M-SEP scheme is not U-turn on S’pore’s foreign manpower policy: Tan See Leng

The Manpower for Strategic Economic Priorities (M-SEP) scheme is not a U-turn, said Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng to Workers Party MP Leon Perera in Parliament on January 9. 

For context, under the M-SEP scheme, firms can temporarily hire S Pass and Work Permit holders above the prevailing Dependency Ratio Ceiling (DRC) and S Pass sub-DRC.

Since there is a cap on the number of foreign workers that companies can employ (foreign workers cannot exceed one-third of the overall workforce), Mr Perera asked if the introduction of more foreign workers through the M-SEP scheme be seen as an about-turn to the current policy?

Well, the answer is a definitive no. 

For the record, said Minister Tan, the Ministry of Manpower will continue to monitor the 30 per cent ratio very closely. 

“Because of the highly selective nature and stringent conditions of the scheme, we don’t expect the (M-SEP) numbers to affect the proportion of foreign workers significantly,” added Minister Tan.

Moreover, to make a U-turn would imply reneging on a previous promise. But since M-SEP is a new scheme independent of the Foreign Workforce Policy, there are no U-turns here, only one-way streets.

As a brand-new scheme, M-SEP needs no backpedalling

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As part of his clarification on why the M-SEP scheme is no U-turn, Minister Tan took pains to explain the need for such a scheme in the first place. 

In a rapidly changing world, he said, Singapore will need to boost its competitiveness, seize opportunities to pull ahead and tap into the R&D segment to pivot and transform. 

But to do so successfully, Singapore has to ensure that businesses that contribute to our strategic economic priorities are not held back by labour constraints. 

“(With the M-SEP scheme), we can help a selected group of companies that are on the cusp of being able to make that significant pivot, and give them the uplift that’s necessary,” added Minister Tan. 

For that reason, M-SEP should be viewed as a new policy and a stopgap measure to help selected, strategically important firms solve their labour woes.

In that sense, hiring foreign workers under the M-SEP scheme is akin to the bandage you put over a wound to stop the bleeding before you visit a doctor to have it stitched up.

They are not here as a permanent feature to compete for jobs, drive down wages or replace local workers.

Singapore’s goal has always been to build a Singaporean core of workers. And that is evident in the second condition of the M-SEP scheme, in which participating firms must commit to hiring and/or training locals.  

As we can see, the M-SEP scheme is a separate policy designed with a specific purpose. Which is to help support the growth of businesses that contribute to Singapore’s strategic economic priorities and generate more economic opportunities for Singaporeans.

It is not meant as a loophole for firms to legally hire foreign workers as a cost-saving exercise. And neither is it a case of the government backtracking on its decision to keep the foreign workforce stable at 30 per cent. 

However, Minister Tan also made the assurance that he did not expect the M-SEP scheme to affect the proportion of foreign to local workers very much because of the highly selective nature of the scheme, and because of the stringent conditions that firms have to meet.

Cover Photo Credit: MCI/YouTube