Disclaimer: Opinions expressed below belong solely to the author.
On August 29, the government announced a new class of work permit in Singapore, the Overseas Networks and Expertise Pass (One Pass), which will come into effect from 1 January 2023.
The new One Pass is considerably generous — it offers foreigners the chance to bring their families, and for spouses to work as well. The pass is valid for five years, and significantly, there is no limit as to how many can be offered.
Much has been said about the need for foreign talents in Singapore, and concerns have been raised by citizens over the necessity of getting these talents in order for the country to remain competitive.
On one hand, there are concerns that these foreign talents are competing for the same positions that can be filled by locals. On the other hand, there are also those who argue that these foreign talents fill a niche that Singaporeans cannot fill.
Yet, others have also raised concerns that the new work permit would be abused through fraudulent applications.
During a parliamentary discussion on the new One Pass, Associate Professor Jamus Lim of the Workers Party asked a question that is of paramount importance: Can the government codify training and skills transfer requirements into law, as part of the One Pass?
This has, after all, been a key point of attracting foreign talent in Singapore, so that locals can learn from them and increase their own contributions to Singapore’s economy.
Manpower Minister Tan See Leng, however, cautioned that foreign talents contribute in other ways as well, and we should therefore not consider them as being here only to facilitate these skills transfers.
In many ways, Dr Lim has a point. Skills transfer has been extremely important in getting Singapore to where we are today, as a technologically advanced society with one of the highest incomes per capita in Southeast Asia.
Our reputation as one of the ‘Four Asian Tigers’ is partially due to our openness to foreign talent and foreign companies during our period of export-oriented industrialisation. Yet, we were not the only country to welcome foreign investment and foreign talent. Other countries like Malaysia and Indonesia also welcome foreign experts in a bid to develop their own economies.
But examining the differences in living standards and levels of economic development between Singapore and the rest of Southeast Asia will yield some questions. For one, how has Singapore managed to get so much of its economy to be technologically-focused and become a tech and innovation hub, while the rest of Southeast Asia lags behind?
One answer, among many others, is skills transfer. While many Southeast Asian countries opened themselves up to experts, Singapore was not content on relying on these experts forever.
Take the collaboration between Malaysia and Mitsubishi for example. Mitsubishi was one of the companies that Malaysia hoped would help it grow economically and technologically.
In some ways, this happened. Mitsubishi aided the development and launch of Proton, Malaysia’s national automobile brand. But Proton is not exactly a brand known worldwide for its innovative automobiles — its flagship Proton Inspira was essentially a rebadged Mitsubishi Lancer.
The company has done so poorly that Mitsubishi has divested its holdings, and the company was acquired by Geely several years ago.
Why has the company not made significant innovations in the automobile space? Well, because it cannot. Skills transfers were not made while Mitsubishi was collaborating with Proton, and therefore, technical know-how was not transferred from Mitsubishi to Proton.
In contrast, Singapore began without an arms industry. Yet, Singapore’s ST Engineering is a top supplier for many countries today. Singapore produces ships for Oman’s navy, armoured personnel carriers for the United Kingdom, and the signature SAR 21 rifle is used by Brunei, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Peru, and several other armed forces.
This can be credited to the technological and skills transfers that were made when Singapore collaborated with foreign companies and talents during the early days of its development. The SAR 21, after all, was inspired by the American M-16. But rather than copying it wholesale, the design was modified and adapted to deal with issues that the M-16 had.
Clearly, skills and technological transfers are important. While Singapore is on the cutting edge of technological development now, this may not always be the case.
Relying on foreign talent means dependence — on foreigners who may not have the same stake in seeing Singapore succeed, and who may be tempted away by better offers elsewhere. If this reality comes to pass, Singapore will stagnate and be eclipsed by others.
Minister Tan made the point that “foreign talent can contribute in other ways, including in helping to bridge the gap in demand and supply of top talent”. But, it is not always a good idea to rely on foreign top talent in the long run.
