SINGAPORE: The Singapore government has defended the role of foreign talent in the prosperity of its globalised economy amidst claims that foreign professionals, including from India, are taking away jobs from local people.
Minister for Communications and Information S Iswaran in a debate in Parliament on Friday said it is important for Singapore to remain open -- to create jobs and opportunities for Singaporeans -- and be inclusive at the same time.
The debate was on homegrown DBS Bank, which has expanded across the region with a strong presence in India.
Iswaran said he is "troubled" by parliamentarian Leong Mun Wai's remarks that DBS Bank does not have a "homegrown CEO".
Leong, who is from the Progress Singapore Party (PSP), had said on Tuesday that he is "deeply disappointed" that DBS did not have a homegrown CEO for 22 years after former JP Morgan executive John Olds was made chief executive of the local bank.
The current DBS CEO, Piyush Gupta, was born in India and became Singaporean.
He has been leading DBS since 2009.
"By all means, let us passionately argue the case to do more for Singaporeans. But, as parliamentarians, let us also be careful about what our words convey; in this case, the message we send to those who - to paraphrase Mr S Rajaratnam - have chosen out of conviction to become citizens of Singapore," Iswaran said.
Sri Lankan-origin late Rajaratnam was Singapore's first foreign minister.
Iswaran said, "Our citizens must know that the lives and livelihoods of Singaporeans are always our priority; that we have their backs."
But at the same time, the country should be inclusive. Being inclusive is a vital complement, he said.
"Our efforts to embrace openness must be matched by an equal if not greater effort to achieve an equitable distribution of the benefits and the access to opportunities; to preserve a sense of fairness," the minister said.
Responding to a question, Iswaran said we can always advocate the case for doing more for Singaporeans.
The issue is when we lament that a Singaporean occupying a certain position is somehow not homegrown.
"Then I think we really have to ask ourselves the question -- as parliamentarians, as elected representatives, what is the message we are sending to our citizens? What does it say to those who are the spouses, the children of Singapore citizens who have become naturalised Singaporeans?" the Indian-origin minister asked.
Iswaran also asked if Leong acknowledges that there is a large number of Singaporeans at the senior levels of DBS Bank.
This drew a response from Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung, a board member of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, who explained in the House how Singapore had grown its local talent pool in the finance sector in the past decades.
"That process started when we brought in foreign expertise and then put in a lot of effort to groom local talent, grow our own timber, learn from the foreign expertise and from there, many of our own...rose up to take senior positions...we're holding our own by being open to the world," he said.
Ong added that it would be the "wrong approach" to achieve this by setting a quota or insisting that a company must have a Singaporean CEO who must be "born here".
In recent weeks, Singapore has seen the issue of competition from foreign workers return to the public spotlight.
Many have claimed that foreign professionals take away jobs from locals, and that deals like the Singapore-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) give preferential treatment to Indian nationals.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday also said that Singapore cannot send a signal that it is no longer welcoming foreign talent.
Lee pointed out how fake news was being spread, and cited an example of a photo of DBS Indian executive meeting posted on a Facebook page with a sarcastic caption: "Eye sight test: Find a Singaporean or Chinese in this DBS photo".
The picture was posted last September and resurfaced recently as foreign talent issues on taking Singaporean jobs were raised during the July general election.
Referring to the photo caption, the prime minister said it was fake news.
"That picture was taken in India, where DBS had opened a new office, not in Singapore.
The person who put up the post surely knew this, yet he irresponsibly misused the wefie to insinuate that DBS in Singapore was not being fair to Singaporeans, and damage was done," lamented Lee.