Wednesday, 15 September 2021

Parliament: Debate over Singapore's foreign talent policy, CECA and securing Singaporeans’ jobs and livelihoods

Robust debate in Parliament over foreign competition in job market
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 15 Sep 2021

Singapore's answer to foreign competition in the local job market cannot be to shut its doors and turn away investors. Instead, the country has to - and will - invest in its people, working to mitigate the downsides of an open economy and striving for growth that will benefit all.

This was the gist of a 10-hour parliamentary debate that ended past midnight, during which four political office-holders rebutted the Progress Singapore Party's (PSP's) assertion that the Government's foreign talent policy has cost citizens jobs.

Finance Minister Lawrence Wong acknowledged that an open economy has its downsides, even though the vast majority benefit.

"In the end, the government has the responsibility to govern and to make policy decisions in the best interest of all Singaporeans," he said. "Some decisions will not be so popular, even though we are convinced they are necessary, and must proceed for the good of all."

They were debating the issue of jobs and foreign talent, which PSP Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai and Mr Wong had filed motions on. The minister said he asked to speak as Mr Leong's proposed topic falsely attributed the challenges Singapore faces to free trade agreements (FTAs) and foreigners.

This was why the Government had sought "to explain and reiterate our position on this important matter," he added. "It is important Singaporeans - and the world - understand where we stand."

The minister sharply criticised the racist and xenophobic undertones in the PSP's rhetoric on foreign talent - an allegation the opposition party has repeatedly denied. "Look - if it looks like a duck, if it walks like a duck, if it quacks like a duck, it is a duck," Mr Wong said, adding that such irresponsible politics will divide society and spell disaster for Singapore.

Mr Leong had urged the Government to take "urgent and concrete" action to restore balance in the job market - starting by raising qualifying salaries for work pass holders and imposing a monthly levy on Employment Pass (EP) holders.

A lengthy exchange ensued between Mr Leong and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam, who pressed Mr Leong for his position on various issues, including his support for FTAs such as the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca) with India.

He also sought to get Mr Leong to admit that other Singaporeans, like some PSP members, might see his views as racist.

The PSP maintains that foreign PMETs have displaced local ones, he said. But in fact, the number of local PMETs went up by 300,000 over the past decade, while the number of EP and S-Pass holders increased by 110,000.

This trend held true even in sectors that typically hire more EP holders, such as finance, infocomm and professional services. The number of local PMETs in these sectors went up by nearly 155,000 in the past 10 years, compared to 40,000 more EP and S-Pass holders.

Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and National Development Sim Ann reiterated that the Government has no "special affinity" for workers from any country - including India - and works to serve Singaporeans' interests.

A total of 18 other MPs spoke on the topic, including Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh, who set out the Workers' Party (WP) stance. Such agreements have created jobs and opportunities for both Singaporeans and foreigners, he said. But the party believes it is fair to ask if work passes have been regulated in the best way, and does not assume that good jobs are automatically created as a result of Singapore's pro-trade policies.

Mr Singh added: "We abhor and denounce the racism and xenophobia that has become a part of the public narrative in some quarters. This can never be right, and must also be rejected and condemned."

Parliament voted to pass the ruling party's motion - with the WP registering its dissent - and unanimously rejected the PSP motion.

7 highlights from parliamentary debate on jobs and livelihoods, Singapore's foreign talent policy
By Choo Yun Ting, The Straits Times, 14 Sep 2021

MPs from both sides of the House spoke during a debate on two motions in Parliament on Tuesday (Sept 14).

Finance Minister Lawrence Wong had tabled a motion in response to a separate motion filed by Progress Singapore Party (PSP) Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai, to set out the Government's position on Singaporeans' jobs and livelihoods.

Mr Wong speech focused on how the Government has always been about securing jobs and better lives for Singaporeans, and stressed the importance of staying connected to the world while managing the downsides of an open economy.

Mr Leong's motion was centred on Singapore's foreign talent policy. He contended that the Government had allowed in large numbers of foreign workers at the expense of Singaporeans’ livelihoods, and called on it to “restore some balance” to the job market such as by doubling the qualifying salaries for work pass holders.

Here are the highlights from the debate:

1. Policies have led to more good jobs, better living standards for Singaporeans

The data is clear that Singapore's economic policies have helped to raise living standards and create many more good jobs for Singaporeans, said Mr Wong.

The PSP's thinking that reducing the number of foreigners here will allow Singaporeans to automatically fill those jobs is "fatally flawed", and locals will pay the price if overly restrictive policies lead to companies relocating elsewhere, he added.

In his speech, Mr Wong censured the PSP for the way in which it has framed its criticism of the Government's foreign talent policy.

"Let me be clear: We are bringing in investments and growing the economy, not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end," he said.

"Our aim is to create good jobs and improve the lives of all Singaporeans."

The minister also pointed out that Singapore has more than 25,000 vacancies for professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs).

"With so many companies having difficulties filling these vacancies, how would we find people with the relevant skill sets to take on the additional 'tens of thousands' of jobs that Mr Leong thinks can be created by getting rid of the foreigners?" he asked.

2. Call for higher EP, S Pass qualifying salaries; 'nationality caps'

The PSP recommended higher qualifying salaries for foreign professionals seeking work in Singapore as well as a nationality cap on companies' staffing numbers.

Mr Leong said that increasing the qualifying salaries for Employment Passes (EPs) and S Passes should be done in stages and over the next three years.

He also recommended a cap on workers of a single nationality, based on the proportion of a company's staff strength in each business function.

"In the long term, we aim for a 10 per cent single nationality cap to ensure diversity in our workforce, and seek talent from different parts of the world, instead of predominantly from one country or region. We also aim for a 25 per cent to 30 per cent combined PMET cap on work pass holders and PRs (permanent residents) in the long run," he said.

3. On whether Mr Leong's statements have racial undertones

Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said that Mr Leong, since entering Parliament last year, had repeatedly commented on the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca) and that his comments carried "clear racial undertones".

The minister added: "People in your party think your statements are racist. Would you accept? I don't expect that you will accept that you are racist, but would you accept that people in your party think that your statements are racist, and have said so? It's a simple factual statement. May I seek that clarification from Mr Leong, Mr Speaker?"

In response, Mr Leong said while "one or two party members" have said that his comments in Parliament are racist, it does not mean that he is a racist.

He remarked that PSP is an "open party" which allows its members to express their views, and there can be a minority of members who have different opinions.

"We have told them that they cannot make your views that public, but some of them chose to do that. We won't stop, we can't stop them because we are a liberal party. We are not a party who will prevent all our members from having their own opinions," he said.

4. On the legal provisions in CECA

Mr Shanmugam asked Mr Leong on several occasions to clarify his stance on the provisions of Ceca, probing him for an agreement that there is nothing in the free trade agreement (FTA) that provides for free movement of Indians into Singapore.

