Wednesday, 7 July 2021

CECA and FTAs: Ministerial statement and debate in Parliament, 6 July 2021

CECA does not affect Singapore's ability to regulate immigration: Health Minister Ong Ye Kung

CECA does not allow unconditional entry of Indian PMEs

Ministerial statement adds that FTAs in fact play key role in ensuring Republic's survival

FTAs and CECA made 'political scapegoats', falsehoods need to be corrected

PSP 'fully supports' FTAs, but disagrees that CECA offers net benefits to Singaporeans
By Grace Ho, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 7 Jul 2021

Far from leading to an unfettered inflow of foreign professionals, free trade agreements (FTAs) play a key role in ensuring the survival of small countries like Singapore, said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung.

Nor is the Republic's ability to regulate immigration and foreign manpower affected by an FTA like the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA), he told the House yesterday.

Singapore signed the bilateral agreement with India in 2005.

In two ministerial statements, Mr Ong and Manpower Minister Tan See Leng laid out the importance of free trade pacts and debunked falsehoods about Ceca, whose immigration-related elements have come under fire on social media and by the opposition.

They also stressed that changes in foreign workforce numbers over time are to be expected, given that policies, as well as countries' industry needs, change over time.



"Contrary to Progress Singapore Party's (PSP) claim, our ability to impose requirements for immigration and work passes has never been in question in Ceca or any other FTA that we have signed."


The minister was referring to allegations by the PSP, going back to before last year's general election, about how Ceca allows professionals from India "a free hand" to come and work in Singapore.

FTAs had enabled Singapore to ramp up investments from overseas and create thousands of jobs in Singapore, he said.

"When you attack FTAs, and worse, if your attack succeeds, you are undermining the fundamentals of our existence, all the sectors FTAs support, and the hundreds of thousands of Singaporean jobs created in these sectors," said Mr Ong, a former trade negotiator who worked on several FTAs.


Dr Tan acknowledged that 25 per cent of Employment Pass (EP) holders last year were from India, compared with 14 per cent in 2005. This was driven by the rapid growth of Singapore's digital economy, which attracted technology talent from India, rather than any favourable treatment for Indian EP holders, he said.


From 2005 to last year, the total number of EPs increased by about 112,000; over this period, the number of local PMEs grew by more than 380,000.

Dr Tan pointed out that if Singapore tightened controls too much, businesses might simply move their functions offshore, costing Singaporeans their jobs.


PSP's Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai crossed swords with the two ministers.

Mr Ong pressed Mr Leong on whether PSP agreed FTAs, including Ceca, are fundamental to Singapore's economic survival; and that Ceca does not allow a free flow of PMEs from India into Singapore.


Mr Leong said that while FTAs are important to Singapore, it remains to be studied whether Ceca has contributed to the influx of foreign nationals from India.

"We don't agree that Ceca is net beneficial to Singapore at this stage," he said.


Mr Ong called Mr Leong's conclusion "regrettable".

"Generations of FTA negotiators worked very hard to make sure our interests are protected," he said.

"This is not a back door, this is not an avenue for any professional from any country to enter Singapore with a free hand and unfettered.

"But I take it that this is PSP's position, notwithstanding hearing all our explanations."














Parliament: Debate on FTAs and foreign manpower
FTAs and CECA made 'political scapegoats', falsehoods need to be corrected: Ong Ye Kung
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 7 Jul 2021

The Progress Singapore Party (PSP) has repeatedly made false statements that the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca) gives Indian professionals "a free hand" to come and work in Singapore, said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung.


In a social media post last month, PSP Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai had also claimed that foreign professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) and free trade agreements (FTAs) have affected the jobs and livelihoods of Singaporeans, Mr Ong said in Parliament yesterday.

"These statements are false. They have been repeated for too long," he said, adding that FTAs and Ceca have been made "political scapegoats" to discredit the Government's policies.


As a former trade negotiator, the minister said he felt duty-bound to correct the falsehoods surrounding Ceca and FTAs.

He acknowledged that Singaporean professionals, managers and executives are facing challenges, as are those in other advanced economies.

The Government has been taking steps to address their concerns, he said.

"But our FTAs in general, and Ceca in particular, are not the causes of the challenges our PMEs face; if anything, they are part of the solution," said Mr Ong, who was deputy chief negotiator for the United States-Singapore Free Trade Agreement and former director of trade at the Ministry of Trade and Industry.


Mr Ong said that the PSP has claimed for months that FTAs and Ceca have led to the unfettered inflow of Indian professionals, which then displaces Singaporeans from their jobs and brings about all kinds of social ills.

"This is a seductively simplistic argument that workers facing challenges at their workplaces can identify with, and has stirred up a lot of emotions," he said, noting that Ceca-themed websites have sprouted, filled with "disturbing xenophobic views" about Indian immigrants.

"Words gradually became deeds, and toxic views turned into verbal and physical assaults on Indians, including our citizens. It is sad that serious issues concerning the economic well-being of our country and workers have descended to this," he added.


This was also why Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam had called on the PSP to file a motion on FTAs and Ceca during the Parliament sitting in May, so that the matter could receive a proper public airing, Mr Ong said.







CECA does not allow unconditional entry of Indian PMEs: Ong Ye Kung
Immigration powers strongly protected and preserved in this and other FTAs, says minister
By Grace Ho, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 7 Jul 2021

Debunking falsehoods about the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca), Health Minister Ong Ye Kung yesterday stressed that nothing in the agreement implies that Singapore must unconditionally let in professionals, managers and executives (PMEs) from India.


PSP Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai had put up a Facebook post last month saying that economic policies - in particular Ceca - have affected the jobs and livelihoods of Singaporeans.

Mr Ong, who was the deputy chief negotiator for the United States-Singapore FTA, said that Ceca reduces tariff barriers, which makes Singapore goods more competitive in the Indian market.


Partly because of this, bilateral trade between Singapore and India has grown by more than 80 per cent, from $20 billion when Ceca came into force in 2005, to $38 billion in 2019. Singapore's direct investment abroad in India grew from $1.3 billion to $61 billion during the same period.

In 2019, 660 companies from Singapore had investments in India, almost double the number a decade ago. These companies employed 97,000 Singaporeans that year.

Mr Ong also quoted two clauses in Chapter 9 of Ceca on the movement of natural persons, including Clause 9.1.2, which states: "This chapter shall not apply to measures pertaining to citizenship, permanent residence or employment on a permanent basis."


Obligations in Ceca relating to movement of natural persons are highly specific - not broad principles with wide applications, he said.

Citing national treatment (NT) as one such principle, he explained that NT is found in some chapters of FTAs, such as trade in services or investments.

This means that one cannot discriminate against foreign service providers and investors. Regulations and benefits that apply to local firms must apply evenly to foreign-owned ones.

"If immigration had not been carved out, and if the NT principle had been incorporated into Chapter 9 of Ceca, then indeed, Indian workers would have been treated like Singaporeans, and would have had free rein to come to live and work in Singapore," said Mr Ong.

But contrary to what the PSP claims, "there is a strong immigration carve-out, and NT is not found in this chapter of Ceca, nor any other corresponding chapter in the FTAs that Singapore has entered into", he said. Countries that wish to protect certain sectors negotiate exceptions, or sector "carve-outs", in FTAs.

Chapter 9 obliges both countries to process applications for temporary entry with some expedition and a certain degree of transparency, such as informing applicants of outcomes, he said.

Permits issued by Singapore also have to be valid for a certain duration, subject to prevailing work pass conditions being met. This is not unique to Ceca, he observed. Similar commitments exist in other FTAs and are found in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Agreement signed by 164 parties, including Singapore.

He said that many parties to FTAs also commit not to impose onerous processes and documentation on companies to prove that no suitable locals will take a job before they can hire a foreigner.

This is a common clause in Singapore's FTAs, including with India, Australia, China and the US.

"Companies in Singapore, or any other place, do not hire in this way. The common and best practice is to interview the suitable candidates, consider them fairly, and make a judgment on the best person. These are all market-friendly, widely adopted, reasonable obligations," Mr Ong said.


He rebutted two points of criticism. First, the PSP's claim - that Indian nationals whose professions are among the 127 listed under Annex 9A can freely come to work here for one year - is a "red herring".

The list does not confer any free pass to any Indian nationals, he said. "All foreign PMEs have to meet our work pass conditions in order to work here. The listing shows the types of Indian professionals who may apply to work in Singapore. It does not mean we must approve them."

India requested such a list, similar to what it has in FTAs with South Korea and Japan, he said.

"In fact, even if they had not listed the professions, their PMEs could still submit work pass applications to work here," he said, adding that these are evaluated based on current criteria.

Second, there have been claims that intra-corporate transferees (ICTs) from India can freely enter Singapore to work.

This is untrue, said Mr Ong, as ICTs also have to meet Singapore's work pass qualifying criteria.

He said every country holds the view that there cannot be unfettered movement of people, as this would create social unrest and public uproar. "Governments must retain the ability to impose immigration and border controls, and FTAs cannot undermine that."

Thus, in all FTAs and WTO agreements, immigration powers are strongly and prominently preserved and protected, he said. "I hope we can put a stop to all this misinformation about our FTAs in general, and Ceca in particular."







2005 to 2020: PMEs grew by 380,000 compared with 112,000 for EP holders
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 7 Jul 2021

The number of Employment Pass (EP) holders in Singapore increased from 65,000 in 2005 to 177,000 last year.

This translates to an annual growth rate of just under 7 per cent and an increase of 112,000. In comparison, the number of local professionals, managers and executives (PMEs) grew by more than 380,000 in the same period.


Disclosing these statistics in a ministerial statement yesterday, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung acknowledged that there are trade-offs that come with having an open economy, such as greater competition from foreign PMEs.

But the numbers underline an important point - that competition between foreign and local PMEs is not a zero-sum game, he said.

"In fact, the converse is often true. By combining and complementing local and foreign expertise, we can attract more investments and create many more good jobs and career choices for Singaporeans," he said.

