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    Jun 20, 2014

    Note of caution from friend of S'pore

    FOR the past decade, he has been the voice for multinational companies (MNCs) in Singapore, their bridge to policymakers.

    And, although Phillip Overmyer stepped down from his position as chief executive of the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce (SICC) two months ago, he is still ready to speak up for them.

    In a broad-ranging interview with My Paper last month, Mr Overmyer acknowledged that many companies here continue to struggle with manpower.

    Expressing his views in a personal capacity, he said he had some reservations about whether the Government's foreign-labour policies could affect the development of growth industries in Singapore.

    Citing the example of the aerospace sector, he noted that, while there are many high-value jobs such as engineering and R&D in these companies, their operations can be sustained only with the support of a base of lower-level staff.

    "Many operations, like test driving the engines, are done 24/7 and require skilled technicians, which may be hard to find among Singaporeans," Mr Overmyer said. Such jobs may also be labour-intensive and shunned by Singaporeans, he added.

    In this respect, the Government could look at calibrating its policies to suit the varying needs of different industries, he said.

    Singapore had targeted the right growth industries - such as pharmaceutical research and development, medical technology, wealth management and hospitality - he said.

    "If you break out the history books, garments and toys were the two main products manufactured here in the 1960s," he said.

    Its package of good governance, strong intellectual property laws and a base of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) was attractive to MNCs, even if the costs to run their businesses here may be higher.

    "But Singapore's strong reputation as a choice investment destination cannot be taken for granted... the need to continue to grow is a must. Countries in the region have younger populations that are also hungry for success," he said.

    In attracting the best talent from overseas, Mr Overmyer questioned if an upcoming national jobs bank for professionals may affect Singapore's competitiveness.

    Firms now have to advertise job vacancies for two weeks, before they can apply to hire a foreigner.

    Mr Overmyer said that individuals with the desired skill sets are highly mobile today, and are in high demand, usually having two to three job offers at the same time.

    Having to wait for two weeks may run the danger that they would no longer be available.

    "If we don't get the right people at the right time, we may miss many things," he said.

    Moving ahead, the Government must also develop the capabilities of the SMEs.

    These companies must "add value" to the MNCs' businesses through new products and technologies, rather than play a "passive role" in doing what MNCs contract them to do, he said.

    Looking back at his SICC stint, Mr Overmyer said that, when he first took over the reins in 2003, the chamber was run in a largely "top-down" fashion.

    He set about an organisational change in which staff would focus on different sectors and work more closely with companies on the ground, and put forth their own ideas.

    This has helped the SICC become the "go-to" business association for MNCs today.

    Now, he is ready to pack his bags and leave the first country outside the United States that he visited and worked in. Before he took up the SICC posting, he had spent some 12 years in Singapore working for telecommunications giant AT&T.

    He hopes to return next year to celebrate Singapore's Jubilee. But, before that, there is a little granddaughter, not yet three, waiting for him in Texas.

    "It's time to be a grandfather now," he said affectionately.