Petir Explains: The ONE Pass & S’pore’s search for ‘whales’

“The guppies trained under the whales, with the goal that one day they themselves would grow into whales,” said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at this year’s National Day Rally.

This was the story concerning the Government establishing A*STAR in the early 90s and also led to upcoming initiatives for building top-class talent pools across Singapore’s labour sectors.

How “top”, you ask? For starters, the upcoming Overseas Networks & Expertise (ONE) Pass covers any talent earning (or will likely earn) at least S$30,000 monthly. Anyone with outstanding achievements in the arts and culture, sports, science and technology, as well as academia and research, qualifies too, even if he or she does not earn that much. This pass opens for application Jan 1, 2023.

PM Lee’s guppy-to-whale analogy summarises a key Government reason for offering the upcoming Pass, as well as Singapore’s overall friendliness towards worldwide talent: It has always been about developing local talents; it’s about boosting the local ecosystem of experts and authorities.    

The whales in his analogy, you see, were the world’s top experts in biotech whom the Government persuaded to uproot their lives and labs over to kickstart Singapore’s nascent biomedical industry. Here, these whales of the world did not simply continue producing more cutting-edge innovations. They trained our local talent —the guppies— all the way from undergrad to PhD level and beyond.

As a result, some of those guppies are whales themselves today. These new whales mentor Singapore’s current generation of guppies from among the nation’s 25,000-strong biomedical workforce, which accounts for about one-fifth of national manufacturing GDP.

Helping whales enter Singapore’s multiple talent pools, then, means nurturing Singapore’s own whales across multiple sectors. This is, considering history’s lessons and the world’s contemporary circumstances, a forward-looking initiative.

Fixes the talent pool shortage for industries of the future

In particular, the ONE Pass makes Singapore an attractive destination for top talent during a time when they are prone to migrate internationally to join similar pools of expertise and are in short supply in the global bidding war for talent.

The World Bank’s 2017 findings bear out the first point. Countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) house two-thirds of the world’s high-skilled migrants, with almost 70 per cent of these migrants settling in the English-speaking countries of the United States (US), the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.

At the highest levels, these migrants agglomerate even more into their own country-specific pools, the World Bank also observes. For example, over 65 per cent of the Nobel Prizes for Chemistry, Medicine, Physics, and Economics have been awarded to US-based academics since World War II; a third of these Nobel awardees are in fact immigrants to the States and only half of all these awardees were born there.

There is also the fact that this disproportionate distribution of talent affects how a country develops its high-end capabilities in emerging sectors which the world needs. No matter the sector—carbon services, sustainable finance, electric vehicles, alternative proteins, big data and whichever else will be identified—their very newness means they begin with a lack of experts to do the job.

And the countries able to pool these uncommon experts together invariably have these specific sectors thrive. Much more, naturally, than similar sectors in countries without the necessary expert base. Faster too, considering that these experts will, as the rationale laid out for the ONE Pass acknowledges, train up other experts in these new, in-demand fields.

“There are tremendous new opportunities, and some of the technologies are still quite nascent, in terms of the adoption of hydrogen as a fuel, carbon capture utilisation and storage, the circular economy, even using biomass as fuel,” Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng said to local media at his Aug 29 press conference regarding the Pass, anticipating it improving Singapore’s capabilities for the in-demand sectors of the green economy and sustainability.  

“As a country with little or no natural resources, talent is our only resource, and talent acquisition is an offensive strategy for us. We are now in an era where businesses follow talent, as much as talent follows businesses,” Minister Tan explained.

“Both businesses and talent are searching for safe and stable places to invest, live and work in,” he added.

“Singapore is such a place.”

A place to live, work and play

Singapore’s efforts to attract top talent, indeed, do not only focus on recognising and rewarding these individuals. The nation’s politics and infrastructure play an important part too.

It starts with the Government. The international Political & Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC) consistently rates Singapore as Asia’s most politically stable, yet least bureaucratic, country. This means long-term plans for Singapore’s future such as improving infrastructure all the way from ports in Tuas to airport terminals over in Changi are (and this is rare worldwide) conceptualised as such. And these long-term plans are carried out consistently over decades.

“This is the core of what we do,” Minister Tan said in Parliament Sep 12 about the Government’s work on the workforce, including the ONE Pass. “For our fellow Singaporeans, for our future. Because 50 years down, many of you will still be around. You’ll want to continue to see Singapore still brimming with opportunities, optimism and hope.”

rostrum: i’ve lived a gd life

♬ Ouch That Hurt – Jet kingtay

The fact that the Singapore dollar remains strong internationally and against our regional counterparts is attractive too for all talent, not just the top: buy more with your money thanks to a country where also the income tax rate is one of the lowest in the world.  

Concurrently, Singapore is kept politically neutral on the international stage, despite an increasingly polarised world.The American-based Google and Meta are part of the same local tech innovation ecosystem as China’s Tencent and Chinese-born businessman Forrest Li’s Sea Limited (which includes Shopee) global headquarters.

This canny combination of pro-business stability and being a safe harbour of international neutrality is in its turn underpinned by existing urban development efforts toward more fulfilling lifestyles — no one after all, can work all the time.

In a similarly macro-level qualitative way, the Government sees the contributions of talented individuals going beyond a set of Key Performance Indicators. What matters is the sum of the parts; the entirety of the portfolio.

“The relationship between talent, innovation and economic growth is more than a simple, linear one,” said Minister Tan in Parliament on Sep 12. “Some Pass holders may be employees, making it possible to bring a new business unit to Singapore, or grow a new line of business. Others may set up companies of their own, generating employment, as well as supporting their network of business partners who can also provide good jobs.”

So, key to the ONE Pass is that its talent network development supports a Singapore in sustaining high rates of job creation and real income growth (and low unemployment) and where people have a constant sense of hope and of opportunity.

The latest iteration of an old tradition

This courting of foreigners with the ONE Pass (as well as other work passes in general) reads, frankly, as the latest chapter in Singapore’s established traditions of migration.

Modern Singapore began as a busy trading port by the water. Over the decades, it attracted mainly Chinese and Indian migrants to live new lives on the island alongside the region’s indigenous Malay peoples.

The most recent major wave of migration happened around the turn of the millennium. Those migrants have put down roots, raised families, and become PRs or Singapore citizens. They contribute to society. Top-tier ones, like the “whales” PM Lee mentioned and the likes of Forrest Li, do not just swim in the Singapore talent pool. They expand it. They create good jobs for Singaporeans.  

Because that’s what whales leaping out from their oceans of origin do for others nearby—they make it rain.

Photo by Todd Cravens on Unsplash