Speech to the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce: Business as the bulwark against Xenophobia and Nativism

Business’ as the Bulwark against Xenophobia and Nativism

Mr Per Magnusson, Chairman, Singapore International Chamber of Commerce, and all present. Good morning and thank you for your kind invitation. I am honoured to be part of your Distinguished Speaker Series.​


I will speak today on the forces of xenophobia and nativism that are present in Singapore and give my views on what businesses and the government may need to do about them.​

But before I move on to the major part of my speech, let me by way of a quick introduction, set out my Party’s previously stated position on the economy and more specifically, on foreigners in the economy.​

My colleagues and I in the Workers’ Party support foreign direct investment. Such investment plays an important role in job creation and benefit our local SMEs. We do not see Government-Linked-Companies and local firms as replacing MNCs but co-existing with them.​

In our GE2020 manifesto, we called for the creation of a National Secretariat for Entreprise to groom a critical mass of local firms to become globally competitive in key sunrise industries. We envisage this inter-ministerial secretariat to coordinate programmes across all relevant agencies with metrics measuring job creation and the multiplier effects on the SME sector for industries receiving government support.​

In my first speech in Parliament as Leader of the Opposition in August last year, I made clear that our position is that Singapore must continue to remain economically open and relevant to the world. Non-Singaporeans are essential to Singapore. But the way Singapore manages and accommodates foreigners in the economy may have to change.

In my judgment, no issue brings Singaporeans together more readily today than the perception of Singaporeans being unfairly treated or bypassed at the workplace. Singapore’s position as a city-state at the crossroads of trade and globalization are a double-edged sword for Singaporeans. Our position creates countless opportunities, but also makes our people more susceptible to the reality of job discrimination.

Let me move on to the body of my speech.

Singapore should be a place where:

Xenophobia is rejected;

Nativism is addressed through progressive legislation;

Foreigners feel welcome;

Businesses can hire the talent they need; and

Locals are treated fairly.

In order for these various things to happen, three groups need to play their part – the people, the government, and of course, business.

The best outcomes are achieved when individual, business and national goals coincide. While it is difficult, if not impossible, for these elements to correlate 100 percent, we need to work on having them coincide as much as possible. Businesses play a critical role in all this, and I would suggest are the most critical adhesive in aligning the interests of all three.

Let me talk in turn then about people, the government and businesses.


First, of all, people.

Two out of every five people who live on this island are non-citizens. And because we live in a city-state, there is no space in Singapore, unlike in most other countries, to retreat to the countryside or rural areas. People are thrown together. Even if only a tiny minority of people exhibit negative behaviours, these have outsized effects.

For example:

The 2012 Ferrari crash at Rochor involving a driver who was a Chinese national; and

The more recent case of who everyone instinctively thought was an Indian national – but turned out to be a naturalised Singaporean – scolding a local security guard at the Tampines condominium, upset many Singaporeans.

It is no insight that most of us live cheek by jowl in HDB flats and condominiums. The lived experiences of Singaporeans mean that some may need to be persuaded of the continuing importance of foreigners and naturalized citizens for the country and economy, given the circumstances Singapore finds itself it.

Separately, Singapore’s reality as a relatively new nation and the need for immigration to top up our population make nativist emotions a reality we have engage and address.

Across the world, those who have been born and raised in a country also tend to lean towards nativist policies. By nativism, I mean the desire of governments and people to protect the interests of native-born or established residents in preference to those of foreigners.

If nativism is not understood properly and managed, it can easily spill over into xenophobia.

A xenophobe dislikes and is prejudiced against anyone from a different country, no matter how much vibrancy or benefit they bring to their host country.

Are there xenophobes among Singaporeans? Of course. Every country has them and Singapore cannot expect to be unique in that respect. But the overwhelming majority of Singaporeans are not.

Nativism however, I would argue is more prevalent. Being nativist is not a unique circumstance in Singapore and is replicated in many parts of the world. Nativism, while largely seen in pejorative terms in global cities and in the context of globalisation, is an entirely predictable emotion and goes to the core of the meaning of citizenship, and the relationship between citizen and state.

People naturally act in their self-interest and prefer policies that promote that very self-interest. Every community is self-protective. For example, some months ago, many Dependent Pass holders in Singapore were upset when the government announced that the Letter of Consent or LOC policy would be changed and that employers would only be able to hire Dependent Pass holders on the same terms as other foreign employees. Ironically, even foreigners naturally organized and reacted when their employment was affected by government diktat. What more citizens of a country?

The Government

The second key player in the economy is the government.

The Workers’ Party supports the government’s position that Singapore must remain not only open, but must be welcoming to foreign nationals. However, as always, the devil is in the details.

For example, while the Workers’ Party supports the Ministry of Manpower’s Fair Consideration Framework in principle, we believe there is room for it to be more activist and it needs to have more teeth. And to that end, it would be necessary to consider new legislation. Currently, employers who do not give fair consideration to Singaporeans are only subject to administrative penalties. The most serious offenders who breach the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices are barred for 12 to 24 months from hiring or renewing foreign employees. They can continue to use the foreign workers they have previously hired and who are not up for renewal. They can also hire Singaporeans.

In other words, if employers are caught unfairly hiring foreigners over Singaporeans, all that happens is that they are stopped from hiring unfairly – which is what they should have done in the first place. They simply need to temporarily stop hiring foreigners. Surely this may encourage some less-enlightened employers to game the system and try their luck. They hire unfairly and hope not to get caught. And if they are caught, then and only then, would they need to consider hiring Singaporeans.

My view is that the Government needs to seriously consider anti-discrimination legislation with statutory penalties. Such a law would send a powerful signal for business to change how it recruits manpower.