"There is a trade-off at play here: many jobs, strong competition, or few jobs, no competition. We need to find the right balance where there are more jobs, some competition."


Mr Ong said the best way to advance the interests of Singaporeans is not to swing to an extreme position, but to strike a careful balance and make adjustments if this balance becomes skewed.

He cautioned against mistakenly blaming free trade agreements (FTAs) and the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca) for the difficulties faced by local PMEs.

He said that this is something the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) has done, by saying that Ceca and FTAs have taken jobs away from Singaporeans.

"Unfortunately, they have politicised FTAs, and they have turned FTAs into weapons to attack the Government. Their claims are totally incorrect," he said.

These claims have stoked xenophobic sentiments among Singaporeans and could end up hurting the economy, he added.

"If someone promises you more jobs, no competition from foreigners, he is selling you snake oil. It is not possible. It cannot be on any government's policy menu."


Responding to questions from MPs, Mr Ong said foreign PMEs help cushion the impact on the local workforce when times are bad, noting that foreigners bear the brunt of job losses in a downturn.

From April last year to April this year, the number of EP holders dropped by about 21,600, while the figure for S Pass holders fell by about 26,800.

Meanwhile, local employment has been stable. The unemployment rate for local PMEs in June last year was 2.9 per cent, said Mr Ong, even though this was immediately after the circuit breaker period.

"Without the foreign buffer, when our economy ran into trouble, the situation would have been much worse. Singaporeans would have lost many more jobs," he said, adding that Singaporeans enjoy greater security of employment compared with EP and S Pass holders, with help from measures like the Jobs Support Scheme.

On the concern over foreign PMEs from certain countries being concentrated in particular sectors, Mr Ong said more PMEs have entered Singapore as EP holders as the country's digital economy and need for technology talent grew.

"And when the concentration happens in areas like Changi Business Park, some may feel that we have lost a part of Singapore," he said, noting that MPs have raised this concern. "We are taking this seriously and studying what we can do to lessen the problem."

Dealing with excessive concentration has to be part of a careful balancing act, he said, stressing that the solution is not a "straightforward matter of chopping up the operations of a company here".

"We don't want to unintentionally cause the whole investment to move elsewhere. This will hurt even more Singaporeans," he said.

On unfair hiring practices, he said these may be taking place at the company level, with department heads preferring to hire foreign PMEs - even PMEs from certain countries.

"This is not right. Whatever system we set up, there will be some abuses. We must tackle the abuses when they occur, as swiftly as possible, while continuing to adopt sensible economic policies that are good for Singapore and Singaporeans."

The Ministry of Manpower takes a strong stance against such discriminatory practices and has been taking enforcement action against errant employers, together with tripartite partners, Mr Ong said.













Indian EP holders nearly doubled to 25%, driven by digital economy growth, not due to CECA: Manpower Minister Tan See Leng
By Calvin Yang, Correspondent, The Straits Times, 7 Jul 2021

The proportion of Employment Pass (EP) holders from India rose to about 25 per cent last year, from 14 per cent in 2005.

This was driven by the rapid growth of Singapore's digital economy, rather than the result of more favourable treatment for Indian EP holders due to the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca), Manpower Minister Tan See Leng told Parliament yesterday.


"As every sector seeks to be digitally enabled, their need for technology talent has grown significantly," he said, emphasising that Singapore currently does not have enough locals to fill the jobs available. In the infocomm sector alone, 6,000 jobs remain unfilled.

Another major source of technology talent is China, he said, but with the country producing many unicorns - start-ups worth at least US$1 billion (S$1.34 billion) - and having its own demand, many Chinese professionals are staying put.

Dr Tan noted that between 2005 and last year, the proportion of EP holders from China was relatively stable.

The top nationalities that comprise around two-thirds of Singapore's EP holders have been consistent since 2005 - namely, those from China, India, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Britain.


Dr Tan said the Government usually does not publish such detailed statistics for foreign policy reasons.


This came after Non-Constituency MPs Leong Mun Wai and Hazel Poa from the Progress Singapore Party had asked for the nationality profile of work pass holders and their dependants from China, India, the United States and Australia. Ms Poa had requested more data on the jobs commonly held by these same nationalities.

All work pass holders in Singapore have to meet the same criteria before they are allowed to enter the labour market, stressed Dr Tan, adding that there is no differentiation based on nationality.


He also noted that India, whose talent continues to look outwards, is currently the largest country of origin for international migrants. Last year, it accounted for 18 million international migrants, up by 10 million from 2000.

"Given our shortage of manpower, even if the workers don't come from India, they will come from somewhere else," Dr Tan said. "The point is: Are they helping us grow the economy, and create Singaporean jobs? The answer is 'yes'."

Yet, it is not surprising that the increasing concentration of foreign workers has caused some social frictions and anxiety among Singaporeans, he noted. "In some ways, this is understandable and to be expected, because EP holders are transient."

Acknowledging that this is an area that has to be constantly managed, he said Singapore experienced a similar situation in the 2000s, when the share of Chinese nationals in the foreign workforce here rose significantly, before tapering as China's growth took off.

Dr Tan said the Government regularly reviews work pass policies. "We have to bring in the talent and skills to keep our economy growing, while tracking that the number of foreigners in our midst stays at a level we are able to cope with, and manage the social frictions that will arise from time to time," he added.

"It is a series of trade-offs. It is not a once-off adjustment, but a constant balance that we have to continuously monitor and get right."


Dr Tan said that in putting firms on the Fair Consideration Framework watch list, his ministry looks at whether firms have a high concentration of foreigners from a single nationality source, in addition to a high share of foreign professionals, managers, executives and technicians relative to their industry peers. There are currently about 400 firms placed on the watch list.

Today, salary is mainly relied on "as a gatekeeper" because it is easy to administer, but the Government has been exploring refinements to the EP framework to ensure a strong Singaporean core, complemented by a diverse foreign workforce. More details will be shared later, he added.







Jobs created for local PMEs outstrip rise in EPs in finance, infocomm: Tan See Leng
Increase of 45,000 EP, 120,000 local PME jobs in finance, infocomm
By Justin Ong, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 7 Jul 2021

From 2005 to last year, the finance and infocomm sectors accounted for 40 per cent of the increase in Employment Passes (EPs) issued to foreign professionals. But both sectors saw even stronger job creation for local professionals, managers and executives (PMEs), Manpower Minister Tan See Leng said yesterday.

In infocomm, the number of EPs rose by about 25,000, while the number of jobs created for local PMEs was about 35,000.

In finance, the corresponding figures were 20,000 and 85,000.


Dr Tan, who is also Second Minister for Trade and Industry, provided these figures in a ministerial statement in Parliament on foreign workforce policies.

Rebutting Progress Singapore Party's Non-Constituency MPs Leong Mun Wai and Hazel Poa, who asked if the growth in EP holders was at the expense of local PMEs, Dr Tan warned of the dangers of turning protectionist and making it hard for companies to hire global talent.

"If the competition is not here, it will be outside. The competition will be helping other companies in other countries to beat ours here, and displace our workers," he said.

In reply to Ms Poa and MPs Jamus Lim (Sengkang GRC) and Saktiandi Supaat (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) asking for a breakdown of workforce numbers, Dr Tan said that out of around 177,000 EPs as at last year, about 10 per cent were in the manufacturing and construction sectors. The rest were in services.

The infocomm and professional services sub-sectors accounted for about 19 per cent each, and finance for about 15 per cent.

From 2005 to last year, the total number of EPs increased by about 112,000, while the number of local PMEs grew by more than 380,000.


On whether this growth in local PME jobs was being enjoyed by Singaporeans, Dr Tan pointed to the low citizen unemployment rate of about 3 per cent over the past decade, and noted that 87 per cent of citizens were born here.

He stressed that foreign banks and infocomm companies asked to create jobs here would still need foreign workers.

"While we have a good Singaporean talent pool, our pool is not large enough to fulfil all of the needs, the breadth and the depth of these enterprises," he said.

"The misconception is that if we say 'no' to the foreigners coming in... these jobs they would have taken would all go to Singaporeans... Today, even as we speak, we still have about 22,000 PME jobs that are not filled. Companies are desperate to fill these jobs. They would love to take in Singaporeans if they could.

"If we tell companies which want to invest in Singapore that they can only employ Singaporeans, or first employ Singaporeans who have been displaced, regardless of skills, the answer will be quite stark. They would opt not to come into Singapore to invest."


To ensure local workers can compete fairly, Dr Tan said, work pass controls are in place so foreign manpower does "not come to Singapore just because they are cheaper to hire than locals".

He pointed to the progressive tightening and raising of quotas and levies at the work permit and S Pass levels, in spite of numerous calls over the past decade from businesses to relax such rules.

Quotas or levies are not imposed on EPs because there is fierce competition for global talent in areas such as technology and digital skills, he said.

"A quota would be a hard cap that would limit our ability to compete at the high end of the global economy. For a levy to have any effect at all on EP numbers, it would have to be set very high and would substantially increase business costs."

Instead, the Government raised the EP minimum qualifying salary - twice last year, from $3,600 to $3,900, and then to $4,500 - and set a higher bar of $5,000 for finance sector applicants.

Dr Tan warned that more businesses may move entire functions offshore if it becomes too onerous or expensive to be here. "Singaporeans will end up... losing some jobs too."


He noted that amid the pandemic, there is a "golden opportunity" for Singapore to pull ahead, with businesses looking seriously at investing more here - if they can get enough foreign workers to supplement the local workforce.








4,200 foreign staff working here in 2020 were from MNCs abroad
By Sue-Ann Tan, The Straits Times, 7 Jul 2021

There were 4,200 intra-corporate transferees working in Singapore last year, a number that has remained consistently small, Manpower Minister Tan See Leng told Parliament yesterday.

About 500 of these foreign employees brought in from the overseas offices of multinational corporations (MNCs) are from India. This is out of 177,000 Employment Pass (EP) holders in Singapore, he added.

