The Minister for Law and Home Affairs, K Shanmugam, issued a challenge to Leong Mun Wai to file a motion for debating the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) in Parliament.
Leong, a Non-Constituency Member of Parliament from the Progress Singapore Party (PSP), has accepted the challenge, saying that the issue will be picked up at "an appropriate time in the future."
CECA is not an excuse for racist attacks
The challenge was laid down by Shanmugam on May 11 in Parliament, while addressing an incident in which a 55-year-old Indian woman was subjected to an allegedly racist attack by a 30-year-old man.
In emphasising the need to condemn such behaviour, he added that there were "parties" which were deliberately stoking fears, and encouraging racism and xenophobia, over concerns of foreigners taking over the jobs of Singaporeans. Shanmugam drew a comparison to populist movements in other countries, linking economic concerns to immigrants and exploiting fear for political profit.
"And in Singapore, we have avoided the worst of such populism, but people are concerned for their jobs, and naturally so. And among Singaporeans, legitimate concerns about foreigners taking over our jobs. And the concern is fair and the government's duty is to protect Singaporean jobs."
Shanmugam said that in cases where unacceptable practices are found, such as employment that favours foreigners and discriminates against locals, the Ministry of Manpower has taken action.
Along with legitimate economic concerns, there are also fear-stoking and deliberate encouragement of racism: Shanmugam
However, there are also parties deliberately stoking fear and encouraging racism, which will be dangerous for Singapore.
Such parties include websites which are anti-government, Shanmugam claimed. Here, Shanmugam said that while it was "perfectly okay" for such websites to adopt an anti-government stance, they should not play with race.
On these sites, users frequently refer to Indian people as "cockroaches" and "rapists", Shanmugam said.
He added, "We cannot seek to justify such racist behaviour by saying oh it's because of government policies, or it's because of CECA, or that the Indians are behaving badly, or that we are entitled to be racist and xenophobic, because of these things. Just ask whether racism and xenophobia can ever be justified on these grounds."
The consequences of such sentiments will first result in the targeting of expat Indians, then local Singaporean Indians, Shanmugam said.
"And anyway, not everyone can distinguish between foreign-born Indians and Singaporean-born Indians. The lady who was attacked has been a citizen for 25 years," he pointed out.
If anyone believes CECA is a problem, let's debate it openly: Shanmugam
Shanmugam then referred to the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) between Singapore and India, which has been frequently used as a shorthand for Indian nationals on certain online forums:
"There have been several canards about CECA, promoted by a whispering campaign. If anyone here believes that CECA is a problem, put it up for a motion, debate it openly, and let's hear whether Singaporeans benefit or lose from it.
I'm looking at you Mr. Leong. I invite you to put up a motion to debate CECA. You know that most of what is said about CECA is false."
PSP has mentioned CECA before in the context of reviewing free trade agreements to reduce Singapore's dependence on foreign labour. It was mentioned during the launch of their manifesto in the GE2020 campaign
Shanmugam then added that the government was aware of racist sentiments reaching the ground, citing an anecdote in which his friend heard comments made by "five elderly gentlemen" at a coffee shop, regarding another incident involving an Indian expatriate family,which was covered by Mothership.
Noting that there was a danger of such sentiments being normalised, he alleged, "I hope responsible opposition parties will take a stand on this. Not withstanding that many of these sites that promote xenophobia support you."
Leong: We are definitely not xenophobic
In response to Shanmugam, Leong said that the party and himself were not xenophobic.
"We are just stating the economic effect of some of these free trade agreements have had on our economy, the feedback we get from many suffering Singaporeans. We still need to know the situation better, but we are definitely not xenophobic and definitely, racism has no place in our overall thinking."
Stressing that he was speaking about the economy and livelihoods, he said that he accepted the challenged posed by Shanmugam.
PSP's Central Executive Committee subsequently issued a statement on May 12 which slammed the recent racist attacks against Indians as unacceptable and deplorable. It said:
"PSP is steadfast in promoting racial harmony and equality which is enshrined in our core values and beliefs.
PSP is categorically against racism and does not stoke or incite racism to gain political mileage and advantage. The recent cases of hate crime and violence against Indians are unacceptable and deplorable.
We appeal to the good sense of all Singaporeans to stay calm and united during this period of crises."
Pritam: No ifs, no buts on racism in Singapore
Separately, the Leader of the Opposition and Secretary-General of the Workers' Party (WP), Pritam Singh, also stood up to voice his party's agreement with Shanmugam's statement.
"There is no place for racism in Singapore. No ifs, no buts," he said.He cited a post by the WP's Media Team Head, Leon Perera, in the wake of the police's announcement that the man accused of attacking the Indian woman was being investigated.
Reading out Perera's post in full, Pritam said, "It's important that as, a society, we each do our part to help make sure that difficult times bring out the best and not the worst in Singapore. We should take heed of incidents like this as a reminder of the part we all play to deny acceptability to acts of hate such as this appears to be."
Top image screenshots from MCI