There is no "magic number" to suitably represent the number of foreign workers needed in Singapore to help the economy prosper, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his May Day Rally speech yesterday.
Addressing about 1,600 unionists, workers and employers at Downtown East, he said this in response to a recent question from a unionist, adding that the number would depend on several factors.
Pursuing economic opportunities and the country's needs across different sectors - such as construction and health care - would bring about a need for more workers, he said.
"In a good year, we want to allow a few more to come in, (while) in a slow year, we can tighten and let some of them go off," he explained.
For instance, the construction of more Housing Board flats, the building of infrastructure such as MRT lines, and the manpower needs of hospitals and nursing homes will also raise foreign-labour demand.
Mr Lee said: "If you want to have more hospitals and nursing homes, then I think it's unavoidable as you will need some extra nurses, allied professionals and even extra doctors from wherever you can find and who can serve us well."
Even as he laid out the circumstances behind the need for foreign labour here, Mr Lee said it would be essential to significantly reduce the number of foreigners who come here in search of jobs.
"We can't just keep on bringing in 80,000 more foreign workers a year. There's just not (enough) space and it's not sustainable to keep on going up and up," he explained.
Against a backdrop of economic instability in developed countries such as the United States and Spain, Mr Lee identified three strategies that would stand Singapore in good stead to tackle any problems.
These are: to keep Singapore open; to grow the economy on a sustainable basis; and to translate growth into higher wages and better lives.
Singapore must remain open and "embrace the world" to attract a wide range of foreign professionals and skilled workers.
"The reality is we need a mix, companies need a mix and we must strike the right balance," he said. Mr Lee reiterated that "Singaporeans will always be our priority", and that this is the purpose of all government policies.
"We are trying to seek the maximum advantage for Singapore and Singaporeans," he said.
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