Intra-corporate transferees are overseas employees at an MNC who have worked for at least a year in the company, before being posted to a branch or subsidiary in Singapore.


Companies that want to fill a role with an intra-corporate transferee are exempted from the Fair Consideration Framework requirement that requires firms to advertise jobs on MyCareersFuture.sg before submitting EP and S Pass applications.

But the transferees still have to meet the prevailing work pass criteria before they can work here.

Dr Tan said: "None of our FTAs, including the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca), gives intra-corporate transferees unfettered access to our labour market." Such employees are subject to additional checks on their seniority, employment history and work experience, among others.

And if they qualify to bring in dependants, they can work here only if they qualify for a work pass on their own merits, he said.

Intra-corporate transferees are a common feature of FTAs globally to allow for the movement of professionals for short periods to set up offices or for ad hoc projects, for instance.

"The Progress Singapore Party (PSP) has made Indian nationals coming in through Ceca a focus of contention. I am afraid the PSP has been barking up the wrong tree," said Dr Tan.

"The number of intra-corporate transferees coming in under our FTAs, and in particular Ceca, is very small relative to our total number of EPs. I suggest we set aside this red herring and move on to the heart of the matter."

The minister added that there is no such category as "professional visas" which PSP MPs had asked about. He said all 127 categories of professionals under Ceca currently come in under the regular work pass framework.

He said the heart of the matter is really how Singapore can remain open to global talent to create opportunities for Singaporeans, while managing the social repercussions that come with it.

He noted how the economy has grown from a gross domestic product of $20 billion at the start of the 1970s to $454 billion today.


Foreign workers comprise a third of Singapore's workforce.

More than 2.3 million locals are employed, and the resident unemployment rate is 4.1 per cent, half of what it was in 1970.

"Singaporeans are pragmatic, and understand that we need to remain open to global talent. However, they also face real challenges," he said. He noted Singaporeans are worried the growth in EP holders has come at the expense of locals, and concerned about discrimination against local job seekers and workers.

"I am not suggesting that all of our approaches are perfect," he said. "We will continue to refine them in the light of experience, always with a focused view to having a system that can deliver good jobs, livelihoods and a thriving economy for Singaporeans."










PSP fully supports FTAs, but disagrees on CECA's benefits
NCMP says his party wants to explore if agreement has contributed to PMET influx
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 7 Jul 2021

The Progress Singapore Party (PSP) fully supports free trade agreements (FTAs) and is reassured to know that Singaporean interests are taken care of when they are negotiated, but disagrees that the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca) offers net benefits to Singapore at this stage, Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai said yesterday.

Setting out his party's position after a protracted debate with Health Minister Ong Ye Kung in Parliament, Mr Leong said the PSP will have to further explore "whether Ceca has contributed to the influx of some of the PMETs (professionals, managers, executives and technicians) into Singapore in relation to our overall foreign talent policy".

Mr Ong had sought to pin the PSP MPs down on whether they agreed that FTAs are fundamental to Singapore's economic survival, and that Ceca does not allow a free flow of Indian PMEs into Singapore.

Mr Leong said his party is not against FTAs. "We know the importance of the FTAs for Singapore as an open economy and especially as a small city state. However, what we are concerned about is what price we are paying," he said, adding that he had read that Singapore does not have many bargaining chips when it comes to negotiations, "so the implication is that we may have to be a bit more relaxed with the movement of people".

He asked if the movement of people, referred to in Chapter 9 of Ceca, is used as a bargaining chip when Singapore negotiates FTAs.

Responding, Mr Ong said he had earlier explained why the allegation that Singapore has used the freedom of movement of people as a bargaining chip and was "giving away our rights for immigration" is untrue, and pressed Mr Leong on whether he and his party agreed with this.

"After all the explanation, (if) you still come to that conclusion, then I say this: One, PSP, you are against globalisation, you are against FTAs, even though I have gone to great lengths to explain that this is the bedrock of Singapore's economic survival.

"Two, you are really not taking back the falsehoods and the allegations... you do feel that the FTAs and Ceca, despite our explanation, let in Indian professionals freely into Singapore," he said.


Mr Ong had said in his speech that nothing in Ceca states that Singapore must unconditionally let in PMEs from India.

If the PSP agrees on the importance of FTAs and Ceca and withdraws its allegations, the People's Action Party Government and the PSP can have a "meaningful debate" when the PSP tables a motion on FTAs and Ceca in a future sitting, Mr Ong added.

To this, Mr Leong said the two statements - on FTAs being fundamental to Singapore's survival, and Ceca not allowing the free movement of people - require more debate and study by him and his fellow NCMP Hazel Poa.

"Hazel and I, we are for FTAs. And having heard that the jobs and livelihoods of people are not being used as a bargaining chip, we are very reassured that... Singaporeans' interests are being taken care of," said Mr Leong.

But they had to examine the figures provided by Manpower Minister Tan See Leng and Mr Ong to look at the share of Indian PMETs in the overall PMET workforce, among others, before they can conclude whether Ceca is truly beneficial for Singapore, he said.

Mr Ong thanked Mr Leong for agreeing that FTAs - including Ceca - are fundamental to Singapore's economic survival. He also said he understands the PSP agrees that Chapter 9 is not used as a bargaining chip, and called on it to withdraw its allegations that Ceca has led to the unfettered inflow of Indian professionals.


Mr Leong said that his remarks had been misinterpreted.

"We fully support FTAs, we know that is important for Singapore, and we appreciate the point that we are not using the movement of people as a bargaining chip in the negotiation of the FTAs," he said, adding that they still had to explore if Ceca contributed to the influx of PMETs. "We don't agree that Ceca is net beneficial to Singapore at this stage."

Mr Ong said Mr Leong seemed to be "waffling". "I take it that you are not withdrawing your allegation. So be it... We have to leave it as such," said the minister.

"It is regrettable because generations of FTA negotiators worked very hard to make sure our interests are protected, and this is not a back door, this is not an avenue for any professional from any country to enter Singapore with a free hand," Mr Ong said.













Chapter on movement of persons wasn't used as bargaining chip to sign CECA pact: DPM Heng Swee Keat
By Justin Ong, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 7 Jul 2021

Clauses in the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca) on movements of people were not used as a bargaining chip in settling the free trade pact, said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat yesterday.

He was responding to Progress Singapore Party (PSP) Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai during a debate on free trade agreements and foreign manpower.


Mr Heng, who was Singapore's chief negotiator for the pact that was signed in 2005, recalled that his Indian counterparts were "very keen" on the chapter in question.

"They said, 'What do we get?' Well, I said no... you have a population that's over a billion; Singapore has a population of, at that time, probably about three-odd million. And I said we will be easily swamped, so we must have very strict agreements on this," he said. "I never let go, and we got what we needed."

Chapter 9 in Ceca, on the movement of natural persons, pertains to temporary entry for individuals into both countries. The Government has repeatedly clarified that nothing in Ceca interferes with its ability to regulate immigration and foreign manpower.


Mr Heng noted that leading up to negotiations in 2005, he had a supervisory role as permanent secretary of the Ministry of Trade and Industry. Their Indian counterparts had deemed the agreement important enough to involve a permanent secretary of their own. That was how he ended up being Singapore's chief negotiator for Ceca.

"I can tell you the amount of homework I had to do to look at how we can come to an agreement. I went to different parts of India because there were objections from every part of India, from business groups to states," he added.

Mr Heng said he was "terribly troubled" by the PSP's approach to Ceca, and took issue with Mr Leong saying he hoped the Government had the people's interests at heart. "Why do we negotiate free trade agreements and why do we do this public service if it's not with the interest of people at heart?" he asked. "And why do I spend three years of my life doing that agreement? So please be reasonable and don't mislead Singaporeans."


He also rebutted Mr Leong's suggestion that the education system had failed to produce enough local talent, noting the World Bank had ranked Singapore best in the world in educating its people; and university cohort participation rates had increased from 20 to 40 per cent.


He stressed the importance of bringing in the best people to help Singaporeans excel in new tech, innovation and digital realms. "Please do not get stuck in the old world and think that we can excel all on our own. Let us have an open attitude to work with countries around the world which are willing to cooperate and work with us."










PSP raising CECA issue because of feedback, concerns: Leong Mun Wai
By Justin Ong, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 7 Jul 2021

The purpose of the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) bringing up the issue of the Singapore-India trade pact and foreign professionals is to reflect the huge amount of feedback that the party has received, and to get a response from the Government, said the opposition party's Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai on Tuesday (July 6).

Defending his party's constant criticism of the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca), he added: "By raising the issue, we had hoped it would get some response from the Government to explain more about what are FTAs, in particular, Ceca."

PSP chief Tan Cheng Bock had brought up Ceca when launching the party in August 2019, promising that the PSP would hold the Government to account for giving Indian professionals easy access to jobs here under the trade pact.

Referring to this, Mr Leong said that the PSP's misgivings on Ceca had to do with protecting "Singapore's jobs and livelihoods".

He said that though Health Minister Ong Ye Kung and Manpower Minister Tan See Leng had given a "detailed explanation of the situation on foreign PMETs (professionals, managers, executives and technicians)... and the free trade agreements and Ceca", he needed to "clarify the situation further".


Responding to their ministerial statements with a flurry of questions, Mr Leong asked how many foreign nationals had come into Singapore under FTAs and had taken up PMET roles. He said knowing the proportion of these workers, vis a vis the total foreign PMET population as well as the PMET population, would help to clarify "how those conditions under the FTAs interplay with our domestic employment policies".

Next, he asked for the number of Singaporeans displaced from their jobs over the past decade.

"Your narrative is... (it is) because they don't have the skills. Let's not push the blame to the universities and the polytechnics so easily... It has been 20 years since we started the foreign talent policy. Within 20 years, we still haven't got our act together in training our people?"

This begged the question of why the education system was not able to churn out enough talent for the workforce, he added.

