has always put front and centre of its policy agenda. This was clear as the government Jobs Support Scheme helped cushion the impact of the pandemic on the jobs market in 2020 and 2021.  

Despite the pandemic, in the last three years alone, the Economic Development Board created some 54,000 jobs, which are mostly well-paying jobs filled by locals.  

However, job creation could become more uncertain and challenging from hereon. Even as the Singapore economy is gradually climbing out of the shadows of Covid-19 in the last two years, we are already faced by global headwinds of the Ukraine war, supply-chain disruptions, inflation (or possibly stagflation), protectionism and increasing geopolitical rivalries.  

Against this backdrop, the global economy and Singapore economy could slow down with private sector economists polled by the Monetary Authority of Singapore here already cutting their forecasts for full-year growth. This has caused jitters among businesses. The impact of this will soon be felt more widely on jobs – Shopee’s recent job cuts already demonstrate this.  

The question of trade-offs

But the PAP Government’s focus on jobs and economy in Forward Singapore is not just about the near-term cyclical challenges. It is broader and involves a conversation on longer-term directions. On one hand, the issue of job creation needs to be weighed against the larger question of availability of talent. It is inevitable that if Singapore wants to attract the world’s top companies, we need an equally world-class workforce.  

A local workforce alone may be insufficient to meet the needs of such multinationals, be they the big tech companies or the specialised firms in pharmaceuticals, healthcare and others. Will Singaporeans accept this need for a dual approach of locals and foreign talent to cater to more companies moving here, which will inevitably create more jobs for Singaporeans?  

Thankfully, to protect Singaporeans’ livelihood, DPM Wong said at the launch of Forward Singapore that there will be a new law to ensure that all employers uphold fair employment practices and will not hesitate to take action against any employer who discriminates on the basis of nationality and other factors. 

A rejection of such a model would mean higher costs for companies as the government tightens the inflow of employment passes through higher qualifying salary amounts.  

Given the already rising costs, and that salaries in some industries such as tech have risen phenomenally over the last year or so due to a shortage in supply, companies may find it less viable to operate here and either downsize or leave altogether. The long-term impact on jobs could be severe.  

The gig effect

The other conversation to be had about jobs is the type and quality of jobs. Many of the lower-wage jobs in Singapore do not attract Singaporeans.  

With more than 220,000 gig workers in Singapore, many Singaporeans have opted instead to work in the platform economy where incomes may be higher and work timings more flexible. As a result, these lower-wage jobs will have to be filled by lower-skilled labour from outside of Singapore. That helps to keep costs low for businesses and, consequently, translates to lower prices for consumers as well.  

But that may mean that businesses may not always have a ready supply of workers for these roles as Covid-19 has shown whereby such businesses were starved off the pipeline of workers who couldn’t come into Singapore.  

If companies want more local workers for these jobs, they will have to offer higher salaries. If Singaporeans want the locals working in these roles to have better financial prospects, then they will have to accept higher prices for the goods and services they purchase. Is that acceptable to most of Singaporeans? 

The gig economy workers will also have to ask themselves if they are willing to sacrifice stronger social safety nets, upskilling and increasing job mobility in return for flexible employment and higher incomes in the short-term. Can the platform companies make it more equitable for gig workers to be employed with them in the long-term by offering social safety nets, medical benefits, insurance coverage and training and development opportunities? With three out of every 50 working Singaporeans engaged in gig work, this is an important issue to be addressed but one that needs the honest introspection of these workers as well as greater accountability of their employers.  

Long-term working arrangement

Lastly, with Covid-19 disrupting the way we work, employers and employees need to have a better understanding of what a return to work looks like for the longer-term? Are companies willing to have their workers on a hybrid model of some remote work during the week? Are employees willing to compromise on other job perks to retain such work outside the office flexibility? What policy and legislative changes should the government make to facilitate this shift?  

These are only some of the areas that could be discussed under the empower pillar for Forward SG. This one pillar alone shows the gravity of this exercise and reminds us all why we must take it seriously and throw our support behind it. There is much at stake when it is the future of Singapore and Singaporeans on the table.  

Malminderjit Singh is a public affairs professional who is a former journalist. He chaired the 5th PAP Policy Forum Council and previously also served on the Petir Editorial Committee.  

Cover photo credit: charlesdeluvio on Unsplash