Replying, the PSP NCMP said that his motion referred to the economic effects of the provisions of Ceca, to which Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin asked him to clarify his views on the provisions.

Said Mr Tan: "The legal documents dictate how these interactions take place with the other countries, so unless you're doubting the validity of the agreement and you're doubting the way in which it's implemented, I think we are seeking a view on that. If you could enlighten us, please?"

Asked further if he agreed with Mr Shanmugam on the terms of the FTA between Singapore and India, Mr Leong said: "No, as I said, I'm not arguing about a legal document, I'm arguing about there's a legal document, but the way you implement the legal document and the economic effect can be different…"

After some further back-and-forth on the Ceca provisions, Mr Tan suggested that the discussion move on: "I don't think we're going to get any further clarity in this. We just have to agree to disagree. We've registered both points."

5. On stoking xenophobia

Mr Shanmugam brought up how Mr Leong, in his maiden speech in Parliament last year, had professed his "deep disappointment" that DBS Bank was still without a home-grown chief executive, and asked if the PSP NCMP still believes that naturalised Singapore citizens should not hold top positions.

To this, Mr Leong said he has always had the stance of not differentiating between naturalised and home-grown Singaporeans.

He rejected Mr Shanmugam's point that the natural interpretation of his statement last year was that he was disappointed that DBS's CEO was Mr Piyush Gupta, a naturalised Singaporean, rather than a home-grown Singaporean.

The minister said it was "quite clear" that what Mr Leong and the PSP were doing in making that statement: "It's race baiting and nationality baiting, without beating about the bush. And that's what the words of this motion suggest."

Mr Leong strongly objected to this point on PSP's position on race, saying: "The reason why we raised this motion has nothing to do with race or xenophobia."

6. Call for time-limited work passes, tracking of underemployment

Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) made several suggestions to repair the local-foreigner divide, including fixed-term employment passes tied to skills transfers.

Restating a proposal raised by Workers' Party (WP) MP Leon Perera (Aljunied GRC) in March, Mr Singh said that a fixed-term employment pass would be one that would be renewed only if the applicant company can prove that under the previous EP, Singaporean workers in the company or in the industry benefited from skills upgrading.

The WP chief also called for the Government to track and solve underemployment, noting how fellow WP MP Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) had spoken about the issue in Parliament previously.

The result of the Government's work with the International Labour Organisation to develop suitable methodologies on tracking underemployment has yet to be heard by the House, Mr Singh said, adding that the WP suggests there is an urgent need to publicly track underemployment among Singaporeans and to publish such findings.

He also suggested the creation of a permanent Parliament Standing Select Committee dedicated to the issue of jobs and foreign employment, which would provide a high level of accountability on the policymakers' part.

7. Proactive approach to disclosure, enable conversations on the ground

Mr Singh suggested amendments to Mr Wong's motion, which would reinforce the importance of correcting course and adapting policies to address Singaporeans' anxieties.

At the same time, he urged the Government to proactively release information on jobs and employment prospects of Singaporeans, as well as the costs and benefits of FTAs, with a view to formulate better policies to ensure Singaporeans secure good jobs in Singapore and are not disadvantaged when seeking employment.

"A proactive approach to disclosure would operate to take the sting out of misinformation campaigns that ride on jobs and unemployment insecurity and encourage a fact-based conversation amongst our people," Mr Singh said.

WP MP He Ting Ru (Sengkang GRC) proposed to amend the motion filed by PSP MPs, pointing out that immigration and foreign manpower have been heated issues in Singapore for many years and that "Ceca and FTAs are but the latest iterations of the debate".

"We must say no to a continued top-down approach to immigration where we are told what is good for us," she said, pointing out the danger is that over time, resentment continues to build.

"I hope the Government will take this as an opportunity to re-think the way these topics have been managed and discussed so far, and instead lean more into enabling conversations on the ground to change hearts and minds, rather than continue to decide what is best for Singaporeans and dictate our story for us," Ms He said.

Open economy has created more good jobs for Singaporeans, PSP's views on foreigners 'fatally flawed': Lawrence Wong
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 14 Sep 2021

Singapore could lose good investments and jobs if it imposes tighter restrictions on global companies' ability to employ the talent they need, said Finance Minister Lawrence Wong on Tuesday (Sept 14).

He called out the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) for its "fatally flawed" thinking that reducing the number of foreigners here will allow Singaporeans to automatically fill those jobs, and said locals will ultimately pay the price if overly restrictive policies lead to companies relocating elsewhere.

The data and evidence are clear, he said - that Singapore's economic policies have helped to raise living standards across the board and create many more good jobs for Singaporeans.

Mr Wong had tabled a motion in response to a separate motion filed by PSP Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai, to categorically set out the Government's position on jobs, why Singapore has to remain open and connected to the world, and how it is managing foreign worker numbers.

"If we were to take a politically craven approach and impose many stringent conditions on their ability to operate here, we will lose out on many good investments," he told Parliament.

In a strongly worded speech, the minister censured the PSP for the way in which it has framed its criticism of the Government's foreign talent policy.

The opposition party has repeatedly highlighted the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement with India (Ceca) as an example of how Singaporeans have lost out to foreigners, although that debate has been marred by an undercurrent of racism and xenophobia.

"Let me be clear: We are bringing in investments and growing the economy, not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end," Mr Wong said. "Our aim is to create good jobs and improve the lives of all Singaporeans."

International companies will hire many Singaporeans but there are not enough Singaporeans to fill all the jobs available, he said.

Most firms also want to have a diverse workforce, bringing together the best team to oversee regional and global operations.

Mr Wong noted that from 2010 to 2019, median income in real terms grew by 3.2 per cent yearly for Singapore residents.

Between 2010 and last year, local PMET employment grew by about 300,000. In contrast, the number of Employment Pass and S-Pass holders went up by around 110,000 in that time period.

But the PSP wants to sweep these achievements aside, Mr Wong said.

He also made the point that Singapore already has more than 25,000 vacancies for PMETs.

"With so many companies having difficulties filling these vacancies, how would we find people with the relevant skill sets to take on the additional 'tens of thousands' of jobs that Mr Leong thinks can be created by getting rid of the foreigners?" he asked.

At present, foreign PMETs account for about 20 per cent of the PMET workforce.

Those who wish to see fewer foreign work pass holders may be holding to "a sense of nostalgia" about how things were in the past, when Singapore was less developed as a hub economy, Mr Wong added.

In the 1990s, for instance, foreign PMETs accounted for around 10 per cent of the PMET workforce - although living standards were also lower.

Singapore's per capita gross domestic product is now more than $80,000, compared with around $35,000 in 1995. Median salaries of residents were less than $2,000 then, but now stand at around $4,500.

