MANPOWER Minister Gan Kim Yong assures Singaporean workers that the Government seeks to protect their interests in this recession. They take priority over foreigners working here.
'Looking at the foreign-local issue, our priority has always been to preserve and advance the interest of our local workers,' he tells Insight.
But the question is how to do it.
He does not believe keeping foreigners out will help, as it cuts off a source of manpower supply to businesses.
'Business costs will go up. That will affect their global competitiveness,' he says. 'If that happens, eventually it will affect the Singaporeans who are working in these companies.
'If the companies go, Singaporean jobs would go too.
'So that's a lose-lose outcome.'
The better alternative, he says, is to help Singaporeans stay employable through skills upgrading.
He cites government schemes which favour local workers.
There is the Skills Programme for Upgrading and Resilience (Spur) which heavily subsidises training for locals, and Jobs Credit which is a grant given to companies to defray the wages of local workers.
'By doing so, without affecting the foreigners, we help Singaporeans become more productive, have higher skills and be better trained,' he says.
'So the companies would find Singaporean workers more attractive to keep.'
But his ministry has also tightened the criteria for semi-skilled foreigners, like S-pass holders, seeking work here. This category of workers, from nurses to retail executives, is seen to compete directly with Singaporeans for jobs.
The change, he says, will mean better-quality S-pass holders as employers now need to bring in foreigners with higher educational qualifications or those with more relevant work experience.
Raising the criteria now is timely, he says, as many of the countries from which S-pass holders come are facing a rising unemployment problem.
With this bigger pool of workers, employers here have more choices in sussing out the best foreigner for the job, he adds.
But the change is not all smooth sailing. It requires employers to look harder for the appropriate foreigner who fits the bill.
Asked if employers are unhappy with the change, he says: 'They accept that it is important for us to improve the skills of our workforce. So they agree that the policy is right.'
Still, he has to contend with calls from employers who want the Government to open the door wider for foreigners even during this downturn.
His response? It is a delicate balancing act. 'We need to, on the one hand, ensure Singaporeans have a job. At the same time, we want to make sure that companies remain viable, the labour market remains flexible so that they can compete globally,' he says.
'So whenever companies ask us for more access to foreign workers, we'll have to tell them they need to strike a balance and there's a quota.'
Figures on the number of foreigners who have lost their jobs here will be released later this month, he adds.
Official figures so far show that in the first nine months of last year, about one in three people made redundant - through retrenchments or early termination of contracts - was a foreigner.
This proportion is almost equivalent to the relative number of foreigners here as they form 36 per cent of Singapore's workforce.
But the redundancy figure is an underestimated number as it does not include employment contracts or work permits that are not renewed.
'So if you take them into account, numbers have been higher for foreign workers,' he notes.