This legislation would not affect the majority of employers with progressive HR policies, but will address those who are recalcitrant. Companies who are trying to integrate themselves into Singapore need not worry about such legislation because you are already hiring fairly. Such legislation will ensure that your less enlightened competitors play by the rules that you are already imposing on yourselves.

In fact, I hope that companies such as those who are members of the SICC may consider lobbying the government to pass such anti-discrimination legislation. If you lead the conversation and put forward your ideas, you can help to shape the conversation and the legislation. The government is responsive to feedback from businesses generally – I would suggest they would be even more responsive to calls from the business community to increase protection for workers.

To better address the forces of nativism, the Workers’ Party manifesto also called for all Employment Pass and S-Pass job applicants with university degrees and diplomas to be subject to mandatory educational credential assessments (ECAs), with costs to be borne by the applicant. ECAs would only be accepted from a panel of government-appointed established, independent consultants. The ECA report will be sent to the government, prospective employer and applicant to ensure the quality of the workforce can be appropriately assessed and certified with a collorary purpose to take the sting out of perceptions of poorly qualified foreigners taking away jobs from better qualified Singaporeans.

One more thing the government could do would be to ensure that companies have the talent they need, not only through allowing foreigners in, but by more rapidly building our local talent. The government should engage more with organisations like the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce to more quickly identify and implement education and skills upgrading policies to fill gaps. This is certainly happening, but I suspect not quickly enough for employers such as yourselves particularly in view of the high-end work that Singapore seeks to attract.


Let me move to the final part of my speech, which concerns business.

I would state categorically that companies should be able to recruit foreign nationals if they are unable to find Singaporeans to fill those jobs after having made best efforts to do so.

The majority of businesses have indeed put into place processes to ensure fair hiring practices. A survey conducted in 2018 which was reported in the latest Ministry of Manpower Employment Standards Report found that 69% of employers had done so. That percentage has been increasing since 2010, which is certainly a good thing. However, that means that as of 2018, 31% of companies did not have processes in place to ensure fair hiring practices. More critically, the same report showed that the percentage of local jobseekers who perceived discrimination during the job search process had increased from 10% in 2014 to 15% in 2018.

In March 2020, the Minister for Manpower reported to Parliament that about 1,000 companies had been placed on the Fair Consideration Framework Watchlist after being suspected of discriminatory hiring. The minister added that some of these employers have an exceptionally high share of foreign professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) compared to their industry peers, or high concentrations of single nationalities. There were another 350 companies with workforce profiles that gave cause for concern.

When things get out of hand, as they have on occasion in Singapore, xenophobia rears its ugly head. COVID has exacerbated matters. Beyond law and government policy, business can play an important role in holding the line. HR policy must consider Singaporeans fairly and promote the skills retraining and upgrading of Singaporeans.

Regular reviews must be done of the number of Singaporeans at every level and the number of Singaporeans transiting to the middle and upper echelons of a company, across sectors. With an Industry Transformation Roadmap 2.0 framework in the works, this ought to be a key performance indicator for every company in Singapore.

A few international companies have taken the initiative to give opportunities to Singaporeans. For example, Google has worked together with the Economic Development Board (EDB), Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) and SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG) to launch a new jobs and skills initiative for 3,000 local entry-level and mid-career job seekers.

But is there space for more to be done in this regard? If business doesn’t do its part and plays a more proactive role to address the concerns of local workers, the situation will get worse. We can blame populist politicians, but their methods would have no cachet if there wasn’t a genuine emotive on the ground for them to tap into in the first place. Some Singaporeans question our free trade agreements because they struggle to see how their lives and those of their compatriots have actually improved because of them. Singapore’s situation, as a trade hub AND city state actually makes the problem far more acute than imagined. It is a powerful fault-line.

Some businesses come across as far more enlightened – in my view – almost intuitively aware that Singapore society and our sense of rootedness as a people is on very shaky ground if we ignore the well-being of the low-income amongst us. A recent Business Times article on how some employers accepted the importance of a minimum wage is a case in point. These are employers that deserve to be encouraged, supported and championed.

Businesses are perceived like people. The people of a country, not only Singapore, accept better the foreigners who make the attempt to integrate into the community. The efforts of many foreign companies at CSR work on the ground is respected and should be replicated. The ones that are less well accepted are those who are seen to set themselves apart.

People can see when leaders in companies say things and behave in self-serving ways or whether they are really making an effort. Are you doing your best to give Singaporeans a fair shake or are you thinking of as many ways as possible to game the system and get as many of your countrymen here even though there are qualified Singaporeans?

I can accept that there must be give-and-take. But foreign companies who make profits here must take the effort to be one of us and also understand their responsibilities to Singaporeans. Many do. They must understand that being good, fair, responsible long-term guests here means sometimes making decisions that favour Singaporeans. In turn, Singaporeans must accept that foreign companies are essential to Singapore, not only as a means to the end of wealth and prosperity but also because they bring jobs, vibrancy, new ideas, new people and yes, even discomfort, to keep us on our toes.


In conclusion, this problem nativism and xenophobia is not going away in a hurry. The forces of xenophobia in particular are cancerous for a multi-racial, multi-cultural state. Support is required of everyone in the community to address the problem.

Business is at the cutting edge of this fight. The SICC and your member companies are already partners of Singaporeans and have shown yourselves to be for nearly 200 years. Better managing nativism and the fight against xenophobia needs your help, too.​

Once again, Singapore should be a place where:

Xenophobia is rejected;

Nativism is addressed through progressive legislation;

Foreigners feel welcome;

Businesses can hire the talent they need; and

Locals are treated fairly.

Let’s make all these things happen.

Thank you.

8 July 2021

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