He also asked for the number of foreign PMETs in infocomm technology and finance, saying there was concern about these sectors.


Commenting on the tightening of policies over the years to regulate the flow of foreign PMETs, Mr Leong said this was "too little and too late". He said that while the Government had let in foreign talent in the late 1990s, the Fair Consideration Framework, under which employers must try to hire a Singaporean first before they can recruit foreign professionals, was introduced only in 2014.

He also expressed incredulity that the Manpower Ministry had not noticed a concentration of workers from certain countries in some sectors, and asked how it administers its foreign PMET policy.

He added that much more and finer data would be needed for his party to form an opinion on Ceca.










170 nationality-based discrimination cases handled each year on average
By Sue-Ann Tan, The Straits Times, 7 Jul 2021

An average of 170 discrimination cases based on nationality have been handled annually in the last three years by the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP), said Manpower Minister Tan See Leng in Parliament yesterday.

The top three sectors making up about half of the complaints are wholesale and retail trade, administrative and support services, and other service activities, he added.

These cases are investigated by TAFEP and, where warranted, referred to the Ministry of Manpower for enforcement.

Dr Tan was delivering a ministerial statement on how Singaporeans can compete strongly and fairly, which includes fighting discrimination in the workplace.

He said: "We know that not all employers play by the rules. We have zero tolerance towards discriminatory hiring practices.

"All employers are expected to comply with the requirements of the Fair Consideration Framework, and not discriminate on characteristics that are not related to the job."

In January last year, the ministry stiffened penalties further for discrimination cases, such as suspending work pass privileges for errant employers for up to 24 months, instead of at least 12 months.


The minimum period for which employers have to advertise jobs on MyCareersFuture before submitting work pass applications was also extended to 28 days, instead of 14, so local job seekers have more time to respond to job openings.

"Going forward, we will do more to clamp down on egregious employers with discriminatory employment practices," he said.

Apart from fighting discrimination, Dr Tan said upskilling and training are also vital in helping Singaporeans remain competitive, such as those displaced from their jobs. "This happens not only because of competition from foreign workers, but also because of other factors like technological change and industries phasing out," he said.

"This is why the Government invests so heavily in retraining and skills development, so that displaced workers can gain new skills and reinvent themselves, either doing a different job in the same industry, or transiting to another industry altogether."


He added that government policies have also helped to preserve jobs amid the coronavirus crisis.

Total employment last year, excluding migrant domestic workers, shrank by 166,600.

Foreign employment took the largest hit, shrinking by 181,500. But resident employment managed to expand by 14,900 despite the downturn.

"We are not quite out of the woods yet and there is more work yet to be done, but let us also build on what we have collectively achieved so far," he said.





TAFEP should be given 'more teeth and bite' to boost fair hiring practices in Singapore: Labour MP Patrick Tay
By Calvin Yang, Correspondent, The Straits Times, 7 Jul 2021

The fair employment watchdog should be given "more teeth and bite" through expanded powers to investigate and even mete out punishment to errant companies, Mr Patrick Tay (Pioneer) suggested yesterday.

Strengthening the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices is one measure he believes would help address the fairness and localisation of jobs for professionals, managers and executives (PMEs).

Fair hiring practices can be improved by imposing stiffer penalties on companies with discriminatory hiring, Mr Tay said in Parliament yesterday. "We should not allow the few black sheep to weaken our working structure."

To level the playing field for local PMEs, he also suggested paying "close watch to sectors with a particular imbalance".


Local employees must be given fair access to PME roles and progression opportunities so that a pipeline of talent can be developed in high-growth sectors, he added.

He said more should be done to strengthen the Singaporean core and protect local workers from being unfairly discriminated against.

"It is important to recognise the role that foreign manpower plays, which is to complement and enhance the capabilities of the local workforce, and not to replace it."

Mr Tay, who co-chairs a task force to look into issues faced by PMEs, said one concern raised was the intense competition from the influx of foreign labour.

Some PMEs have shared their personal experiences of foreign hiring managers bringing in co-workers of the same nationality, he said.

Others have described disguised discriminatory practices at work. These include foreign colleagues who form a majority of the team communicating in their native language at work, and foreign supervisors unfairly allocating days off to colleagues of the same nationality.

Mr Tay said: "While it is clear only a minority engages in such unacceptable practices, the concerns are legitimate, and we should not ignore them."

While PMEs he had spoken to acknowledge the need for free trade agreements (FTAs) and foreign labour amid globalisation, he said there is a need to support the aspirations of the local workforce.

"We will need to strike a balance between being open and having a level playing field for our locals with fair opportunities and fair treatment. This balance is not easy to achieve and is an evolving process," he said.

Meanwhile, Nominated MP Hoon Hian Teck said that Singapore's rise in living standards over the years has been facilitated by a steady inflow of foreign direct investment, which has brought technology and good jobs.

FTAs offer Singapore's economy "a means for its firms to expand their market, which ultimately has positive net impact for our labour market", he said.







MOM reviewing all options to tackle workplace discrimination: Manpower Minister Tan See Leng
The Straits Times, 10 Jul 2021

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) is reviewing how to strengthen measures to tackle workplace discrimination more effectively.

While anti-discrimination laws will not be a panacea for unfair employment practices, the authorities are considering all options, said Manpower Minister Tan See Leng on Saturday (July 10).

Stiffer penalties may be adopted for employers who do not consider Singaporeans fairly for job opportunities, he said.

The ministry and tripartite partners are reviewing the Tripartite Guidelines On Fair Employment Practices.


Speaking to reporters after a community event at Joo Chiat Community Centre, Dr Tan said “it will not be long” before they come back with a recommendation.

The minister was responding to Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh’s recent comments calling for businesses to lobby the Government to pass anti-discrimination laws.

Last Thursday, Mr Singh said that while the Workers’ Party supports MOM’s Fair Consideration Framework in principle, it needs more teeth.

Employers who unfairly hire foreigners over Singaporeans are subjected only to administrative penalties, he said at an event organised by the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce.

He added that anti-discrimination laws with statutory penalties would send a “powerful signal” for businesses to change how they recruit.

MOM’s Fair Consideration Framework, which was introduced in 2014, sets out the requirements for employers in Singapore to consider Singaporeans fairly for job opportunities before hiring foreign professionals on the Employment Pass and S Pass.

Dr Tan noted that Mr Singh was not the first parliamentarian to call for anti-discrimination laws.

People’s Action Party labour MP Saktiandi Supaat was among the first to moot the idea, and many others including PAP MPs Patrick Tay and Louis Ng have reiterated those calls, he said.

Dr Tan said that MOM has taken a nuanced approach by consulting and working with the unions and businesses on this issue.

In this regard, the Fair Consideration Framework allows MOM to identify firms that carry out unfair hiring practices and work with them to improve their processes.

Recalcitrant firms will have their work pass privileges suspended for between 12 and 24 months. These make up a “small minority”, he said.

“We do not want to be also seen as having a very, very prescribed framework that restricts (businesses),” he said.

“As we open up our doors to the world, we also want to establish a fair, meritocratic-based system of progression for our Singaporean core, as well as for people who come and work,” he said.

The framework is currently being reviewed to see what stiffer penalties can be adopted to take action against errant firms.

He noted that, given the way industry is changing so rapidly, being overly prescriptive can lead to jobs moving elsewhere as well.

“We are also trying to make sure we don’t inadvertently push businesses overseas,” he said. “In the short run we may seem to have some benefit but in the long run, we actually end up losing out. So it’s a very delicate balance.”

Minister for Communications and Information Josephine Teo, who was the manpower minister before Dr Tan, said in a Facebook post on Saturday that she supports his plan to strengthen measures against workplace discrimination.

She noted that in 2020 before Covid-19 struck, MOM had made “Fairness at Work” its top priority for the year.


Under the Fair Consideration Framework, penalties were stiffened for companies found to have practised any form of discrimination and not just nationality discrimination, she noted.

She said that in November 2019, she had urged businesses to pay more attention to their workforce profiles and to groom locals for career advancements and strive for more diversity of their foreign workforce.

Other PAP MPs had also spoken to her “extensively” since last year on potential laws to tackle discrimination. These views were shared with Dr Tan, said Mrs Teo.

She noted that in 2020, MOM pushed through policy changes such as raising the salary thresholds for Employment and S Passes and reduction of S Pass quotas, among other things, “to further strengthen the complementarity of the local and foreign workforce”.

“The foreign workforce shrank considerably, and this helped cushion the impact on local employment,” she said.

As Singapore works to recover from Covid-19, it is timely to revisit how fair practice measures can be strengthened, she said, agreeing with Dr Tan that the aim “cannot be to create more friction for progressive employers, but to hold the egregious ones to account”.

She added: “Mr Singh’s call for legislative change therefore has a ring of familiarity to it. His acknowledgement that keeping Singapore open has been an overall plus for our people is, however, quite refreshing.”





FTAs vital for Singapore's business community in helping firms lower costs: NMP
By Sue-Ann Tan, The Straits Times, 7 Jul 2021

Free trade agreements (FTAs) are important in helping businesses lower their costs and explore new markets and models, a need that has been made even more urgent by the Covid-19 pandemic, said Nominated MP Janet Ang.

She was responding in Parliament yesterday to two ministerial statements on FTAs and foreign manpower.

Ms Ang, who is also a council member of the Singapore Business Federation (SBF), said: "Trade, along with investments into Singapore, will drive our economic recovery and the resumption of business activities post-Covid-19 even as we restlessly reinvent our industries, innovate ideas, products, services and business models, to emerge stronger post-pandemic."


In fact, despite the pandemic, Singapore's total services trade exports last year amounted to $259 billion, with China, the United States, the European Union and Malaysia as the top trading partners.

She added: "International trade not only provides us with the products that we import and consume, but also connects us to the global market that supports our businesses and sustains our economy, creating the good jobs that Singaporeans have enjoyed in the past and aspire to for the future."

