Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said it is the government's duty to grapple with the "very difficult issue" of getting the inflow of foreign labour right in Singapore and at the same time maintaining the unique identity of the nation.
"It is an issue where honestly speaking, there are no easy choices. There are trade-offs," said Lee in a television interview with Ambassador-at-Large Chan Heng Chee, chairman of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities.
The interview "A Conversation with the PM: Our Future, Our People" was telecast last night.
Lee said "I would like to keep this a Singapore-Singapore ... It has to maintain that Singapore character," addressing the concerns about the economy, anxiety over job competition with foreigners and a possible identity crisis in the future."
"I would like to just make one more point about the population. We argue the merits and the reasons and the logic of it and the trade-offs. But finally, this is a very difficult issue and it is one of those things which as a government we have a responsibility to deal with," he said.
"First, we do have to watch to see how the foreign workers and immigrants are fitting in with our community, and you have to watch them mix so that you don't overbalance the numbers or the tone of our society. So it is not populist to take cognisance of these real problems and to deal with them and to calibrate the inflow (of foreigners)", he added.
"Secondly, I would say apart from any sentimental reactions or emotional reactions, we do have to look at the overall population size in Singapore and you cannot say that if I want X million and the economy wants that, therefore I will have it. There is a trade-off in terms of the space and infrastructure, the carrying capacity of this island and we have to decide how far we can go," Lee said.
"And so I think what we have tried to do over in the last 10 years when in the earlier phase, when the opportunities were there, we needed the growth, we were more generous in bringing in foreign workers and the immigrants," he added.
The Prime Minister pointed out the government has calibrated in the last five to seven years and brought the rate (of foreigners' inflow) down. Last year, the inflow was the slowest, the increase in foreign employment excluding maids was 26,000, down from 80,000 in 2011.
He further said during the interview that, "If we have no foreign workers, our economy suffers, our own lives suffer. (If) we have a lot of foreign workers, the economy will do well, (but) we have other social pressures, other problems with our society which are going to be very real and which we have to take very seriously and which we cannot accept".
The increasing number of foreigners, about 1.3 million, is among the serious issues in Singapore which is expected to hold general elections in the upcoming months. The city-state's population is over five million.