"Is that what we want? Stagnate in the 1990s, while the rest of the world progresses around us?" Mr Wong asked, making reference to a speech made by founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, one month after Singapore gained independence in 1965.

At the time, Mr Lee had told his audience: "Ten years from now, this will be a metropolis. Never fear."

"What do Mr Leong and the PSP promise?" Mr Wong said. "Don't worry, 10 years from now, we will go back 30 years?"

No business hub can avoid global competition, he added. But by combining and complementing local and foreign professionals, the country can attract more investments and grow the pie for Singaporeans.

An open economy has its downsides, the minister acknowledged. But rather than impeding progress by protecting every job - including those that have become obsolete - Singapore has to shift its focus to protecting every worker.

This means making sure foreign work pass holders are of the "right calibre", enforcing fair employment practices at the workplace and helping local workers who have been displaced.

He urged the PSP to stop making "misleading and false" claims and cease its anti-foreigner stance, which has raised concerns among the business community as well as ordinary Singaporeans.

"If you are truly concerned about the well-being of our fellow Singaporeans and the future of this country, please have a care about how you go about dealing with these issues," he said.

"Please reflect on how your rhetoric can deepen fault lines - not just between locals and foreigners, but even between Singaporeans of different races."

Mr Wong quoted an e-mail sent to the Government by an Indian Singaporean, who was concerned that potential employers would think he was a foreigner from India, and thus pass over his job applications.

"I decided to indicate on the header of my resume on each page 'Singapore Citizen' but does this help? I don't think so," the man wrote.

Mr Wong wrapped up his speech by reiterating that the People's Action Party Government will continue to place Singaporeans' best interests at the heart of its work.

It will continue to deliberate difficult issues carefully, and be upfront with Singaporeans about the challenges and trade-offs, he said.

"The challenges before us are complex. There are no silver bullets or instant solutions," he added.

"It would have been easy for us to make cosmetic changes, for symbolic effect or political gestures. But that's not the way we operate."

This is how the country has overcome crises in the past, Mr Wong said.

"During bad times, we do not quarrel and fight over a shrinking pie. Instead, we rally as a team to solve our problems, and grow the pie for all to benefit."

Singapore will continue to address downsides of open economy, help displaced workers: Lawrence Wong
By Hariz Baharudin, The Straits Times, 14 Sep 2021

Singapore will continue to address the downsides of an open economy as it strives to stay open to the world and bring benefits to its people, said Finance Minister Lawrence Wong on Tuesday (Sept 14).

He acknowledged in Parliament that globalisation is not an "unmitigated good", and that while being a hub economy brings benefits to Singapore, it also comes with certain costs, including how some people will be displaced from their jobs.

But Mr Wong said that the right approach for the country is not to impede progress by holding onto every job even as it becomes obsolete, but to instead work hard to protect every worker and help those who are displaced.

"In this way, we can grow the economic pie for everyone, and yet ensure that the cost of globalisation and openness does not fall unfairly on the displaced workers," he said.

This has been the approach that the People's Action Party (PAP) and the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) have taken.

Mr Wong said that over the past decade, Singapore has had retrenchments of around 60,000 resident professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) but has seen a much bigger increase of around 300,000 in PMET employment for residents.

Mr Wong added: "On an overall basis, the pluses of what we've been able to achieve far outweigh the negatives."

During a speech he gave to move one of two motions on jobs and Singapore's foreign talent policy on Tuesday, the minister outlined three ways that the Republic deals with the downsides of staying open.

First, the Government continually updates its manpower policies and rules to manage the flow of work pass holders, and to ensure that they are of the right calibre.

Singapore reviews and updates the criteria for work pass holders here over time, Mr Wong said, noting in his speech that last year, the qualifying salary for the Employment Pass was raised twice.

Second, the country upholds fair employment practices and takes a strong stance against discrimination at the workplace.

Mr Wong noted that some Singaporeans have experienced this, and the Government recognises their pain and frustrations.

He stressed that when agencies pick up problematic indicators in a firm, it is placed on a watch list for closer scrutiny, and the issues it has are dealt with quietly but effectively.

The minister also pointed out that Singapore will enshrine into law current workplace anti-discrimination guidelines, as announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during last month's National Day Rally.

Calling this a major philosophical shift, Mr Wong said the Government had deliberated over this for some time and had hesitated in the past due to concerns that it would lead to a more litigious and confrontational process, and that it could sour workplace relations.

"But after hearing from the labour movement and NTUC MPs, and consulting the tripartite partners, we decided we could manage these concerns, and that it was time to change," said Mr Wong.

He added that while the majority of companies do behave responsibly, unfair practices occur from time to time. No effort will be spared in investigating every case, and there will be consequences for those guilty of such offences.

Third, Singapore deals with the downsides of staying open by doing everything it can to help those who are displaced.

Mr Wong noted that for every person who loses his job, the unemployment rate is 100 per cent, and that such a loss is disorienting and disabling.

It is for these reasons that Singapore has been investing heavily in SkillsFuture, Singapore's national lifelong learning movement, to help its citizens stay employable.

The Government is paying special attention to mid-career PMETs, to equip them with relevant skills and to find new jobs, said Mr Wong.

Covid-19 has given Singapore greater impetus to accelerate the work to help these displaced workers.

Mr Wong said that efforts are under way to raise productivity and wages across all sectors through industry transformation efforts, as well as to improve employment and training support, especially for mid-career and mature workers, to move into new areas.

The Government is doing all it can to help displaced workers get back into jobs to minimise their time being unemployed and to find a job that matches their skills and experience, as well as to provide training for skills needed for a new role.

As the economy recovers from being hit by Covid-19, Mr Wong said that some of the Government's current schemes, which are temporary incentives for jobs, will be tapered down - but he assured that Singapore is not going back to how it was pre-Covid-19.

A permanent shift in support levels with more help for workers here can be expected, especially as the nation enters a period of greater volatility and disruption, he added.

Mr Wong told the House that his ministry is working through the details of this shift, to make sure the changes that Singapore makes are financially stable.

"I promise all Singaporeans - especially those who are displaced: You will never be alone," he said.

"We will continue to invest in your capabilities and skills; help you stay competitive; and walk this journey with you through the rest of your careers."

PSP's motion shows that it is race-baiting to score political points, says Shanmugam
By Hariz Baharudin , The Straits Times, 15 Sep 2021

Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam on Tuesday (Sept 14) charged that the Progress Singapore Party (PSP), in singling out Singapore's free trade pact with India for criticism, was stirring xenophobia and using race for political gains.

He pressed Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) Leong Mun Wai on several points about the PSP's motion on foreign talent and policy during a robust hour-long exchange, including his stance on free trade agreements (FTAs) and the terms of the Singapore-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca).