Firms also stand to benefit from FTAs, with businesses gaining preferential market access to major trading partners, while enjoying lowered entry barriers for the export of goods and services.

These pacts also help to protect their investments in other countries. "This strong FTA network can be a tool for businesses, not only in reducing their costs and time-to-market, but also in ensuring a predictable trading environment," she said, adding that FTAs have become more relevant in the pandemic as firms realise the need to build resilience in their business models and supply chains.

SBF chief executive Lam Yi Young said in a statement that foreign manpower is also an integral part of Singapore's workforce, and the majority of firms are committed to recruiting fairly.

"Foreign manpower helps to fill (the gaps) and augment our Singapore core. Having access to sufficient manpower and talent is crucial to the success of Singapore businesses."













FTAs and globalisation critical to Singapore's survival: Ong Ye Kung
By Hariz Baharudin, The Straits Times, 7 Jul 2021

Singapore is a country with no natural resources, but a precious natural endowment in its geographical location has allowed it to tap into global markets, earn a living and be self-reliant, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung told the House yesterday.

"It is a lasting advantage, but one which requires us to work very hard to realise and sustain. If we succeed, it helps compensate for our lack of size," he added, speaking on how the embrace of globalisation and free trade agreements (FTAs) are critical to Singapore.


The former trade negotiator said he felt a duty to explain how FTAs work and rebut the false allegations by the Progress Singapore Party regarding the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca).

"To prepare for this statement, I had to dig up my old negotiating notes and do quite a bit of revision!" he said.

Singapore's strategic location has made it a unique interchange, connecting East and West, Europe, the Middle East, India and China. This has allowed Singapore to capture trade flows through the Strait of Malacca, and helped PSA Corp to become the largest container transhipment port in the world, with the maritime industry sustaining 160,000 jobs here.


Singapore has also grown into an aviation node, with Changi Airport and the industry supporting 190,000 jobs before Covid-19. In turn, this connectivity has helped build up other sectors, with manufacturing sustaining 440,000 jobs and the financial services sector employing 170,000 people.

Meanwhile, some 50,000 international firms operate here, with 750 making Singapore their regional headquarters. Global technology firms are also setting up their innovation centres here.

"None of these would have happened without a clear strategy, implemented well," said Mr Ong. "It was a long and painstaking process... Clean government, rule of law, safety... political stability, good infrastructure, high standards of education, openness to the world - all this, and more, come together to make us a good place to invest."

Singapore's network of 26 FTAs, including Ceca, are a keystone of this economic super-structure that has been built, he stressed.

Trade pacts require countries to remove or lower tariffs on all trade between partners, which is of "tremendous benefit", he said. This is because other countries typically impose tariffs on thousands of items. Singapore imposes duties on only three alcohol products - beer, stout and samsu.

He added that FTAs are especially important to small and medium enterprises, helping them gain access to overseas customers and break free of the constraints of the small domestic market.

FTAs also require governments to protect foreign investments and ensure that regulations are imposed fairly and equally on both local and foreign companies.


Mr Ong said local firms wanting to expand overseas would want Singapore to negotiate such protections for them in foreign markets. He added that FTAs have spurred Singapore companies to venture abroad, with investments overseas going up from $200 billion in 2005 to over $930 billion in 2019.

Meanwhile, newer FTAs even set certain environmental and labour standards, and Singapore believes this reflects "contemporary concerns" in free trade, he added.

Singapore could not have advanced the welfare of its citizens as much without FTAs, he said.

"When you attack FTAs, and worse if your attack succeeds, you are undermining the fundamentals of our existence, of the way we earn a living, all the sectors FTAs are supporting, and the hundreds of thousands of Singaporean jobs created in these sectors."










Misunderstandings over CECA could have been nipped in the bud if Govt released more data earlier: Pritam Singh
By Hariz Baharudin, The Straits Times, 7 Jul 2021

The misunderstandings and unhappiness over the Singapore-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca) could have been addressed and nipped in the bud if the Government had released more information earlier, suggested Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh yesterday.


The Workers' Party chief made this point during the debate after Health Minister Ong Ye Kung and Manpower Minister Tan See Leng gave ministerial statements on Singapore's free trade agreements and foreign manpower policies.

He noted that in 2016, fellow WP MP Mr Leon Perera had asked for the number of Intra-Corporate Transferees (ICTs) working in Singapore through Ceca. The Government said then that it does not release data on the breakdown of foreign manpower by nationality.

In February, the Government disclosed that the number of ICTs working in Singapore was around 5 per cent of all Employment Pass holders, in response to Progress Singapore Party Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai.

Yesterday, Dr Tan revealed that ICTs from India accounted for 500 of the 4,200 transferees last year.

Mr Singh said: "If this information had been made known earlier, it does occur to me whether a lot of the misunderstanding, the reaction we see on Ceca could have been addressed and actually nipped in the bud.

"And so I hope the Government understands that with more information, actually, we can hold the line better in terms of some of these discussions moving into a realm of xenophobia and so forth."

He was referring to misconceptions that have swirled around Ceca and how it purportedly allows the unconditional entry of Indian professionals into Singapore, including via the ICT route.

In their statements, both ministers debunked these false claims.

Responding to Mr Singh, Mr Ong said the Government is not always at liberty to disclose data, some of which is classified or secret.

He agreed that it is better to provide some information promptly.

"And especially, as you say, when it concerns issues like racism or xenophobia, it's much better to quell it early," said Mr Ong.


Mr Singh also asked about strengthening the enforcement arm of the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP), an issue he had raised in Parliament last August.

Dr Tan replied that MOM is reviewing its existing frameworks, and noted a number of PAP MPs, including Mr Patrick Tay (Pioneer) and Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC), have floated this suggestion too.

"The assurance I want to give to the House, to everyone who has raised it and who's concerned about this, is to allow myself, together with a team… (and) tripartite partners to go deep, look at all the different implications, (and) look at also the various options that we have to see how we can strengthen it," said Dr Tan.







Misrepresentations of CECA have caused unnecessary public concern: PM Lee Hsien Loong
By Hariz Baharudin, The Straits Times, 7 Jul 2021

Misrepresentations of the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca) have caused much unnecessary public concern, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who highlighted Tuesday's Parliament debate on the matter.

Mr Lee said in a Facebook post on Tuesday (July 6) that Health Minister Ong Ye Kung and Manpower Minister Tan See Leng had set out the facts about free trade agreements and Ceca to put the public debate on a sound factual basis.

"Singaporeans are anxious about jobs, foreign competition, as well as the impact of the large number of foreigners working and living here," he said.

"These are valid concerns which we will address. But if we put the blame on Ceca, that will not solve our problem but instead make it worse."


Mr Lee stressed that Singapore needs access to global markets to earn a living. FTAs play a crucial role in letting the country do so, and he highlighted how Singapore's network of FTAs has created investments and opportunities for businesses here, as well as jobs for Singaporeans.

"They have helped make us a leading global hub," added Mr Lee, who also thanked officers who have spent years negotiating FTAs.

In two ministerial statements on Tuesday, Mr Ong and Dr Tan laid out the importance of free trade pacts and debunked falsehoods about Ceca, whose immigration-related elements have come under fire on social media and by the Progress Singapore Party (PSP).

They also stressed that changes in foreign workforce numbers over time are to be expected, given that policies, as well as countries' industry needs, change over time.

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, who was Singapore's chief negotiator of Ceca, also posted about the debate on Tuesday.

"Both Ministers Ong Ye Kung and Tan See Leng gave comprehensive explanations to rebut baseless allegations made by the PSP that Ceca gave professionals from India a 'free hand' to enter Singapore. This is simply false," said Mr Heng.

"Nothing in the agreement implies Singapore must unconditionally let in PMEs from India. Contrary to PSP's claim, our ability to impose requirements for immigration and work passes has never been in question in Ceca or any other FTA that we have signed. We must put a stop to this misinformation."

Mr Heng, who rose to speak in the debate on Tuesday, said that he felt compelled to clarify one of the false allegations made related to a chapter in Ceca.

This chapter, on the movement of people, pertains to temporary entry of individuals into both countries and has been highlighted as part of criticisms of Ceca paving the way for Indian professionals to take jobs from locals.

He said in his Facebook post: "I put on record that we did not sacrifice our positions on the 'movement of national persons' as a bargaining chip during the negotiations. This chapter of Ceca - which some wrongly believed allowed Indian nationals free movement into Singapore - was one of the most difficult chapters to conclude.

"But we did not and would not give away the rights to decide who can enter to live, work or reside in Singapore. In the end, we landed on an agreement that benefited both countries, while also protecting our vital interests."







What the pact says: Five myths about CECA debunked
By Grace Ho, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 7 Jul 2021

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung, who was deputy chief negotiator for the United States-Singapore FTA, and Manpower Minister Tan See Leng yesterday addressed misconceptions about the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca).

In statements, they tackled five myths about Ceca.


1 Myth:

Ceca obliges Singapore to give Indian workers free entry into Singapore. Fact: Ceca does not give Indian nationals unfettered access to Singapore's labour market.

All foreign nationals, including Indian professionals and intra-corporate transferees (ICTs), have to meet prevailing work pass criteria before they may work in Singapore.

ICTs are a company's employees who move from one country to another. They consistently make up a very small number here - about 4,200 last year. Of that number, 500 were from India.

There is criticism that companies do not have to advertise such positions to local residents as they would others under the Fair Consideration Framework, which requires employers to advertise jobs before submitting work pass applications.

But overseas ICTs must fulfil additional criteria to meet the definition encapsulated in Singapore's free trade agreements (FTAs).

Under Ceca, such transferees must have worked at least six months in the parent company, among other requirements. They can stay in Singapore for a total term of eight years, at most.

"The Progress Singapore Party (PSP) has made Indian nationals coming in through Ceca a focus of contention. But I am afraid they have been barking up the wrong tree," said Dr Tan.

