Immigration, Population, and Foreign Workforce in Singapore: An Overview of Trends, Policies, and Issues, pp. 4 of 13

In the 1960s-90s, Singapore was faced with labor shortage periodically. Unskilled workers were recruited seasonally based on the needs of industries. When the economy experienced a boom, foreign workers would be solicited and when economic recessions hit, a large number of them would be repatriated. For example, as recorded by Hui (1997), “the recession in 1974-75 resulted in the repatriation of significant numbers of guest workers from labour-intensive manufacturing industries” (p. 182). Shortly after, when the economy recovered, in 1978, employers were allowed to recruit workers from both the traditional source, namely, Malaysia and non-traditional sources, such as India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Thailand to ease the labour shortage (Hui, 1997). As illuminated by Lee Hsien Loong in a speech at the Annual General Meeting of the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce on 21 April 1995:

Having a pool of foreign workers helps to cushion the economy against fluctuations in demand. In boom times, an inflow of foreign workers can help us to expand quickly to take advantage of growth opportunities, and at the same time keep wage increases moderate so that we do not suddenly become uncompetitive. In a recession, an outflow of foreign workers can buffer the adverse impact on Singaporean workers. (Cited in Coe & Kelly, 2000, p. 416)

The 1990s witnessed a shift in Singapore’s economic policies, with the emphasis transitioning gradually from “foreign investment” to “foreign talents” (Tan & Bhaskaran, 2015). Faced with the growing competitiveness of other Asian countries and the rising costs in Singapore itself, the government pinned its new hope on the knowledge-based economy, innovation, and creativity to maintain its lead. In this endeavour to upgrade the city-state’s economy, human talent was deemed crucial. As then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong stated in the 1997 National Day Rally, “in the information age, human talent, not physical resources or financial capital, is the key factor for economic competitiveness and success. We must, therefore, welcome the infusion of knowledge which foreign talent will bring” (Cited in Yeoh, 2013, p. 103).

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~ John Dewey, How We Think

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