Skills that are in vogue today will not necessarily be the same skills that are in vogue tomorrow. During the 1980s, the cutting-edge of technology was computers. Then came the age of smartphones, and now, the fintech wave is upon us with cryptocurrencies, central bank digital currencies, and borderless payments.
Singapore has been fortunate to have learnt quickly during the past few decades, opening its doors to foreign investment and foreign talent in order to learn from the best in the world. In electronics, Singapore has managed to remain relevant in the development of microchips, wafer fabrications, and other sectors.
But these technologies, with time, have also become diffused — they are no longer the cutting edge of technology. Today, companies developing financial technology such as Revolut, or venturing into deep tech such as Horizon Quantum Computing, are the ones who are at the forefront of technological progress.
Minister Tan is right that foreign talent can help to bridge the gap in demand and supply of top talent, but to consistently rely on these top talents to fill all the gaps would be a risky play at best.
These talents may not have the same stake in Singapore’s success as local talents who have lived their lives here. There will always be other countries who successfully poach them again, and other policies that attract these talents away from us.
Therefore, part of what makes these top talents valuable to Singapore should be their willingness and ability to transfer skills and technology to Singaporeans, so that Singaporeans will also be able to fill these gaps, if and when these foreign talents leave.
The need to develop our own talents will never disappear, no matter how advanced we are.
Skills transfers from foreign talent is not a question of stagnation or advancement, but a question of advancement or decline.
Thus far, Singapore has managed to maintain its relevance and competitiveness due to our advantages in technology and innovation, but this progress is not limited to Singapore. The whole world is advancing, and this progress, while good for us now, is a double-edged sword.
While Singapore remains relevant and competitive for now, steady progress means that stagnation is extremely dangerous. If skills transfer does not occur, and we continue to rely upon foreign talent to make up the gaps that we cannot fill, then these gaps will continue to widen with time — and the decline will be upon us before we know it.
During the 17th century, innovations in finance such as fractional shares enabled the Dutch to become an economic and colonial powerhouse, but they were soon eclipsed by the British and its empire in which the sun never sets. The British adopted the financial ideas that came from the Dutch to build their own empire, bolstered by greater access to resources.
Similar stories have continued to happen throughout the ages. Nokia, once a giant of the phone technology, was acquired by Microsoft, after smartphone giants like Apple and Samsung edged them out of the market. Now, Amazon is being outshone in Southeast Asia by Shopee and Lazada.
As we can see, to stagnate is almost never an option. Choosing stagnation means letting competitors get ahead, and providing them with a golden opportunity to overtake us. In essence, it is choosing to decline.
The same lesson can be applied to foreign talents in Singapore, and our own policies of attracting foreign talent. While we do need to attract foreign talent in order to stay competitive, it is also important that we do not rely on them being here in perpetuity.
Singapore must learn to fill the gaps in our economy ourselves, and foreign talent is indeed a valuable means to that end.
However, foreign talent needs to be made optional rather than existential. Their contributions are significant, but their accomplishments will never truly be Singapore’s accomplishments, unless Singapore can do the same or better.
The story of Singapore’s growth has been a success story so far, but it is one based on attracting, keeping, and improving on foreign innovations and technology. A key ingredient in this is ensuring that technological know-how, insight, and skills that come to Singapore, stay in Singapore as well.
Work passes like the One Pass will attract foreign talent, but keeping them is a different story altogether.
Foreign talents do have many contributions in Singapore, but possibly the most important function that they serve for Singapore is to ensure our continued economic growth, and through skills transfers to local talents, the filling of gaps in our economy. As the saying goes, knowledge is the only thing that no one can take away from you.
We do need foreign talents, but Singapore cannot compromise on what these foreign talents must provide for us as well. The One Pass that Singapore plans to offer for foreigners, therefore, should keep that end in mind.
Featured Image Credit: Screenshot from Parliament here and here
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