"The number of ICTs coming in under our FTAs, and in particular Ceca, is a very, very small number relative to the total number of EPs (Employment Passes). I suggest we set aside this red herring and move on to the heart of the matter."


2 Myth:

Ceca gives Indian nationals privileges for citizenship or permanent residency. Fact: Attempting to clarify the "so many falsehoods" surrounding immigration matters, Mr Ong pointed to Chapter 9 of the agreement on the movement of natural persons.

The chapter, he said, makes it clear that the Government's ability to regulate immigration and foreign manpower is not affected by the trade pact.

The Government also "retains full rights to decide who can enter the country to live, to work or become permanent residents or citizens", he added, citing the second and third paragraphs in the chapter.

3 Myth:

Ceca obliges Singapore to allow the entry of Indian dependants and for them to work in Singapore. Fact: All work pass holders need to meet the Manpower Ministry's prevailing criteria to bring in dependants.

Dr Tan said the vast majority of dependants do not work during their stay in Singapore.

The number of dependant's pass holders who have sought employment in Singapore via a letter of consent is about 1 per cent of work pass holders.

In May, rules were changed so that dependants now have to qualify for a work pass on their own merit. Their employers need to apply for an EP, S Pass or work permit for them, and the relevant qualifying salary, dependency ratio ceiling and levy apply.


4 Myth:

There is a separate category of "professional visas" for the 127 professions listed in Annex 9A of Ceca. Fact: There is no such separate category.

Mr Ong noted that the PSP had claimed that Indian nationals in these 127 professions "can all freely come to work here for one year".

"This is false, because as I explained earlier, all foreign PMEs (professionals, managers and executives) have to meet our work pass conditions in order to work here," he said.

Annex 9A shows the types of Indian professionals who may apply to work in Singapore.

A similar listing of professions is contained in India's FTAs with a few other countries. Its agreement with South Korea lists 163 professions in its annex to the chapter on movement of natural persons, and one with Japan also contains an appendix with professions in areas ranging from computer services to management consulting.

5 Myth:

The nationality profile of Singapore's foreign workforce has been influenced by Ceca. Fact: The nationality composition of Singapore's workforce is an outcome of the sectors it has chosen to focus on, as well as global demand and supply of workers with relevant skill sets.

The rapid growth of Singapore's digital economy has attracted technology talent from India. That 25 per cent of EP holders last year were from India, compared with 14 per cent in 2005, was not the result of any favourable treatment to Indian EP holders, said Dr Tan.

Good jobs have been created for Singaporeans in the meantime. From 2005 to last year, the number of local PMEs grew by more than 380,000.

On whether this growth in local PME jobs was being enjoyed by Singaporeans, the minister pointed to the low citizen unemployment rate of around 3 per cent over the past decade, and noted that 87 per cent of citizens were born in Singapore. "Our glass is not even half-full, our glass is three-quarters full, and we are looking at it from that perspective."







A parliamentary debate on foreigners, falsehoods and fairness
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 7 Jul 2021

Words carry weight and, in politics, their effect is amplified. The stories that come from them can shape the national conversation or stir up discontent.

This was a point Health Minister Ong Ye Kung sought to drive home in Parliament yesterday, when he issued a sharp warning to the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) on propagating falsehoods and "seductively simplistic" arguments about the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca).

The trade pact, signed in 2005, has emerged as a lightning rod for simmering discontent over Singapore's foreign manpower policies. In recent years, the discourse has taken on an uglier tone and contributed to fanning the flames of racism here.


Tuesday's (July 6) two ministerial statements by Mr Ong and Manpower Minister Tan See Leng were, consequently, timely attempts to set the record straight once and for all.

In brief, the Government's position is this: Singapore needs free trade agreements (FTAs) and foreigners to survive, as its local talent pool is insufficient to meet the needs of companies coming to invest here in an increasingly widening variety of fields.

Even so, FTAs - including Ceca - do not allow for the unrestricted inflow of foreign nationals into the country.

The ministers acknowledged that Singapore's professionals, managers and executives (PMEs) face challenges in the job market. But these should not be blamed on trade pacts, they said.

Their speeches drew a barrage of queries from Ms Hazel Poa and Mr Leong Mun Wai - the PSP's two Non-Constituency MPs - the first of which was a demand for proof that PSP had made false allegations about Ceca.


Mr Ong was ready with the receipts. He cited four statements by PSP members, including one by the party's founder, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, in 2019, in which Dr Tan claimed that Ceca allows for "the free movement of professionals in 127 sectors to enter and work in Singapore".

This is not true, Mr Ong said. The list of 127 professions details the categories of Indian professionals who may apply to work in Singapore. But all foreign PMEs still have to meet work pass conditions to get approval.

Mr Leong followed up with several questions, such as whether the movement of people was used as a "bargaining chip" in Ceca negotiations and why the Fair Consideration Framework was introduced only in 2014.

No, there was no such bargaining chip, he was told.

And policymaking is not a static process, Mr Ong added.

"You mentioned a whole series of procedural policy: 'How come the Fair Consideration Framework came in so late? Why is the bar for entry salary raised only later?' Policies are never static... you need to adjust your position, then you review, and this process will continue," said Mr Ong.

"And we will continue to debate in this House on the pros and cons. You can't say because we implement something new now to respond to the situation, therefore, we have failed; 'Why didn't you do it five years ago?' It doesn't work like that."

Pressed by Mr Ong to state the PSP's position clearly, Mr Leong eventually accepted that FTAs are important for Singapore.

But on whether Ceca has contributed to the overall growth in the number of Indian nationals here, he said: "I think we need to study a bit more, because we need to go back and look at the numbers provided by the two ministers."

Mr Ong's response: "I take it that you are not withdrawing your allegation. And so be it... at least we got you to say FTA and Ceca are fundamental to our survival.

"But if you continue to allege, notwithstanding all our explanations, I think there is no choice, we have to leave it as such. It is regrettable..."

Mr Ong said that generations of FTA negotiators had worked to make sure Singapore's interests are protected and to ensure that the pacts do not contain "back doors" for foreign professionals to slip into the country.

"But I take it that this is PSP's position, notwithstanding all our explanations. It's most regrettable, but we will have to accept how they feel."

It was important that the Government moved to clear the air on Ceca in Parliament and set Singapore's foreign manpower and immigration policies in context.

But underlying this is also a kernel of anxiety over fairness - or the lack thereof - borne out of Singaporeans' lived experiences, which also needs to be addressed.


Most Singaporeans understand the country's need for foreigners, and many may agree that some degree of healthy competition is necessary for the economy to grow and prosper, and for the overall pie to grow. But they also want a fair shake - which is not always what they get.

Labour MP Patrick Tay (Pioneer) cited examples of how this plays out in some workplaces, gleaned from focus group discussions with more than 8,000 PMEs.

Some participants observed foreign hiring managers bringing in colleagues of the same nationality, while others saw days off unfairly allocated by foreign bosses in favour of foreign colleagues.

Yet others felt ostracised at work when their foreign colleagues, who formed a majority in their team, communicated in their native language.

These incidents may occur only rarely and involve only a few companies. But as stories, they resonate in the public imagination, feeding the anxiety that many Singaporeans already feel about their jobs in this economic crisis.

Mr Tay called, among other things, for stiffer penalties for errant companies with discriminatory hiring practices, and making public the list of companies on the Manpower Ministry's "triple weak" watchlist - that is, companies that hire a high proportion of foreigners, have no plans to recruit more Singaporeans and contribute little to the economy.

He is not the only MP to have made this call for fairer hiring practices yesterday.

This suggests that further changes are needed - to reshape the stories that are being told, and, importantly, to assure Singaporeans that fairness does prevail.







Ong Ye Kung's ministerial statement: Making globalisation work for the people
The Straits Times, 6 Jul 2021

Mr Speaker Sir

I am delivering this Ministerial Statement for two purposes.

First, even before the General Election last July, the PSP has repeatedly alleged that the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca) between Singapore and India allows professionals from India "a free hand", to come and work in Singapore.

In his social media post on 22 Jun 2021, Mr Leong Mun Wai again said that "the most important economic policies that have affected the jobs and livelihoods of Singaporeans relate to foreign PMETs and Free Trade Agreements, in particular Ceca."

Mr Speaker, these statements are false. They have been repeated for too long. I am a former trade negotiator at MTI when I was a civil servant. We worked closely on several of our FTAs. I worked with a very dedicated team, who has over two decades fought hard for the interest of Singapore, to expand our economic and political space of our small island state. I feel I owe a duty to correct the falsehoods.

Indeed, Singaporean PMEs, like PMEs in other advanced economies, are facing challenges. Many have given us their feedback, and the Government has been taking steps to address their concerns. But our FTAs in general, and Cecain particular, are not the cause of the challenges our PMEs face; if anything, they are part of the solution.


FTAs and Ceca have been made political scapegoats, to discredit the policy of the PAP Government.

The second reason to deliver this Ministerial Statement is to put into context, on behalf of MOM and MTI, the parliamentary questions that have been posed to the ministries concerning foreign PMETs, FTAs and Ceca. Dr Tan See Leng will further elaborate on the answers.

Taken together, Dr Tan and I will address Oral Questions 1 to 3 and Written Questions 19 to 24 from yesterday's Order Paper, and Oral Questions 1 to 6 and Written Questions 40 to 42 from today's Order Paper. A total of 18 questions.

Several of the questions were filed by PSP's two NCMPs, to gather data for a subsequent debate on a Motion they intend to file. Where we can, we will provide relevant data to equip all parties for that subsequent debate.

How we got here

Let me first recapitulate how we got here.

As I mentioned, for months now, the PSP has alleged that FTAs and Ceca have led to the unfettered inflow of Indian Professionals, displacing Singaporeans from their jobs, and bringing about all kinds of social ills.

This is a seductively simplistic argument that workers facing challenges at their workplaces can identify with, and has stirred up a lot of emotions. Ceca-themed websites have sprouted, filled with quite disturbing xenophobic views about Indian immigrants.

