For the most recent session of parliament Yaw Shin Leong (ex-Workers’ Party/Hougang) asked Manpower Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam for some statistics about the numbers of work passes issued to foreigners. Tharman provided numbers of his choosing (in other words, not quite in answer to Yaw’s question) that are so scanty, no reader can make much sense of them.
From the Manpower Ministry website, I see the exact words even though the Hansard has not yet been updated:
Written Answer by Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister for Finance and Minister for Manpower, to Parliamentary Question on number of Work Permits, S Passes and Employment Passes issued since tightening of foreign workers’ quota
Mr Yaw Shin Leong: To ask the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Manpower if he will provide a breakdown of the number of work permits, S passes and employment passes issued in each month from July 2010 to January 2012 since the implementation of the foreign workforce tightening measures in July 2010.
Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam: The foreign workforce tightening measures have been phased in from July 2010. Foreign worker levies are being increased in steps, starting from July 2010 to July 2013. The salary and other criteria for S Pass and Employment Pass holders are also being phased in.
The impact of these measures will hence not be seen instantly. Their effects should be seen over the next few years, and have to be assessed against the context of the state of the economy, the demand for labour and the availability of local workers.
The table below provides the year-end stock of Employment Pass, S Pass and Work Permit holders (excluding Foreign Domestic Workers) for 2010 and 2011.
There are many things wrong with the above answer. Firstly, Yaw asked for the monthly numbers of new passes issued, but Tharman’s answer referred to the extant stock at the ends of 2010 and 2011. One might say Yaw’s question was badly phrased, and I would agree. Yaw should have asked for the numbers issued, the numbers cancelled, thus the net increase/decrease, plus the balance extant at the end of each month. He could also have asked for conversions, i.e. from Employment Passes to Permanent Residency. But that is Yaw’s problem and he can be criticised for a thoughtlessly phrased question. Yet, however inadequately Yaw’s question was structured, Tharman should at least have answered it, especially as the figures should be easily available within his ministry.
Tharman was free to add additional information and explanations, as he did in saying that the impact of the tightening measures cannot be assessed in such a short term. That is entirely reasonable.
Secondly, the numbers were so scanty, it’s hard to make much of them. If Tharman had given monthly stock figures, we might be able to read more into them, but not when, despite Yaw asking for monthly figures, the reply came in the form of year-end totals. Ministers should show more respect to parliament as representatives of the people, and provide fuller answers.
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Although the above was described as a written answer, Tharman seemed to have delivered it verbally, in the process providing additional numbers, as I deduce from a Straits Times report:
While the number of foreign workers in each of the three work pass categories went up last year, the pool of SPass holders rose at a slower rate than the previous year, said Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam yesterday.
The fastest growth was in the number of employment pass (EP) holders – professionals who hold the highest tier of foreign work passes.
Their numbers climbed up 23.9 per cent from 142,000 in December 2010 to 176,000 in December last year.
But the proportional increase is about the same as the 23.5 per cent registered in 2010 when the number of EP holders rose from 115,000 in 2009 to 142,000.
In contrast, the rate of increase of SPass holders – mid-tier skilled workers – has slowed from the previous year.
Their numbers rose 15.3 per cent, from 98,000 in 2010 to 113,000 in December last year.
But in 2010, it rose by 19.5 per cent, from 82,000 in 2009 to 98,000.
The pool of work permit holders, excluding foreign maids, expanded at the slowest rate, at 4.8 per cent. There were 702,000 such workers last year compared to 670,000 in 2010.
— Straits Times, 15 Feb 2012, Slowdown in growth of S Pass holders, by Andrea Ong
Moreover, in a reply to a separate parliamentary question, raised by non-constituency member Lina Chiam, Tharman also mentioned that the total numbers of foreign nationals working in Singapore were 1,113,200 and 1,197,900 at the end of 2010 and 2011 respectively. From these grand totals, we can work out the number of foreign domestic workers even though this category had been omitted from the reply to Yaw’s question. Thus:
The disorganised and highly selective way in which information is provided to the public is most unsatisfactory. It is high time Singapore adopted a scheme for open data. I also believe that citizens should have the right to obtain such information via a Freedom of Information Act, not just parliamentarians.
I said above that it is hard to interpret the numbers, because they are so few. Moreover, one cannot help but be skeptical about their significance from the way Tharman seemed to be choosing what numbers to release based on how they might serve whatever argument he wanted to make. Even so, I think a 15% increase in S-Pass holders and 24% increase in Employment Pass holders within just 12 months represent extremely high leaps, and easily accounts for the widespread feeling that this place is being overrun.
Some might also say this accounts for the frequent complaint that local employees are being replaced by foreigners. I would be a little more careful before saying that, because we are mostly relying on anecdotal information. These high percentage increases of foreigners are from a base that is relatively low compared to the local working population. Considering our low birthrate, the local working population cannot be increasing very much (unless a rapid rise in the number of Permanent Residents boosts the ‘locals’ number). Perhaps our GDP growth requires a higher growth in foreign workers to make up for a shortfall in locals?
It so happens that Tharman’s answer to Lina Chiam’s question provides total figures for 2006 to 2011. From those, I can compute total increases in working population, and I can also then compare against GDP growth:
For three of the last five years, the growth in the number of working persons exceeded GDP growth, causing GDP output per working person to fall. It has recovered somewhat in the last two years, but (at 2005 market prices) we’re not significantly better off in 2011 than in 2006. Beyond that, I can’t say anything conclusive; I certainly can’t say if the recent double-digit increases in S-Pass and Employment Pass holders is too hot, too cold or just right.
We need more data than the government seems prepared to give.