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Saturday, February 17, 2007

Hiring Foreign Talent - How many Jobs do we Lose?

Hiring Foreign Talent – How Many Jobs Do We Lose?

The foreign talent issue has been with us a long time and got an almost complete airing at the General Election of Nov 3. At least, that was the closest it ever got to a complete airing -- the Opposition made such a good case against it that the PAP was forced to defend, mostly by regurgitating all the old, standard clichés that its leaders had thought out. Instead of (as usual) debating the Opposition arguments point by point, many points went unanswered but this went unnoticed because the media did such a good job of painting them as rebuttals when they were not.

That Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Chok Tong, and Lee Hsien Loong did not or could not think is proven by this following very simple observation I am about to make.

Many letters to the Straits Times Forum and to soc.culture.singapore defend the hiring of foreign talent as being ultimately beneficial to the economy. Indeed, during the heat of the debate in the GE, the PAP trotted out purported figures to show that foreign talent accounted for a significant part of the GDP. The (simplistic) assumption was that without them, the GDP would be lower.

However, I can point out at least one aspect of all this charade of statistics that anyone who has ever worked (including our present PAP ministers and parliamentarians) can instantly identify as correct. And which, to my utter surprise, nobody from the million dollar Ministers to the bankrupt Opposition has yet picked upon.

The observation is this: Most people who have thought about the matter assume that when a foreign talent takes a job in Singapore, he deprives ONLY ONE Singaporean of a job. The amazing truth is that more than one job is lost to Singaporeans. It may be as many as a dozen jobs or even more, depending on the particulars.

How is this so?

Suppose that a company operating in Singapore needs a Accounting Director. It hires a foreign talent. So, the conventional thinking is that a Singaporean is deprived of a job as a Accounting Director. ONE Singaporean.

However, consider what happens when a SINGAPOREAN is hired instead. He or she will have to be almost qualified for that post, meaning that he or she will be at least a Accounting Manager.

Now, the chain effect begins. He or she is hired to fill the Accounting Director post THEREBY LEAVING VACANT HIS OR HER CURRENT ACCOUNTING MANAGER POST. Another Singaporean gets the opportunity to get promoted into that just-vacant Accounting Manager post. Since this person is likely to be a Accounting Supervisor, he or she thereby creates another vacancy that can be filled by another Singaporean, probably currently a Accounting Executive. This post, in turn, becomes a vacancy to be filled by a fresh accountancy graduate.

Thus, by hiring a Singaporean at the top, a whole chain of musical chair vacancies is created benefiting everybody along the chain, including the fresh accounting graduate who gets his or her first job. Conversely, not hiring a Singaporean for that top post KEEPS EVERYBODY STUCK IN HIS OR HER CURRENT JOB.

Thus, the nefarious effect of hiring foreign talent hits home AT EVERY LEVEL, NOT JUST THE JOB TAKEN.

This is an observation everybody knows instantly when it is pointed out, though few probably have reasoned it out thus.

Even our Cabinet Ministers know this sublime truth of moving up. For example, if Lee Kuan Yew does not or cannot remove Goh Chok Tong from the Premiership, his son, Lee Hsien Loong cannot move up to the top job. And if Lee Hsien Loong cannot be promoted, George Yeo cannot be promoted to be Deputy Prime Minister. And if George Yeo is not promoted, a Minister of State cannot become full Minister. And if that Minister of State cannot become full Minister, a Parliamentarian cannot make it to that job. And so it goes on.

Anyone who has ever worked knows that whether you get that coveted promotion to the next level depends not just on whether you are good enough for that job but more on whether the current incumbent moves out of it. No vacuum, no push to the top. Everybody stays stuck in his or her current job, losing hope over the years at the stagnation in career path.

Therefore, there is a great argument for promoting Singaporeans to fill every top job available. If they don't have the skills, send them for training or get them to understudy someone. This takes time and effort but as I have demonstrated, the benefits far outweigh hiring foreign talent. Hiring foreign talent is quick and easy, which is why it is attractive to the PAP Government. Simply put out an advertisement. Or hire a headhunter. Or poach someone from a established corporation. But that is the shortest sighted policy in a country with the highest myopia rate in the world, especially in a country that has succeeded in crushing any decent debate or free thinking.

This is not the only major issue on which Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Chok Tong, Lee Hsien Loong and the entire Cabinet and Parliament have blindsided themselves through refusal to tolerate criticism and real debate. Dr Chee Soon Juan has enumerated many other instances of poor and thoroughly inept thinking resulting in bad policies in his brilliant book, "Your Future, My Faith, Our Freedom". It is beyond my scope to attempt the careful analyses and arguments he has made, so please buy a copy of this 2001 classic thesis.

There are many things wrong with Singapore today in 2001. Many of them have been creeping upon us for decades and now that they are here, they will not just go away or disappear, even with an upturn in the US and world economy. Many of Lee Kuan Yew's simplistic thinking and policies are coming home to roost and it will not be a pleasant time. But perhaps the most damaging of all his bad policies is the curtailment of real debate and criticism. In the complex world of the late 20th and 21st centuries, no one mind, especially an old one mired in the 60s and 70s, can come up with the policies to cope with faster and faster change. Punishing criticism and eliminating real debate in Parliament have created insoluble problems that no amount of behind the doors discussion by an oligarchy can solve. Putting the media in a straitjacket simply means that the Cabinet cuts off any ideas from the ground and the people. Trying to strangle criticism only strangles possible ideas and solutions. Bankrupting the Opposition simply means the country is bankrupt of many of its leading thinkers and problem solvers, like Dr Chee Soon Juan.

Singapore is now in a mess and it is a mess of its own making, with the blame squarely laid at the door of the PAP and the people who chose to believe in it. Perhaps, after Lee Kuan Yew dies, change may be possible. There is also the frightening possibility that like all dictators, he has so corrupted and bent every institution in the country that these may not survive him, that without the strongman, everything will spiral out of control.

The people have spoken on Nov 3. But do they really know what it is that they have said?