Mr Shanmugam said the motion's words made it clear that Mr Leong and his party were race-baiting and nationality-baiting.

"Mr Leong's views have been so completely distorted by his lack of understanding of Ceca and his eagerness to attack Indians and Ceca. And I would say what his party and Mr Leong are doing is one of the worst types of political opportunism - using race as a bait," he said.

The motion filed by Mr Leong stated: "That this Parliament calls upon the Government to take urgent and concrete action to address the widespread anxiety among Singaporeans on jobs and livelihood caused by the foreign talent policy and the 'movement of natural persons' provisions in some free trade agreements like the Ceca."

Zooming in on the term "provisions", Mr Shanmugam repeatedly asked Mr Leong if he would accept that there is nothing in Ceca that allows for free movement of Indians into Singapore.

In response, Mr Leong sought more data on foreign nationals coming into Singapore, and insisted the party was not arguing about a legal document but the economic effects of the trade pact.

Pressed on whether he had any basis to challenge the provisions in Ceca, Mr Leong asked if he could get his fellow PSP NCMP Hazel Poa to answer those questions, and looked at his mobile phone.

In response, Mr Shanmugam said: "If he doesn't know the answer, he can say he doesn't know the answer. And I'm not sure the answer is going to be found in a phone."

Mr Leong later said he did not have a legal opinion on the provisions in Ceca.

Mr Shanmugam then concluded that despite the wording of his motion, Mr Leong had no understanding of the provisions of Ceca.

The minister also asked if Ceca had a "special place in Mr Leong's affection and mind" or if he treated it the same as other FTAs.

Mr Leong replied that he and his party wanted to obtain more data on Ceca from the Government, and pointed out that his motion had also mentioned "some free trade agreements" as well.

When asked to provide examples of other FTAs he was concerned about, Mr Leong said they included pacts with China, the United States and Australia. Mr Shanmugam said this showed that Mr Leong was equally concerned about multiple FTAs, and was not singling out Ceca.

Mr Leong had earlier confirmed that he and PSP supported Ceca and free trade agreements in general, after being pressed on this by Mr Shanmugam.

The minister also put it to Mr Leong that past statements about Ceca by him and PSP could have been interpreted as racist, noting that some of his party's own members have made the same observation.

He asked if Mr Leong would accept that such statements could be seen as racist by other Singaporeans.

Mr Leong eventually conceded that "there will be some people who would think that there is racial undertone".

Mr Shanmugam also brought up Mr Leong's remarks in Parliament last year on how he was "deeply disappointed" that DBS did not have a home-grown chief executive 22 years after former JP Morgan executive John Olds was made chief executive of the local bank.

The current DBS CEO, Mr Piyush Gupta, was born in India and became a Singaporean.

The minister stressed that it is wrong to take issue with new citizens and permanent residents from specific countries "because it is quite clear what Mr Leong and PSP were doing".

After getting Mr Leong to accept that Singapore needs some foreign professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) to drive its economy, Mr Shanmugam grilled the NCMP on the right number of these workers.

Singapore currently has about 350,000 foreign PMETs.

Mr Leong said this would depend on the Government's estimate of how many Singaporeans are being displaced.

"At this moment, I will need more data from the Government, before I can come up with an accurate number," he added.

Progress Singapore Party pitches higher minimum salaries for foreign workers and 'nationality cap'
Leong Mun Wai wants to raise EP qualifying salary to $10,000
By Justin Ong, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 14 Sep 2021

The Progress Singapore Party (PSP) on Tuesday (Sept 14) recommended higher qualifying salaries for foreign professionals seeking work in Singapore, as well as a "nationality cap" on companies' staffing numbers.

They were among measures put forth by the opposition faction during a debate in Parliament on jobs and foreign talent policies.

The debate concurrently covered two separate motions on those issues, one of which was filed by the PSP's Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) Leong Mun Wai, five months after Law and Home Affairs K. Shanmugam first challenged him to do so.

In Mr Leong's opening speech, he called for "urgent and concrete" steps to be taken to restore "balance" in the job market, starting by raising the quality of work pass holders.

He suggested increasing the qualifying salaries for Employment Passes (EPs) for foreign professionals from the current $4,500 to $10,000, and to do the same for S Passes for mid-skilled foreigners from the present $2,500 to $4,500.

This should be done in stages and over the next three years, said Mr Leong.

He also reiterated a call made in February this year for a standard monthly levy of $1,200 to be immediately imposed on all EPs to reduce what he described as "unfair wage competition".

Mr Leong said local workers are disadvantaged and observed that foreigners are not required to contribute to the Central Provident Fund (CPF) system.

A monthly levy will create a better chance for new graduates to get good jobs, and for older professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) to retain their jobs, he added.

Mr Leong then recommended a cap on workers of a single nationality, based on the proportion of a company's staff strength in each business function.

This would break up concentration and eradicate discrimination, with the NCMP arguing that Singapore's recently announced plans to introduce anti-discrimination laws in the workplace would not be effective.

"A displaced Singaporean would not be in a strong position to go through a legal or arbitration process," he said.

"In the long term, we aim for a 10 per cent single nationality cap to ensure diversity in our workforce, and seek talent from different parts of the world, instead of predominantly from one country or region. We also aim for a 25 per cent to 30 per cent combined PMET cap on work pass holders and PRs (permanent residents) in the long run."

Mr Leong said new companies could still be allowed to deviate from this cap, provided they can prove a genuine shortage of the relevant skills in Singapore and that they have concrete and committed plans for localisation, including transfer of knowledge and skills within a stipulated time.

He also asked that the number of work pass holders granted permanent resident status or citizenship each year be reduced, to be "in sync" with an overall tightening of foreign manpower policies.

Mr Leong's final recommendation was for the creation of standing select committees for every ministry, with representatives from different parties to enable more "informative exchange" on policies and to monitor the implementation of new policies.

In his 40-minute speech to open the debate on what the PSP said was "widespread anxiety among Singaporeans on jobs and livelihoods", Mr Leong devoted a significant amount of time to sharing what he said was feedback the party had gathered from the people.

He presented this through seven questions which he said would provide insight into how new policies could be crafted.

First, Mr Leong asked why Singaporeans face difficulty in finding good jobs, when "so many" work pass holders continue to take jobs in Singapore. "Are there not enough Singaporeans, or are they not given the opportunities by employers?" he said.

Second, he questioned if there are really more jobs being created for Singaporeans, given what he described as the growing issue of underemployment.

Third, Mr Leong wondered if Singapore's education system - including universities and polytechnics - are not producing the requisite skills or sufficient talent for key industries.

His fourth query posited that the average work pass holder did not necessarily possess skills that Singaporeans lack, let alone create jobs for locals.

Assuming this to be true, why do foreign professionals dominate key sectors such as finance; and are they here to complement Singaporeans or take over their roles, asked Mr Leong in his fifth question.

