It cannot be a middling business centre. It cannot rely on its domestic economy for growth.
“If we are a middling business centre or if we think we can get growth out of a domestic economy, not only will we not be able to grow opportunities, but more Singaporeans will leave the place… So it’s clearly not an option,” he said.
Vital to stay open
Staying open is vital to maximising opportunities for its people, said Mr Tharman.
To remain successful and to stay competitive as an economic hub, Singapore needs to remain open to the flows of people besides being open to trade and investments.
Staying open does not mean staying ‘blindly open’
Staying open to the flows of people, however, does not mean staying ‘blindly open’ to foreigners.
“We cannot sustain our openness if we do not provide enough opportunities for our own people – it’s not socially or politically sustainable,” he said.
Managing the flows of people to sure opportunities for all
The key is for the Government to manage the flows of people and ensure that opportunities are created for all through this openness, he added.
This can be done in a few ways, Mr Tharman said.
The first is to help Singaporeans develop at every level of skills, deepen their skills, adapt and move on to adjacent skills or even to switch sectors altogether.
Next is to incentivise firms to anchor their regional and global business here together with their mix of international teams and Singaporeans.
Third is to ensure fair hiring and promotion practices, something which the government is taking even more seriously especially in this economic downturn.
“We are going to lean against the firms that do not take that seriously and hold them accountable,” Mr Tharman said.
And lastly, companies must ensure a diversity of nationalities among the foreigners they hire.
“Avoid significant concentrations of one nationality, and that, too, is something that we are talking to firms about,” he said.
This has been the position taken by the Government for some time already.
Back in December 2019 when Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing was speaking at the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry Bicentennial Dinner, he urged companies to diversify their workforce and not to rely on a single source even if it is more expedient to recruit from a familiar source. He urged them to commit to ‘fair and progressive employment practices in the workplace’.
Mr Tharman said that the overall number of foreigners here relative to residents would also need to be controlled.
“If you want to preserve openness to the top-tier talent and entrepreneurs, you have to control the overall numbers and make sure that the broad middle in our society and those in the lower-income level have opportunities and face fair competition.”
A real risk of a wipe-out of SMEs
Addressing the challenges faced by SMEs, Mr Tharman said many SMEs may not be able to survive past the next few years because of the ongoing pandemic.
“SMEs are not just part of an economy, they are part of society. They employ people, they are part of what constitutes a local economy.
“I don’t think we want to end up with a world, two years from now, where you have a more heavily concentrated industry, where the winners might be doing well in their own right, but there is a bleak landscape outside of them.”
The Government is focused on preventing this from happening.
This will be achieved through fiscal and industry upgrading strategies, and small industry transformation maps.
“The role of the state – to keep the centre strong in society, to find every way in which contending parties can find some basis for consensus – that role, too, has grown.”