Words gradually became deeds, and toxic views turned into verbal and physical assaults on Indians, including our citizens. It is sad, that serious issues concerning the economic well-being of our country and workers, have descended to this.

That is why the Minister for Law called out such xenophobic behaviour during the May sitting of this House, and challenged the PSP to table a Motion on Ceca, so that the matter could receive a proper public airing.

The PSP has since made a public statement on the matter, standing by its views on FTAs and Ceca. It filed various Parliamentary questions requesting for more data and information.

Today, I will talk about the following:

- One, what is fundamental to Singapore's ability to earn a living and survive;

- Two, why FTAs, including Ceca, advance our interest, and are not the cause of the challenges faced by workers; and

- Three, what then are the causes of Singaporeans' concerns and how do we address them?

Dr Tan will provide more detailed answers to the specific questions, including providing the data which will be useful for our subsequent debate, and putting that data in context.


Singapore needs to embrace globalisation

Let me start with the first question - what is fundamental to our economic survival. Simply put, we are too small to survive on our own, and we need to tap into global markets to earn a living, and be self-reliant.

What do we have to start with? We have no natural resources, but we have one precious natural endowment, and that is our geographical location.

It is a lasting advantage, but one which requires us to work very hard to realise and sustain. If we succeed, it helps compensate for our lack of size.

That is what we have done. By capturing the trade flows through the Straits of Malacca and Singapore, PSA became the largest container transhipment port in the world. It is a unique interchange in the world, connecting East and West, Europe, Middle East, India and China. The port is central to the growth of the maritime industry, responsible for 160,000 jobs in Singapore today.

In addition to our seaport, we have also grown into a aviation node. Before Covid-19 hit us, Changi was one of the busiest airports in the world - and it shall be so again - though in aviation terms our geographical location is not quite ideal. We made it happen, with a renowned Changi and SIA experience. Before Covid-19 struck, the aviation-related industry here supported 190,000 jobs.

With these global connections to the world, we built up the manufacturing sector, about one-fifth of our GDP today. We obviously don't manufacture just for Singapore - we are too small; but we are manufacturing for the world. Manufacturing supports another 440,000 jobs today.

Our exports also include trade in services. One growing services sector is the financial services. Today, almost every major global financial services institution is in Singapore, carrying out a range of activities including new ones such as FinTech and Green Finance. The financial services sector employs over 170,000 people.

We are also becoming a centre for technology, research and development. Many global technology firms - FAANG, BAT and many more - are in Singapore, making Singapore their regional or global innovation centres or engineering hubs.

Today, around 50,000 international companies operate out of Singapore. 750 of them have made Singapore their regional headquarters.

None of these would have happened without a clear strategy, implemented well.

It was a long and painstaking process, part of the story of our island nation. Clean government, rule of law, safety (you can walk on the streets at any time of the day), political stability, good infrastructure, high standards of education, openness to the world - all this, and more, come together to make us a good place to invest.

I should emphasise that another big plus point for us is the quality of the Singaporean workforce. Our people are well known to be well educated, diligent, responsible, trustworthy, and we get things done. We have one problem - that there are too few of us, of Singaporeans - a point which I will come back to later.

On top of all these plus points, we have built a network of 26 FTAs including with US, China, EU, Japan, ASEAN, India, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, etc. - all our major markets and they are all our FTA partners.

This brings me to the next topic, why FTAs, including Ceca, are important to Singapore.


It is in Singapore's interest to pursue FTAs

We started our FTA strategy in the late 1990s. We thought through it carefully and executed before other countries did. It has given us a very precious early mover advantage, and greatly boosted our efforts to export, attract investments, venture overseas, and create good jobs for Singaporeans.

Our total trade in goods and services is three times our GDP. Since 2005, our total trade has nearly doubled from around S$890 billion to S$1.5 trillion.

Today, when EDB goes out and persuades investors to come to Singapore, our network of FTAs is always a major selling point.

FTAs are especially important to our SMEs. They free them from being constrained by our small domestic market, and give them access to global markets. Our SMEs are sending all kinds of Singapore-made products overseas, from canned food, barbecued pork and frozen roti prata to medical devices, machines, components and chemicals.

FTAs are also spurring our companies to venture abroad. Our investments overseas increased nearly five times, from S$200 billion in 2005 to over S$930 billion in 2019. When our companies grow overseas, they become stronger, and also employ more Singaporeans here.

If we accept the basic reality that Singapore needs the world to earn a living, then we would realise the fundamental importance of all our FTAs. They are a keystone of the economic super-structure we have built. We could not have advanced the welfare of Singaporeans to the degree we have without FTAs.

We cannot take all this for granted. We recently fell in the 2021 IMD world competitiveness ranking from 1st place to 5th. Amongst the components evaluated, we continue to do well in areas such as government efficiency and economic competitiveness. However, we lost ground in terms of our openness towards global talent and trade .

I hope this is temporary, due to the effects of Covid-19. Overall, we are still holding our own in terms of foreign investments. In 2020, even as 45 companies ceased operating their regional or global headquarters in Singapore, over 130 companies set up such headquarters here.

When you attack FTAs, and worse if your attack succeeds, you are undermining the fundamentals of our existence, of the way we earn a living, all the sectors FTAs are supporting, and the hundreds of thousands of Singaporean jobs created in these sectors.

As the attacks on FTAs, especially Ceca, have been very specific, let me explain how an FTA works. To prepare for this statement, I had to dig up my old negotiating notes and do quite a bit of revision!

The key disciplines of an FTA are as follows:

It requires a country to remove or lower tariffs on substantially all trade between FTA partners. This is of tremendous benefit to Singapore, because while other countries customarily impose tariffs on thousands of items, we are already very open, imposing duties on only three alcohol products - beer, stout and samsu. Hence, any FTA that substantially removes tariffs imposed by both parties is inherently beneficial to Singapore.

FTAs also require Governments to accord protection to foreign investments and ensure that regulations are imposed fairly and equally on both local and foreign firms. They also set standards on the protection of intellectual property.

Singapore always protects foreign investments and applies our regulations fairly. This makes us attractive to foreign investors. Abiding to these principles and disciplines is not a problem to us at all.

In fact, as more of our companies expand overseas and create their own products, they too hope that Singapore can negotiate similar protection for them when they go overseas. The investment and intellectual property protection disciplines in FTAs are therefore important assurances for our companies.

Newer FTAs also set certain environmental and labour standards. Not every country supports such disciplines, but Singapore believes that they reflect contemporary concerns relating to free trade and investments.


Specifically, on Ceca, this FTA with India benefits Singapore in many ways. Signed in 2005, it was India's first comprehensive bilateral FTA with any country. Ceca gave Singapore a strategic first-mover advantage in India, just when it was taking off to be an economic powerhouse.

Ceca reduces tariff barriers, which made Singapore goods more competitive in the Indian market. Partly because of that, bilateral trade between Singapore and India has grown by over 80%, from S$20 billion when Ceca came into force in 2005, to S$38 billion in 2019.

Similarly, Singapore's direct investment abroad in India grew by nearly 50 times, from S$1.3 billion to S$61 billion during the same period. In 2019, 660 companies from Singapore have investments in India, almost double the number (nearly 370) a decade ago.

As these companies grow regionally, they hire more people back home too. In 2019, they employed 97,000 locals.

Despite these significant benefits, FTAs are controversial in many countries. As a trade negotiator I have listened to the sensitivities of many of our partners.

Some countries wished to protect certain sectors, such as agriculture, which Singapore does not do. Others could not live up to, say, the transparency standards of Government procurement or intellectual property protection. Still others are concerned about the influences of foreign culture through the arts and entertainment industry.

The toughest job of the negotiator is to identify these sensitive areas and find ways to protect or address them.

In our jargon, we call the protections 'exceptions' or 'carve-outs'. When we have a big carve-out, with strong protection in sensitive areas, we will say "this carve out allows a jumbo jet to fly through!".

In some sensitive areas it is easy to negotiate exceptions or 'carve outs', because everyone agrees. One example is right of taxation. Another is national security. A third one is immigration.

Every country holds the view that there cannot be unfettered movement of people across borders. That would create social unrest and a public uproar. Governments must retain the ability to impose immigration and border controls, and FTAs cannot undermine that.

Hence, in all FTAs and WTO agreements, you will find that immigration powers are strongly and prominently preserved and protected. You can find such standard clauses in the WTO Agreement, as well as in all our FTAs, including Ceca.

As so many falsehoods have been said about the immigration related parts of Ceca, let me set out in some detail what is really in the agreement.

Immigration matters are set out in Chapter 9 of Ceca - Movement of Natural Persons. The legal text is available online, so I will only detail the salient points:

One, the chapter makes it clear that the Government's ability to regulate immigration and foreign manpower is not affected by the Agreement. The Government retains full rights to decide who can enter the country to live, work or become PRs or citizens.

This is set out clearly in two clauses. They are standard clauses, commonly found in all FTAs. They are the second and third paragraphs of Chapter 9 of Ceca, so it is hard to miss them, as you can see them on the first page:

Clause 9.1.2: 'This Chapter shall not apply to measures pertaining to citizenship, permanent residence, or employment on a permanent basis.'

Clause 9.1.3: 'Nothing contained in this Chapter shall prevent a Party from applying measures to regulate the entry or temporary stay of natural persons of the other Party in its territory, including measures necessary to protect the integrity of its territory and to ensure the orderly movement of natural persons across it borders…'

Two, the obligations relating to Movement of Natural Persons in Ceca, as in all FTAs, are not broad principles with wide applications, but highly specific.

What are these broad principles that you can find in FTAs? One broad principle is National Treatment. It is found in some chapters of FTAs, like Trade in Services or Investments. This means you cannot discriminate against foreign service providers and investors. So, regulations and benefits that apply to local firms must apply evenly to foreign-owned ones.