His sixth point focused on unfair wage competition in the form of employers being able to avoid CPF contributions for foreign workers.

Finally, Mr Leong asked why the Government continues to view discrimination as practised by a minority of employers only, despite what he said was the high concentration of EPs in certain sectors for some time.

He cited an anecdote from Mr Chee Hong Tat, Senior Minister of State for Transport and National Trades Union Congress deputy secretary-general, in July this year.

It related how a Singaporean attending a job interview at a multinational corporation was asked by the foreign human resource manager: "You wrote in your curriculum vitae that you spent two years with the SAF (Singapore Armed Forces); what is SAF?"

Mr Leong said this exemplified "all that is wrong" with Singapore's immigration and employment policies, for allowing a foreigner with little knowledge about local culture to be in a decision-making position.

"No male Singaporean job seeker should be made to go through this kind of insult again," Mr Leong declared.

Bigger rise in local PMET employment and wage growth despite foreign PMETs: Tan See Leng
By Sue-Ann Tan, The Straits Times, 14 Sep 2021

Singapore has seen an even larger increase in the employment of local professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs), even as the number of foreign PMETs has risen, said Manpower Minister Tan See Leng in Parliament on Tuesday (Sept 14).

He added that there has also been low local PMET unemployment amid an expanding number of PMET job vacancies and growth in local PMET wages.

The proportion of Singapore's workforce in PMET jobs is also among the highest in the world at almost 60 per cent, up from 30 per cent in the early 1990s.

In response to the Progress Singapore Party (PSP)'s Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai, Dr Tan said: "This is a very different picture from the dire situation that the PSP has portrayed. If you hear Mr Leong, you'd have thought that it has been midnight in Singapore for the past 30 years."

Mr Leong had filed a motion that called on the Government to take "urgent and concrete action to address the widespread anxiety among Singaporeans on jobs and livelihoods", caused by the policies that allow movement of people in some free-trade agreements.

Dr Tan said: "The PSP fixates on the increase in the number of foreign PMETs to argue that locals have been displaced and have lost out.

He added: "The way to address Singaporeans' anxieties... in a fast-changing economy is to... continue to invest heavily in developing our local workforce and ensure that foreigners complement, rather than displace, our locals."

Over the past decade, there was an increase of 110,000 Employment Pass (EP) and S Pass holders. But local PMETs increased by 300,000, he noted.

"This is the case even if we look at some of the sub-sectors that hire more EPs - finance, infocomm and professional services. Over the past decade, EP and S Pass holders in these sub-sectors increased by 40,000, but local PMETs increased by almost 155,000 - almost four times.

"This goes to show competition between locals and foreigners is not a zero-sum game," he added.

Replying to PSP's question on whether most of the local job creation went to PRs, Dr Tan said the majority of local PMEs growth over the last decade went to Singaporeans born here - with the same situation seen for PMETs.

"The PR population has also remained stable over the past decade at around half a million, so it cannot be the case that most of the employment growth went to PRs," he added.

"More fundamentally, as a society, I don't think we should be drawing lines between Singapore citizens and permanent residents.

"They contribute to our strengths as a society and our economy. Singapore is an immigrant nation and openness is one of our society's core strengths that has defined who we are."

Meanwhile, local PMET unemployment also generally remains at 3 per cent or lower outside crises, he said. The long-term unemployment rate is even lower, at below 1 per cent.

"The increase in foreign PMETs has not caused our unemployment rate to rise," Dr Tan said.

The number of PMET job vacancies has also been on an upward trend since 2010, and has been hovering around 30,000 over the past five years.

These job openings are spread across various sectors, with 4,300 unfilled PMET jobs in infocomm, 4,100 in finance, and 2,700 in professional services, for instance.

"If every additional foreigner results in one less opportunity for locals, why are there still so many unfilled vacancies? Surely these vacancies should have long been filled," Dr Tan pointed out.

Median local PMET wages have also risen, from $4,600 in 2010 to $6,300 in 2020, a total increase of 38 per cent. This translates to 21 per cent in real terms.

But Dr Tan acknowledged there is a minority of local PMETs who do not experience such positive outcomes, especially some older workers who may have lost their jobs.

"I understand the pain. But I must point out this is happening not because of increased competition from foreigners, but from deeper, structural trends," he said, adding that this was a problem from around 2015 onwards, when big data and machine learning hit the mass market.

"Companies were racing to build up digital teams. This created new roles which required new skills, while disrupting some existing roles and skills. Against this backdrop, older PMETs faced competition - not so much from foreigners, but from technology and possibly also from younger Singaporeans who had the necessary skills," Dr Tan said.

To combat this, the Government rolled out skills upgrading programmes such as SkillsFuture, while older workers also showed a willingness to embrace new roles.

Dr Tan also highlighted the experiences of self-employed people, particularly those who are doing gig work because they cannot find a permanent job.

The proportion of such workers has remained stable over the last two decades at 8 per cent to 10 per cent, although with an uptick during the pandemic.

About 1.5 per cent of the local workforce are private-hire car drivers on online matching platforms. Only about 30 per cent of these workers want to transition to regular employment based on a survey by the Ministry of Manpower, Dr Tan said.

"Ultimately, the best thing we can do for our locals is to continually invest in them to help them adapt and compete," he said.

Singapore could lose investors, firms and jobs they bring for locals if it turns inwards: Tan See Leng
By Choo Yun Ting, The Straits Times, 14 Sep 2021

There are severe consequences if Singapore, a small country devoid of natural resources, turns inwards and loses its lustre as a regional hub, causing companies to leave with the jobs they provide, said Manpower Minister Tan See Leng on Tuesday (Sept 14).

Some businesses have faced difficulties finding enough local workers with the right skills, hampering their expansion plans. As a result, some have given up and turned to hiring foreigners based in their home country, he said, noting that people can now work from anywhere.

The 10 biggest multinational corporations in Singapore alone create around 30,000 local professional, manager, executive and technician (PMET) jobs, Dr Tan noted.

"If they decide to leave, we would not be talking about recouping 'tens of thousands' of jobs, but about losing more of them instead," he said.

Dr Tan was speaking during a debate in Parliament on two motions about jobs and Singapore's foreign talent policy - one by Progress Singapore Party's (PSP) Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai and the second tabled by Finance Minister Lawrence Wong in response, to set out the Government's position on Singaporeans' jobs and livelihoods.

Mr Leong's motion called upon the Government to take urgent and concrete action to address the widespread anxiety among Singaporeans on jobs and livelihoods caused by the policies that allow movement of people under some free trade agreements (FTAs).

