By Irene Ngoo
PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong gave the reassurance that improving the lives of Singaporeans will always remain the Government's key responsibility, even as he sought to restate why foreign workers and talent are needed to keep the economy more vibrant and diversified.
Delivering his National Day Rally speech in Mandarin at the University Cultural Centre on Sunday night, he said without foreign workers, there will not be enough Singapore workers to grow the economy.
Contrary to fears of some Singaporeans and feedback from NTUC that foreign workers are taking away jobs from Singaporeans and depressing wages, he said they have instead helped to enlarge the pie.
PM Lee said the fact that Singapore's jobless rate is only 2.3 per cent - considered by economists to be full employment - and that elderly workers have found it easier to find jobs, shows that foreign workers have not taken away the rice-bowl of Singaporeans.
'We allow in foreign workers and new immigrants because doing so will benefit Singaporeans,' he said. 'Our economy has become more vibrant and diversified because of foreign workers. Without their participation, there will not be enough workers to grow the economy.'
He gave several practical examples to drive home the need for foreign workers.
The two Integrated Resorts at Marina Bay and on Sentosa Island, which are being built, will need another 20,000 workers. They will not be able to recruit Singaporeans to fill all these positions, said Mr Lee.
'In fact, they would not have decided to invest here had we required them to recruit only Singaporeans,' he added.
Foreign finance specialists are needed to help Singapore grow its financial centre. This is how London and New York have become global financial centres because they are able to draw talent from all over the world, said PM Lee.
Foreign workers keep many small and medium entreprises (SMEs) in business by lowering their costs.
'Without them, local workers and SMEs bosses will also lose their jobs,' said Mr Lee.
Outside of economics, he said foreign talent has also lifted Singapore's ranks in sports.
Of the 24 Singaporean athletes taking part in the Beijing Olympics, half of them are new immigrants who have become Singapore citizens, said PM Lee, speaking coincidentally just before the start of the Singapore-China table tennis finals at the Beijing Olympics.
In fact, the English telecast of PM Lee's speech, originally scheduled to continue after the Malay and Chinese speeches, has been pushed back to 8 pm on Monday so that Singaporeans can watch the finals 'live'.
The highly-anticipated game will star Singapore players Li Jiawei, 27, Wang Yuegu, 28, and Feng Tianwei, 21, who made history on Friday by beating South Korea to assure the Republic at least a silver, ending its 48-year Olympics medal drought.
Said Mr Lee: 'China has 1.3 billion people, we have 4 million. Based on population, China would have to win 300 medals before Singapore has the chance to win a single medal. So we cannot rely on only local talent.
'Our performance at the Beijing Olympics demonstrates this. We now have Tao Li reaching the swimming finals and the table-tennis team playing for either gold or silver in the finals tonight.
'Because we welcome talent, we can compete above our class. So we can take pride in Team Singapore, and cheer for our athletes.'
[This ability of Singapore to look beyond our shores for talent is an important practical value that needs to be filtered beyond the official, top level of Singapore society and hierarchy. Understandably, not every Singaporean recognise or accept this reality. Human nature and instinct is hard to overcome. Xenophobia and in-group bias will always be a human instinct. Part of the problem is that we are also a young nation, a fledgling society who has yet to find and be comfortably with our identity. Before we even know for sure what is a Singaporean, the identity will come under assault by foreign talents.]