If immigration had not been carved out, and if the National Treatment principle had been incorporated into the Chapter 9 of Ceca, then indeed, Indian workers would have been treated like Singaporeans, and would have had free rein to come to live and work in Singapore.

This is what the PSP claims. Except that there is a strong immigration carve out, and National Treatment is not found in this Chapter of Ceca, nor any other corresponding Chapter in the FTAs that Singapore has entered into.


Mr Speaker Sir, I emphasise and underline and highlight this: nothing in the agreement implies Singapore must unconditionally let in PMEs from India. Contrary to PSP's claim, our ability to impose requirements for immigration and work pass, has never been in question in Ceca or any other FTA that we have signed.

Instead, the obligation that Chapter 9 imposes on the Parties is to process applications for temporary entry with some expedition, and a certain transparency, such as informing applicants of the outcomes and not leaving them in suspense.

We also have to accord a certain duration for the validity of the permits. But this is subject to the applications meeting our prevailing work pass conditions.

Such a commitment on duration is not something unique to Ceca, because similar commitments exist in other FTAs and are found in the WTO Agreement, signed by 164 Members, including Singapore.

Many parties to FTAs also commit not to impose labour market tests. This is a common clause in our FTAs, including with India, Australia, China and the US.

It means we do not insist that companies go through onerous processes and documentation to prove that no suitable locals will take a job, before they can hire a foreigner. Companies in Singapore, or any other place, do not hire in this way. The common and best practice is to interview the suitable candidates, consider them all fairly, and make a judgement on the best person.

These are all market-friendly, widely adopted, reasonable obligations.

Let me also specifically address two aspects of the chapter on Movement of Natural Persons in Ceca, that have been singled out for criticism.

First, the PSP pointed out that Ceca listed 127 categories of professionals, hence claimed that Indian nationals in these professions can all freely come here to work here for one year. This is false, because as I explained earlier, all foreign PMEs have to meet our work pass conditions in order to work here.

The listing shows the types of Indian professionals who may apply to work in Singapore. Does not mean we must approve them. India for its own reasons requested for such a list, similar to what they have in their FTAs with Korea and Japan. In fact, even if they had not listed the professions, their PMEs could still submit work pass applications to work here.

This is in fact how other FTAs work: with or without listing of professions, nationals from our FTA partners are not precluded from submitting work pass applications, which will be evaluated based on our prevailing criteria and work pass conditions.

Thus the point being made by PSP on the list of 127 professions is a red herring - the list does not confer any free pass to any Indian nationals.

Second, there have been complaints that intra-corporate transferees from India can also freely enter Singapore to work.

Based on my explanation on how the Chapter works, this again is not true. Intra-corporate transferees also have to meet our work pass qualifying criteria.

In any case, the total number of intra-corporate transferees, from all over the world and not just India, that have come to Singapore to work is very small. In 2020, there were only about 500 intra-corporate transferees from India in Singapore - less than 0.3% of all EP holders.

So, Mr Speaker Sir, I hope we can put a stop to all this misinformation about our FTAs in general, and Ceca in particular.


The real challenges

Nevertheless, it is important that we need to recognise that PMEs in Singapore do face challenges.

I see three challenges at least.

First, there is more competition from foreign PMEs. Indeed, the number of EP holders has increased, from 65,000 in 2005, to 177,000 in 2020 - an increase over 15 years of 112,000, or an annual growth rate of just under 7%.

Over this period, the increase in number of local PMEs increased is much higher, by over 380,000.

These numbers underline an important point: that competition between foreign and local PMEs is not a zero-sum game.

In fact, the converse is often true. By combining and complementing local and foreign expertise, we can attract more investments and create many more good job and career choices for Singaporeans.

The downside is that with more foreign PMEs in Singapore, they can compete for jobs with locals at the company level, and there can be a zero-sum situation there.

So there is a trade-off at play here: (A) many jobs, strong competition, or (B) few jobs, no competition. We need to find the right balance where there are more jobs, some competition.

That is the way to advance the interest of Singaporeans - not swing to an extreme position, but strike a careful balance, and adjust if we find the balance is off.

If someone promises you many more jobs with no competition from foreigners, he is selling you snake oil. It is not possible. It cannot be on any government's policy menu.

I should point out that besides complementing our local workforce to create more opportunities, foreign PMEs also help cushion the impact on the local workforce when times are bad. Because during a downturn, foreigners bear the brunt of job losses.

During Covid-19, for the 12 months to April 2021, the number of Employment Pass holders dropped by about 21,600, and S Pass holders fell by about 26,800.

Unemployment rate for local PMEs in Jun 2020, despite the Circuit Breaker, was at 2.9%. Resident unemployment rate was 4.8% in September 2020, and it fell to 3.8% in May 2021 - a reduction of one percentage point. Without the foreign buffer, when our economy ran into trouble last year, the situation would have been much worse. Singaporeans would have lost many more jobs.

While the stock of EP and S Pass holders can fluctuate, Singaporeans enjoy greater security of employment, with help from measures like the Jobs Support Scheme. We have the National Jobs Council that launched many initiatives to help place locals into jobs.

So when Mr Leong Mun Wai said that we need to recoup a few tens of thousands of jobs from foreign work pass holders, he may not know that we have already done so. This always happens in a downturn.

The second challenge is the profile of the foreign PMEs. They are concentrated in certain sectors, and from certain countries of origin. Indeed, as our digital economy and our needs for tech talent grew, more PMEs from India came into Singapore, through our EP framework.

And when the concentration happens in areas like Changi Business Park, some may feel that we have lost a part of Singapore. Members of the House have raised this concern. We are taking this seriously and studying what we can do to lessen the problem.

I hasten to add that dealing with excessive concentration is not a straight-forward matter of chopping up the operations of a company here. We don't want to unintentionally cause the whole investment to move elsewhere. This will hurt even more Singaporeans. This has to be part of the careful balancing act I talked about earlier.

Third, at the company level, there may be unfair hiring practices, with department heads preferring to hire foreign PMEs, or even foreign PMEs from certain countries.

This is not right. Whatever system we set up, there will be some abuses. We must tackle the abuses when they occur as swiftly as possible, while continuing to adopt sensible economic policies that are good for Singapore and Singaporeans.

MOM takes a strong stance against such discriminatory practices and together with our tripartite partners, has been actively enforcing against errant employers. The Minister for Manpower will speak further on this.

I have explained the underlying reasons for the difficulties faced by our PMEs, so that we know what it means for us in terms of public policy choices, and how we can most effectively address the challenges. If we mistakenly blame FTAs and Ceca for these problems, our responses would be disastrously wrong and we would make our problems worse.


Be careful of the rise of xenophobia and nativist politics

Mr Speaker Sir, as I explained earlier, our FTA strategy has benefited Singaporeans and Singapore. So it is disappointing that FTAs are now a target of political attack. But perhaps I should not be surprised, as this has happened in many countries.

Such debate goes beyond FTAs. The question of global versus local has emerged as the new dominant political divide in democracies around the world.

In the US, labour unions and various industry lobbies are against free trade. The Trump Administration pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership within a week of taking office, even though the US was the architect of the agreement.

In the UK, Brexit was the culmination of a bitter political contest between those who want to be part of the European Union, and those who wanted out.

In France, the next Presidential election is likely to be a face-off between the incumbent President and the far-right nationalist candidate.

These political divides arose because of globalisation. While globalisation presents opportunities and creates jobs, it also brings about greater competition, the displacement of industries and jobs, and inflow of immigrants.

These consequences go beyond the economic sphere, and often strike at the heart of a nation and a community's sense of identity and security. That is the most unsettling change, causing people to become unsure if they are on the whole better off with globalisation.

Such concerns are genuine, and deserve serious and proper attention. We are a small country, and an unrestricted flow of workers from a large country can change the lived experience of Singaporeans, alter the character of our society, and even overwhelm us. But we need to be careful that these valid concerns are not exploited by political groups, and intentionally or not, end up sowing division, stoking fear, and fanning hatred.

As representatives of the people, we all have a responsibility to realise that our words and deeds can shape public opinion and the direction of our political discourse.

That is why when Mr Leong Mun Wai said in this House some months ago that the naturalised Singaporean CEO of DBS was not 'home grown', and deemed this a failure, Minister Iswaran responded with a word of caution. I agree with Minister Iswaran, and feel that Members of the House should be very careful about what we say on such matters, if we are not to give credence to very negative, even ugly, minority views.

That is also why we appreciate the Leader of the Opposition standing up to say that when it comes to racism and xenophobia, we all have to reject them and there can be no 'ifs and buts' about it.


Conclusion

Mr Speaker Sir, before I conclude, let me remind Members that the House has invoked Standing Order 44, so that the members from the PSP can give a full response after Dr Tan See Leng's speech. Even if Mr Leong Mun Wai and Ms Hazel Poa choose not to, I will be happy to clarify questions from members.

The PAP always fights for the welfare of Singaporeans. We have done so for more than 60 years now - kept our country safe, brought jobs to Singaporeans, built up our infrastructure, and taken care of the welfare of all.

As a city state connected to the world, we want to welcome diverse talent from all over the world.

When they are here, we invite them to fit into our society, respect our social habits and norms, appreciate our multi-cultural society. Join us at the hawker centres, try some durians and try some sambal belacan, speak a few phrases of Singlish.

When Singaporeans go overseas to live and work - and about 200,000 of us do - we expect the same of ourselves, and hope that we receive hospitable welcomes from our foreign hosts too.

I decided to make this statement today, so that we can approach the debate on the PSP's subsequent motion with the right perspective and motivation. The House should continue to debate robustly the pros and cons of various policies to help Singapore navigate the balance between global and local.

But we must not inadvertently shake the bedrock that has enabled Singapore to succeed. We cannot survive - we cannot earn a living - without being connected to the world, and without being welcoming to the world, without the House unanimously supporting the FTA strategy.

We must always be a big-hearted people, even while we grapple with the significant challenges of globalisation to forge the best path forward for Singapore.













Related







No comments:

Post a Comment