The minister noted that Singapore fell from first to fifth in the Institute for Management Development's (IMD) 2021 World Competitiveness Ranking, in part due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In particular, the Republic slid in its openness towards global trade and talent, in rankings regarding attitudes towards globalisation, availability of skilled labour and immigration laws preventing companies from hiring foreign labour.

"I will say this plainly to Mr Leong: What he and his party spew, attacking Ceca (India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement) and FTAs and foreigners in general, has an effect on IMD's assessment, and on business sentiments, both here and overseas," Dr Tan said.

"Investors watch and wonder how many other Singaporeans feel this way? Has Singapore become less welcoming of foreign investments, of global talent?"

He noted how the issue of foreigners and jobs has been addressed numerous times by various ministers, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during his National Day Rally speech last month.

Said Dr Tan: "Do Mr Leong and his party think Singapore will forever be attractive to investors? Is there some magic water that draws global multinationals here? All this happens spontaneously?"

Dr Tan stressed that Singapore's appeal to investors is the result of the country's efforts over the years. He added that many government agencies continue to work hard to ensure Singapore remains attractive to investors and a competitive economy, which is proven by its pipeline of investments even during the Covid-19 pandemic.

But other economies are also raising their game, he said.

"We cannot afford to take our economic competitiveness for granted. The attitudes that PSP is promoting are detrimental to how others perceive our openness. Mr Leong, please have a care."

Responding to PSP's call to set a quota for Employment Passes (EPs), Dr Tan stressed the global competition for talent and shortages in areas such as technology and digital skills. Setting quotas on EPs would send the wrong signal that Singapore is not welcoming of such talent, he said.

He cited how Singaporeans accounted for 40 per cent of Mizuho Bank's project finance team when it was set up in 2003. Now, Singaporeans make up 70 per cent of a much larger office, he said.

If Singapore had imposed quotas then, Mizuho Bank may not even have come here and the country would have lost out on jobs for Singaporeans, he added.

Dr Tan said: "(Mr Leong) had previously suggested that it is not good enough that Singaporeans make up 70 per cent of the workforce in the financial sector, but that it should be even higher, at 80 per cent or 90 per cent, in which case, how do we remain, and maintain our status as an international financial centre?"

The minister said many companies have said that they prefer to hire locals over foreigners, so long as they can find the requisite skills here.

"Even if there is initially a shortage of skills, many are willing to develop local talent to fill these roles," said Dr Tan, who is also Second Minister for Trade and Industry.

He noted how fintech company PayPal, which has sited its international headquarters in Singapore, had to rely more heavily on global talent for specialised technical skills and management roles in its earlier years. But it is taking steps to develop more local talent and has committed to hire and train 150 Singaporeans across tech and business roles over the next three years, he added.

Dr Tan acknowledged that there is always more to be done.

"We must continuously refine our policies, to secure the well-being and livelihoods of Singaporeans in a post-pandemic world, but Members of the House, we must not discard the principles that have worked well for us."

Singapore has no special affinity for workers from any country, including India: Sim Ann
By Justin Ong, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 14 Sep 2021

Singapore has no special affinity for workers from any country, including India, said Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and National Development Sim Ann on Tuesday (Sept 14).

She added that the growing presence of Indian professionals has nothing to do with the free trade pact between both countries and everything to do with economic strategy.

Speaking in Mandarin during a parliamentary debate on two motions pertaining to jobs and foreign talent policies, she said Singapore’s goal is to become a finance, and digital information and communications technology (ICT) hub to create better jobs for Singaporeans.

“India happens to be a major exporter of skilled manpower for both industries,” she said.

Ms Sim also noted that India and China produce the largest number of skilled manpower globally for the IT industry.

But the difference was in Indian ICT professionals being also well-versed in English, while China’s huge domestic market has driven demand for home-grown talent, she said.

There are thus large numbers of Indian professionals in English-speaking economies and finance or ICT hubs, such as in New York and London.

Ms Sim said that most Indian professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) entered Singapore on employment passes (EPs) applied for by employers via normal channels, with only a few entering as intra-corporate transferees under the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca) trade pact.

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

“In other words, even if Ceca did not exist, our strategy of building a finance hub and ICT hub would mean that there would likely be as many Indian PMETs here,” said Ms Sim.

Singapore has been grooming its own finance and IT talent and creating more jobs for locals in those fast-growing sectors. But restricting enterprises in their hiring of the hundreds of thousands of available Indian professionals will make them feel constrained and affect their operational plans, she said.

“Some might even consider giving up on Singapore and going elsewhere,” Ms Sim warned.

When it comes to foreign worker policy, the Government pays attention to overall numbers and whether Singaporeans are treated fairly, rather than focus on any particular nationality.

The Government will also continue to encourage foreign professionals working and living here to respect local culture and integrate well.

“Indian EP holders have to clear the same bar as those from other sources, and checks are in place for all sources to guard against letting in under-qualified EPs,” said Ms Sim. “But becoming a permanent resident or citizen is quite a different matter altogether.

“When it comes to PRs, we are careful not to cause major shifts in the ethnic proportions. And when it comes to naturalisation, we are even more careful. And this is why many well-qualified Indian nationals have yet to receive approvals for their PR or citizenship applications even after a long wait,” she added.

Earlier, Ms Sim also sought to address what she identified as three main doubts that Singaporeans might have regarding their employment and livelihoods.

One was why the Government appeared to be allowing in so many foreign PMETs to compete with locals, and whether the Government would help Singaporeans being treated unfairly by foreign colleagues.

Ms Sim said the Government remains committed to raising Singaporeans’ competitiveness through education and lifelong learning. It has also taken steps to regulate the entry of foreign PMETs and take action against unfair treatment, through minimum salary requirements, tripartite guidelines and paying close attention to claims of discrimination against Singaporean workers.

Another core concern of Singaporeans lies in whether the Government is truly aware of their struggles, particularly for middle-aged PMETs facing stiff competition and fears of being replaced.

Calling the higher unemployment rate for PMETs aged 50 and above a structural trend that can be attributed to the impact of digitalisation and changing skills requirements, Ms Sim said the solution was not to simply curb foreign manpower but to take a multi-pronged approach to help the affected group to master new skills. She again pointed to lifelong-learning initiatives such as SkillsFuture.

The third doubt of Singaporeans, said Ms Sim, is whether enterprises will really be driven away if the Government further restricts the entry of foreign manpower.

“If not for the fact that we have expended so much effort to build our economy up to a certain scale, we would not be in a position to even talk about curbing foreign manpower,” she said, noting it is hard work to attract MNCs, but only too easy to send them away.

The Government puts the interests of Singaporean workers first, but losing companies to other economies will result in the “worst possible outcome” for locals, Ms Sim cautioned.

“It is necessary to regulate foreign manpower. But we have to do so cautiously and not in abrupt ways,” she said.

She added: “Repeatedly calling for curbs on foreign manpower may win some support. But this could morph into xenophobia, and discourage companies from coming here or remaining here.

