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Excuse me, are you part of the Singapore core?

Many years ago, a Member of Parliament brought an apple into the House to illustrate the concept of a Singapore core. I was thoroughly amused at the lesson he tried to teach the front bench and wondered if he realised that the apple core would always be thrown away since apple trees can’t grow here.

The Singapore core concept has come up time and again, especially when citizens start feeling insecure about their jobs. Attempts to define this core have polarised discussion, with some insisting that it be confined to citizens by birth only. Others think that the core is an idea, embracing all who have a sense of Singaporeanness, itself a subject of discussion. These means including permanent residents, new citizens and foreign workers who have been here for a lengthy period of time. 

Rather than indulge in semantics, it might be more useful to look at the circumstances which start the clamour for a “Singapore core’’. President Halimah Yacob said that the sense of competition for jobs from work pass holders has become a major source of anxiety, especially among mid-career Singaporeans. 

She added: “We understand these concerns. They not only touch on matters of livelihood, but also on our sense of identity and belonging. They will be addressed.

“As masters of our own land, Singaporeans must have confidence in the rights and privileges of citizenship.”

Madam Halimah referred only to “work pass holders’’ which makes me wonder if this is just a generic term for all foreigners who have a work pass of some sort, or whether she is excluding those with S passes and employment passes. 

Talk of a Singapore core surfaced close to a decade ago, in the years when the country was flooded by immigrants and foreigners to man our go-for-growth strategy. But the pushback came in the 2011 general election, when overcrowding, job competition and a growing sense of alienation became factors for a decline in the ruling People’s Action Party vote share. The foreign worker tap was tightened and more eligibility conditions imposed on the hiring of foreign workers, including local-foreigner ratios. 

From time to time, xenophobic sentiments have been expressed as citizens complain about working in an alien environment or having been passed over for a job. The Fair Consideration Framework, introduced in 2016 to protect Singapore PMETs, was meant to address this. 

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But it seems to many that the FCF, despite tough penalties barring employers from renewing foreign hire contracts or getting new hires, doesn’t go far enough to assure citizens that their jobs are being protected. Increasing retrenchment during this Covid-19 outbreak has been accompanied by increasing resentment towards foreigners – or people who “seem’’ foreign, including permanent residents. 

More than 1,200 firms have been placed on watchlist since 2016, including 47 for discriminating against citizens earlier this month. The Manpower Ministry is coy about naming companies but gave this info:   The recent cases include a wealth management firm that appointed foreigners of the same nationality to almost three-quarters of the job roles for professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs), as well as a bank with nearly two-thirds of PMETs from the same country. Thirty of the 47 companies are in the financial services and professional services sector. 

It did not name any firm, which makes people wonder why. In March, it had named five:  Wisdomtree Learning Centre, Outshinerz Events, Security & Risk Solutions, Incredible Service Doc and Idoc Pte Ltd. But this was for age-related discriminatory hiring, not for bias against citizens. They are small companies, not biggies in the financial sector. 

In the case of the 47, the largest employed 2,000 people. Collectively, they hire some 2,000 employment pass holders and more than 2,800 resident PMETs. 

The MOM doesn’t say how it alighted on these companies or the benchmarks it set for parity in employment. All it says is that employers are placed on the watchlist if they have “an exceptionally high share of foreign PMETs compared to their peers in the industry, or have a high concentration of PMETs from a single nationality’’.  

(I am actually rather surprised because I would have thought the Covid-19 outbreak would make employers let their foreign workers go first, especially since they do not enjoy the job support scheme available to citizens and PRs.)

The ordinary citizen does not have numbers on hand but a stroll through the Central Business District and Changi Business Park would confirm his perception that his country has changed. Let’s be forthright: we’re talking about Indian nationals, whether PRs or employment pass holders. 

Intrepid netizens have tried to piece together profiles of upper management levels, only to provoke cries of racism. 

At the very least, however, they managed to pry out some facts. 

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Temasek Holdings, for example, said 90 per cent of its 600-strong staff at its headquarters in Singapore are Singaporeans or permanent residents, a ratio similar to that of its senior leadership. Globally, the nationality mix of its employees is about 60 per cent Singaporean and 40 per cent other nationals, of whom around 10 per cent are Singapore PRs. 

President Halimah said that these are emotive issues that can evoke strong reactions. “Debates on such sensitive matters can easily become polarised. So as we open up more areas for meaningful discussion, Singaporeans must work even harder to listen to and understand one another. The Government will be open to constructive criticism and rational debate, and to new ways of doing things.’’ 

But without the facts, how are Singaporeans going to work “even harder’’ to listen to and understand one another? How is constructive criticism to be fostered when we have so little facts to go by? 

Monetary Authority of Singapore’s Ravi Menon didn’t do much to enlighten citizens about the employment of foreigners and locals. His letter to ST, in response to complaints about the financial sector’s employment profile, raised more questions and gave few answers. 

Here are some excerpts of the letter and my questions in bold: 

The public is left to figure out what an exceptionally high share or concentration means.  Also, whether PMETs applied to only a certain level of employees or also the upper management ranks. 

MAS estimates that citizens make up 70 per cent of the sector’s workforce,  with PRs making up another 14 per cent. Singaporeans are well represented across business functions, but we need to improve the local proportion in areas like technology and risk management. (What are the proportions for both?)

MAS estimates that Singapore citizens account for about 70 per cent of senior management roles in retail banks’ local functions. 

(Define senior management and what is the proportion of retail banks compared to rest of industry? What are its “local’’ functions and how big is this part of work in a retail bank? Why does MAS pick only the retail banks’ local functions to highlight local employment?) 

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Across the entire sector, the proportion is about 43 per cent, reflecting Singapore’s role as an international financial centre. 

(Again, we need to know how big retail banks are to make sense of the above statement about “across the sector’’. If 43 per cent is a reflection of Singapore’s role as an international financial centre, what is the diversity  like in other international financial centres in the world?)  

Mr Menon said that MAS monitors these FIs’ workforce profile by locals (citizens and PRs separately) and foreigners, broken down by seniority, business function, qualifications, and so on. So clearly, it has the statistics. Would sharing them do harm? In what way and to whom?

Government agencies strike me as being too wary of giving out information. They believe that they will be misinterpreted or put to some bad use. But in a democracy with citizens exhorted to take part in constructive dialogue, their actions are not, hmm, constructive. With lack of data, the dialogue will forever be one-sided. 

On a separate note, I detect a rising animosity towards another set of residents, the PRs. This is even though their proportions have remained the same over the years. There are 3.5 million citizens and about 500,000 PRs as of last year. Some light should be shed about the PR application process and whether most go on to become citizens. Too often, we hear of tales of Singapore PRs taking advantage of the conditions here and leave just as soon as, say, their son turns 16 to avoid getting called up for National Service. Or their application for PR is simply to make it easier for them to switch jobs and send their children to mainstream schools rather than out of any sense of staying rooted here. 

President Halimah asked that Singaporeans must have confidence in the rights and privileges of citizenship. It might be a good time to tote them up.

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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