Singapore’s Budget 2012 seeks to reduce the dependence on foreign workers

In an effort to regulate the influx of foreign workers in Singapore, foreign worker levies will be increased in 2012, for the second year since 2010. This year’s Budget statement, read out in Parliament on 17 February 2012 by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, also included measures to reduce Dependancy Ratio Ceilings (DPC) on foreign worker inflow. A 5% reduction in DPC will be implemented across all sectors with effect from 1 July 2012 for new workers, and 30 June 2014 for existing workers.

Foreign workers constituted about 31% of Singapore’s labour force in 2011. According to the Ministry of Manpower, dependence on foreign manpower has grown by 7.5% per annum over the last two years. Speaking in Parliament, Mr Tharman explained, “Last year, we accentuated the programme because we realised the foreign worker growth was very rapid. This year, we are taking a further step, a calibrated reduction of the dependency ratio ceiling, again because the growth of foreign workers continues to be rapid … much more rapid that our own local workforce”.

This is a move in reverse to the government’s open policy of foreign labour employment implemented over the past decade. Minister Mentor, Lee Kuan Yew recently warned against reducing the number of foreign workers drastically, warning of “low growth, maybe even zero growth” for Singapore as a result. Foreign workers are credited to be integral to Singapore’s rapid economic development, allowing for reduced labour costs and filling jobs in the construction and service sectors.

Foreign workers are primarily employed in the construction industry and come from Asian countries such as India, China and Bangladesh.

However, over the years, Singaporeans have aired their criticisms of this policy. Foreign workers have been named the cause of rising property prices, strain on the country’s infrastructure and increased competition for jobs. Local blogger, Deadpris, wrote in a blog post about the implications of companies employing more foreign workers that “All in all, we do need foreign workers in Singapore, but not at the expense of affecting the livelihood and quality of life of other Singaporeans living here like you and I.”

In view of the 2011 General Elections, where opposition parties like the Singapore Democratic Party used this issue as a point of criticism against the ruling party, it is increasingly important for the government to balance citizens’ sentiments and arguably, standard of living, with economic progress.

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam called for greater flexibility and efficiency in response to increased foreign worker levies.

The gradual reduction in dependency on foreign workers may be a way to placate the Singaporean public and encourage companies not to rely solely on lower operation costs, but to invest in productivity improvement measures such as training and upgrading. With the increase in levies and reduction of DPC, Mr Tharman also acknowledged that parliament members’ proposal to retain older, more experienced workers who have been trained for a longer period of time has merit as it help raises productivity, and this policy will be reviewed by the Ministry of Manpower.

Whether Singaporeans will feel the pinch from increased operations costs or be relieved of rising property inflation and competition remains to be seen as these measures are yet in their infancy. The next few years will be telling of the impact of less foreign workers on Singapore’s economy.

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The NTU Suicides – Reactions from the student body

Nanyang Technological University (NTU) appears to be going through a grim period in its 57 years of history.

Over the past three years, the university has seen numerous suicide cases involving its students and members of staff.

The front page of NTU's school newspaper, The Nanyang Chronicle, conveyed grief and shock at the death of student David Widjaja.

In March 2009, Indonesian student David Widjaja allegedly stabbed NTU professor Chan Kap Luk before falling four storeys to his death. The high profile case was followed by the suicide of Widjaja’s senior, Chinese national, Zhou Zheng’s at his residence within the school compound, barely within a week of Widjaja’s death.

A Chinese newspaper speculated that NTU student Yan Junru's suicide was a result of immense stress from school.

2010 started on an equally gloomy note. In January, NTU undergraduate Cheryl Tan committed suicide by jumping from her flat. Within two weeks, another NTU undergraduate, Yan Junru, did the same.  The next year saw an even more bizarre case — an NTU student was discovered with a knife in her head, motionless in her dorm room at Hall of Residence 1.

The most recent suicide, occurring just a month ago at Hall of Residence 13 of NTU, involved student Lan Xing Ye, found asphyxiated with a plastic bag around her head in her dorm room.

With only the tertiary institution in common, the spate of suicides begged the question — were the pressures of school too much for the students to bear? This issue came under widespread speculation from mainstream media and members of the public with news of each suicide.

Upon hearing of the latest suicide incident on campus, NTU Accountancy student, Audrey Lin, described being “in shock that another suicide case had occurred.”

Many students, like Audrey, are still unable to come to terms with such occurrences happening so close to home, or rather, school.

Elton Wee, a fourth year Communications Studies undergraduate said, “Surely it’s not normal for there to be so many suicides happening in school. NTU should investigate the cause of these suicides.”

The suicides also sparked self-reflection amongst the student body of NTU.

A widely circulated note on Facebook, written by a dorm resident, Jane Koh, read: “It reminded me how oblivious i am to my surroundings and perhaps i am ashamed to say, how indifferent i am to tragedy. I dare say that i am not alone in this… its seems to me..we don’t see such tragedy as a gentle reminder of people[‘s] lives we ought to “care for” not just “care about” and empathy we ought to extend in those who are struggling through hard times…”

Comments on the attempted dorm suicide in Hall 1 showed an outpouring of concern from the student body.

Others echoed her thoughts, commiserating through the comments, calling for more time to be spent on interaction with peers instead of only school work.

In response to these incidents, NTU has reportedly made efforts to provide for more psychiatrical support for its staff and students. Regular talks are held on campus, covering issues such as mental health, managing relationships and stress from school work.

However, students were not only emphatic. The lack of information also cast the credibility of the investigations under doubt.

“The reports [for the Hall 13 suicide] said that there was no sign of forced entry into the dorm room, but I stayed in Hall 13 and residents always leave their room doors unlocked. Of course it’s easier to say it’s a suicide,” said fourth year Communications Studies student, Ash Teo.

Even now, the cause of the suicides remain largely a mystery. One can only guess at why these bright students would have chosen to end their lives prematurely.

If you know anyone who shows signs of depression or suicidal tendencies, do not hesitate to contact Samaritans of Singapore at 1800-221-4444 (24 hours). The organisation also provides support for those who have suffered the loss of a loved one.