“This would affect Singapore’s competitiveness and threaten Singaporeans’ prospects.”

Ms Sim reminded the House how the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the trend of working from home, rendering it possible for anyone to be hired from anywhere.

“For companies that need foreign manpower, this brings about many advantages. It also means a new challenge for Singapore and Singaporeans,” she noted.

“We should be upholding, not undermining, our competitiveness at such a critical juncture.”

Govt must take some responsibility for misinformation about CECA, says Pritam Singh
By Tham Yuen-C, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 15 Sep 2021

In a strong criticism of what he described as a "reactive" policy towards communication, Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh on Tuesday (Sept 14) said the Government has to take some responsibility for the misinformation swirling about the India-Singapore free trade agreement.

Emotions had been simmering on the ground long before the Progress Singapore Party had latched onto the issue of the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement with India (Ceca) and foreign employment, added Mr Singh (Aljunied GRC), who is the Workers' Party chief.

The Government's refusal to release data and answer questions of national relevance earlier had allowed people's misunderstandings to fester, and falsehoods to proliferate, he said.

Calling for a change of culture in communication, Mr Singh, who has pushed for freedom of information laws in the past, urged the Government to release more information to better inform public debate on the issue.

"The Government needs to reflect on its own omissions and resistance when it comes to providing data and information, and how it ought to take some responsibility for the groundswell of misinformation about Ceca," he said.

Mr Singh was speaking during the debate on two motions surrounding Singapore professionals, managers, executives and technicians and the competition they face from foreigners.

One was filed by PSP Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai, and the other by Finance Minister Lawrence Wong.

In a 30-minute speech, Mr Singh set out his party's stand on FTAs and Ceca.

It is undeniable that FTAs have encouraged investment and created jobs and opportunities for both Singaporeans and foreigners, he said.

He also noted that there have been some elements here and abroad that have used Ceca as a dog-whistle, masquerading racism for genuine economic concerns.

The WP abhors and denounces racism and xenophobia, he stressed.

But Mr Singh said it was fair to ask if the Ministry of Manpower had regulated work passes in the best way possible, adding that the WP does not take it as a given that Singapore's pro-trade policies will guarantee good jobs for all Singaporeans.

In fact, some groups have ended up worse off, he said, pointing to the sandwiched class, workers who lack skills and lower income Singaporeans.

For these groups, there was a perception that they playing field is uneven, and some have directed their anger at foreigners of Indian ethnicity who have become more visible and taken up well-paying jobs here, he said.

"Ordinary Singaporeans do not delve into the intricacies of free trade agreements. Instead, they look around and come to conclusions based on what they perceive and experience," added Mr Singh.

"If Singaporeans have not for years been seeing foreigners occupying well-paying jobs while qualified Singaporeans are unemployed or under-employed, we would not be talking about this today."

Mr Singh noted that this influx of foreign workers and permanent residents from the mid 2000s had bothered former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, who had stepped down as Prime Minister by then.

In the second volume of Mr Goh's biography, Standing Tall, he had said that he was "surprised and annoyed" and had told Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong so.

Citing this, Mr Singh said: "If a former prime minister whose job was not directly threatened or been taken away by a foreigner can say he was 'surprised and annoyed', how much more so for a Singaporean who has experienced such fear of, or even actual loss of their livelihood?"

He warned that these feelings of insecurity and dislocation can shake Singapore's national cohesion.

Giving suggestions on how to address these sentiments, Mr Singh said the Government would have to communicate more and much better on foreign employment.

He noted that WP MP Leon Perera had asked in 2016 about the number of intra-corporate transferees - foreign employees brought in from the overseas offices of multinational corporations - allowed into Singapore through Ceca.

But the Government had "simply refused to answer a question of national relevance for which data was readily available".

"Is this acceptable? Can Singaporeans be blamed for assuming that the numbers must have been so huge that the Government saw fit not to reveal them"? he said.

He added that the release of the figure earlier this year, during a Parliamentary debate on FTAs and Ceca, had achieved the opposite effect.

The figure of 500 given was for 2020, after the onset of Covid-19, and it begs the question of what the figures for the earlier years were, he said urging the Government to make release them.

While more information has been given in the course of addressing the issue in the past months, "the Government's release of information on such matters would likely continue to be reactive and when it suits the Government, rather than proactive and when it suits the people"," Mr Singh added.

He warned that this could leave the door open for external parties to exploit the foreigner-local issue to compromise and destroy Singapore's psychological defences, particularly in the face of the ongoing cold war between the United States and China.

"Particularly for an issue as sensitive as this, the default position of the Government should be to release more information and explain the situation."

He also made four other suggestions, including: tracking the extent of skills transfer from foreigners to locals and reporting it as a key performance indicator for each sector; introducing fixed term employment passes that can only be renewed if a company can prove that its Singaporean workers have benefited from skills upgrading; tracking skills-related underemployment; and setting up a permanent Parliamentary Standing Select Committee dedicated to scrutinising the issue of jobs and foreign employment.

Other WP MPs weigh in

Speaking after him, Ms He Ting Ru (Sengkang GRC) urged the Government to take the opportunity to re-think the way it manages and discusses the local-foreigner issue.

She noted that countries around the world are grappling with immigration and its impact on the economy and society with nativist politics on the rise.

"Too easily have immigration and migrants become convenient bogeymen, just like Ceca and our FTAs appear to have done, often against all data that suggest otherwise," she said.

She cautioned against taking a polarising approach that dismisses legitimate concerns as "xenophobia" and "racism", and decries support for greater international movement of labour as "sell-outs".

To bridge the gap between locals and foreigners, it is not just Singaporeans who have to adapt to having foreigners in their midst, but foreigners must also play their part in integrating into the communities they live in, said Ms He.

She questioned the People's Association's initiatives in this regard, and said that the discontent exhibited by some locals suggest that the PA will have to redouble its efforts.

Mr Perera, meanwhile, questioned if the assumptions underlying some of Singapore's policies should be relooked.

For instance, the belief that Singaporeans will be absolutely better off if companies are attracted to set up shop here and allowed to bring in foreigners to fill the cutting-edge jobs.

He noted that the Government has often said that this will lead to good jobs being created for Singaporeans, but noted that a large population of foreigners places burdens on scarce resources of land and other areas like healthcare capacity.

It also runs the risk of entrenching work cultures that disadvantage Singaporeans in the longer-term.

Mr Gerald Giam (Aljunied GRC), a founder and director of a local IT solutions and consulting company, said while many good jobs had been created in the infocommunications and technology sector, the admission of many entry-level foreign ICT professionals over the past 20 years and the commoditisation of skills like computer programming has put downward pressure on wages.

Coupled with the perception of crony hiring and discrimination against locals, this had made many Singaporeans stay away from the ICT industry in favour of other sectors, leading to a dearth of local talent in this industry, he added.

He also said that Singapore should have started a bigger push to encourage more students to study IT two decades ago and urged the Government to train ahead of demand for future ICT jobs.

WP MP Jamus Lim (Sengkang GRC), meanwhile, noted that while FTAs were generally beneficial, they should be reviewed from time to time to evaluate if such agreement shave been detrimental to the job prospects of local PMETs.

He also called on the Government to institute a freedom of information initiative that will guarantee the full release of accurate and complete trade, production, and labour market data, pertaining to the study of Singapore's FTAs.

Amending of motions

Mr Singh proposed that Mr Wong's motion be amended to reinforce the importance of "correcting course and adjusting or changing policies going forward" to address Singaporeans' anxieties.

Among the proposals were for a new clause to be added calling on the Government to proactively release information on jobs and employment prospects of Singaporeans.

Ms He, meanwhile, proposed amendments to Mr Leong's motion, but this was disallowed by Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin, who deemed that the amendments would change the meaning of the motion.

The changes proposed by Mr Singh did not go through in the end, with the majority of MPs voting against it.

The WP MPs present eventually voted against both Mr Wong's and Mr Leong's motions.

Talk about opportunities in debate on jobs and foreigners, but do it responsibly
By Grace Ho, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 15 Sep 2021

Less than an hour into the debate on the motions on jobs and foreign talent on Tuesday (Sept 14), I thought: What a long night this is going to be.

Much of it was due to the protracted exchanges between Progress Singapore Party Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai and members of the House. And indeed, the debate went on past midnight.

Mr Leong insisted his party's motion did not single out the Singapore-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca), and that there were no racial undertones to the PSP's approach.

This is disingenuous.

Or, as Finance Minister Lawrence Wong put it: "If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it is a duck".

Why then did Mr Leong refer to Ceca on multiple occasions and not, say, Singapore's free trade agreements (FTAs) with Australia, the US or China, each of which shares similar clauses?

Mr Leong mentioned these other trade pacts only after much wrangling by Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam.

Mr Leong said the PSP is "pro-free trade, but not free-for-all trade".

But since when has Singapore, or any country for that matter, allowed free-for-all trade?

Trade negotiators here do engage government agencies and businesses when drafting FTAs, and fight hard to maintain Singapore's "red lines" or non-negotiables.

For over an hour early in the debate, Mr Shanmugam engaged Mr Leong on whether the PSP supports FTAs, and agrees that nothing in Ceca allows the unfettered movement of foreign PMETs (professionals, managers, executives and technicians); and whether he still believes that naturalised Singaporeans such as DBS chief Piyush Gupta should not hold top posts here, among other issues.

His responses swung between certainty and "I don't have a view yet".

Manpower Minister Tan See Leng said it is not just the PSP that speaks to or for Singaporeans, and hears their concerns.

Indeed, Mr Wong acknowledged Singaporeans' lived experiences. He said that even if large numbers of foreigners were made to leave - as the PSP wants - locals would still be displaced due to larger forces at play, such as technology and the changing nature of work.

Both ministers also noted that the Government took a huge philosophical and practical leap to enshrine the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices guidelines into law.

But Mr Leong shrugged this off. It is not enough, he said, because vulnerable Singaporeans may not wish to go through lengthy arbitration or legal action.

What then is enough? Or is it politically expedient to portray Singaporeans as being in a perpetual state of massive displacement?

There is no doubt Mr Leong has conviction and empathy for the residents he seeks to serve. But businesses can fold if the increase in qualifying salaries for Employment Pass and S Pass holders is not managed carefully - never mind the whopping jump to $10,000 for EPs that he proposed, or the monthly levy of $1,200 on all EP holders that he would like to be introduced immediately.

To cite an example used by Dr Tan: How realistic is it for a foreign bank here with specialist expertise, such as in infrastructure financing, to accept an upfront 10 per cent cap on a single nationality? A hard cap could make conditions so hostile that few firms would consider setting up shop here.

This is not to say the authorities cannot aim to do better. The anxiety and mistrust many middle-aged Singaporeans feel today are a legacy of policies in the mid-2000s, when there was a spike in the foreign workforce, with its attendant strains on transport infrastructure and housing.

Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh proposed five steps to repair the local-foreign divide: Policies and procedures to more effectively promote and track skills transfers from foreigners to Singaporeans; fixed-term employment passes tied to skills transfers; tackle underemployment; set up a Parliamentary Standing Select Committee to oversee jobs and foreign employment; and more and better communication by the Government on jobs and foreign employment.

Dr Tan said the solutions are not so straightforward.

A time-limited EP is effectively not that different from today's work passes, which are not issued indefinitely. At the point of renewal, employers must still meet prevailing criteria. Perhaps the criteria can be fine-tuned over time, as they have been in the past.

The process of skills transfer is also rarely linear or one-to-one, and it may not be feasible to insist that employers let go of experienced work pass holders once their fixed term is up.

As for underemployment, visible underemployment can be measured in terms of hours of work. But invisible underemployment, such as the extent to which education or skills are underutilised or mismatched, is much harder to quantify and standardise.

On releasing more data, Mr Wong said there is no shortage of data, but suggested that a more nuanced approach might be possible. There are risks of revealing details of Singapore's foreign labour dependence, for instance, which other players could then exploit.

If there is one cautionary point to take away from yesterday's marathon debate, it is that companies will have no difficulty moving elsewhere if Singapore's policies become overly restrictive. The irony is that the slowdown that would inevitably ensue will leave the privileged among the population standing, but flatten many ordinary Singaporeans.

Mr Wong described this as "cutting off one's nose to spite one's face". He said: "If we were to take a politically craven approach and impose many stringent conditions on their ability to operate here... we would have fewer foreigners for sure. But many Singaporeans will also be deprived of good jobs and career opportunities."

In Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's 1950 film Rashomon, a murder is described in four contradictory ways by four witnesses. This is the "Rashomon effect" - even when things become clearer in hindsight, there is always room for debate and subjective interpretation.

Both sides of the House hold different beliefs on certain issues; they speak to the insecurities of Singaporeans in their own ways. Some articulate it more responsibly than others.

But the country has shown that amid a pandemic, it can evolve its definition of success and what it means to be Singaporean - from clamping down on workplace discrimination and shoring up the pay of lower-wage workers, to ensuring more places for children whose parents have no alumni connections.

Empathy and sincerity are important, but so is a clear-eyed understanding of the constraints Singapore has to navigate. No policy is perfect. Singapore may never fully get there, but steps are being taken to refresh the social compact and build a fairer and more inclusive society. And that is a goal worth fighting for.


3 challenges for Singapore to tackle: Low Wages, Foreigners and Race & Religion

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