Following two Ministerial statements in Parliament, in which Leong Mun Wai of the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) was called out by name, Leong himself rose to speak during the subsequent time allotted for questions.
Although Leong had earlier said in a Facebook post that he did not intend to table a motion during this sitting of Parliament, he nevertheless wished to respond to statements made by Health Minister Ong Ye Kung and Manpower Minister Tan See Leng.
Ong said that Leong and the PSP had made false statements about Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) in general and the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) in general, leading to misinformation that may have fuelled xenophobic sentiments on the ground.
Tan said that the PSP has made Indian nationals working in Singapore through CECA a point of contention, but said that the party is "barking up the wrong tree."
Leong's Eight Questions
Leong started by clarifying that the party is not against FTAs. "We know the importance of FTAs for Singapore. As an open economy and especially as a small city-state. However, what we're concerned is what price we're paying."
1st question - Bargaining chip?
Leong asked that in the process of negotiating the FTA, whether the free movement of people was used as a "bargaining chip."
He said that his party had received feedback from the ground about unhappiness over CECA, which is why he brought it up.
Leong repeated an earlier claim that CECA includes a list of 127 categories of professionals, and claimed that Singapore's employment policies are "quite relaxed" in granting passes to foreigners, even though Ong had earlier explained in his speech that any Indian national applying for a Work Pass under the list will still need to meet the requirements.
2nd question - What's the percentage of Indian PMET nationals out of the overall PMET jobs?
Leong said the "number to focus on" when discussing CECA is how many Indian nationals have come into Singapore and taken up PMET jobs, and what is the share of that as a percentage of foreign PMET jobs, and total PMET jobs.
3rd question - How many Singaporeans were displaced?
Leong then asked how many Singaporeans were displaced over the past 10 years, and those who are "underemployed" as a result of competition for jobs.
4th question - How many foreigners in IT and Finance sectors?
Leong asked, "How many foreigners are there, in our IT and Finance sectors versus the number of Singaporeans and PRs?"
5th question - Quality of foreign talent attracted to Singapore
Leong referred to the Ministry of Manpower's recent moves to tighten Employment Pass requirements, but believes this is "too little, too late."
He asked if Tan felt that a foreigner drawing a salary of S$3,600 (before the rise to S$3,900 in May 2020 and S$4,500 in August 2020), was the kind of foreign talent that Singapore wanted to attract.
6th question - CPF contributions for local workers
Leong asked whether CPF contributions should be taken into account, and whether it's a disadvantage for a local worker as it represents a "wage concession."
7th question - Why not enough local talent?
Leong asked why Singapore's education system was not producing the required numbers of local talent needed, if there is a lack of local talent.
8th question - Diversity of workers
Leong referred to Tan's earlier speech, in which he said as a result of global trends, more Indian nationals are working in the tech and digital sectors. He appeared to ask why MOM did not monitor these trends earlier.
Not sure how Leong's "long list of questions" brings discussion forward: Ong
Responding to Leong's list of questions, Ong acknowledged the "long list of questions" which he's unsure would "bring the discussion forward.
He added that most of the questions have already been answered in speeches made by himself and Tan.
"But if you don't listen accept what we say, there's very little room for us to further explain," he said.
He emphasised that the only problem is that "there is not enough of us", and that Singaporean talent is in high demand.
"Investors come here, they want to hire Singaporeans. They know our education system is solid and we have such a wonderful reputation around the world, it's something that as Singaporeans we should be proud of. A bit stressful...education system a bit stressful still, but we should be very proud of that. But the problem is, there's still not enough of us."
Addressing Leong's concerns about why certain labour policies were introduced "late", Ong stressed that policies are never static, and that the policies have been reviewed for some time, and will continue to do so. He said:
"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, that's not policymaking. That's not how this House works."
He said it doesn't make sense, as every Bill tabled in the House would be considered a failure, by that definition.
What is the PSP's position?
Ong concluded with two takeaways, after listening to Leong's speech in which he mentioned freedom of movement as a "bargaining chip" and giving away rights on immigration, which he has stated to be untrue.
"Number one, PSP, you are against globalisation, you are against FTA, even though I've gone to great lengths to explain that is the bedrock of Singapore's economic survival.
Number two, you are really not taking back the falsehoods and the allegations. After I quoted everything, I don't think you're taking it back. You do feel that FTA and CECA, despite our explanation, let in Indian professionals freely into Singapore."
Ong asked PSP to correct him if he had gotten it wrong, but said that this is what he believes, after having heard their comments.
No one has a crystal ball: Tan See Leng
The Manpower Minister went next, and said that he "struggled" to follow Leong's line of reasoning, mostly because he seemed to be looking at policies in hindsight and asking why a different course of action was not taken.
Tan said that Singapore's economy and industry has evolved over the years according to its different needs, and policies have changed to suit those needs.
"I think if we all had a crystal ball 20, 30 years ago, and we can gaze so clearly into the future itself, perhaps even for himself as the CEO of a private equity firm, I think all the necessary investments made would have been perfect and spot on. But perhaps, I think hindsight is like what they say, always perfect."
Tan cited his own private sector experience, and shared that while the foreigners he hired did not need to be paid CPF, they needed to be paid a housing allowance instead, and in his experience, the amount is higher.
Tan made the point that while certain policies can be improved, the overall situation is "not that far worse off". By absolute numbers, three-quarters of PME workers are locals, while one-quarter is filled by foreign Work Pass holders.
Ong asks two questions of PSP members
Ong went next, and asked the PSP members if they agreed with the following two statements:
- The FTAs, including CECA, are fundamental to Singapore's economic survival.
- CECA does not allow a free flow of Indian PMEs into Singapore. This is a falsehood and a gross misunderstanding of the agreement.
He added that if they agree to the above-mentioned statements, he believes that they will have a "meaningful debate" when they table the motion.
Need further debate and study on CECA: Leong
Leong did not give definitive answers to Ong's questions, and said that it required further "debate" and "study".
But he added that he and Poa are "for FTAs" and accepted that jobs and livelihoods are not being used as "bargaining chips", and they were reassured that Singaporeans' interests are being taken care of.
However, he maintained that he needs more time to study the numbers provided about CECA before deciding whether it's beneficial for the country.
At least some common ground established: Ong
Ong then said that at least some common ground has been established, and that PSP agrees that FTAs are inclusive and fundamental to Singapore's economic survival.
Second, he said that PSP at least agreed that the net movement of natural persons in CECA is not used as a bargaining chip, and that there is no "free-flow" of Indian professionals into Singapore.
He said these two points represented good common ground, but that it must mean that PSP must take back their allegations that CECA has led to an unfettered flow of Indian professionals into Singapore.
Regrettable, but must accept their feelings: Ong
Leong again said that he is not sure whether CECA has contributed to an influx of foreign talent into Singapore, and PSP doesn't agree at this stage that CECA is beneficial to Singapore.
After this, Ong said that he thinks that he is "waffling" and that it is "quite hard to catch", thus concluded that Leong is not going to withdraw his allegations on CECA.
He added that it is regrettable if Leong continues with his allegations, because "generations of FTA negotiators [have] worked very hard to make sure our interests are all protected".
Ong said this is not a backdoor, and not a method for unfettered access, and added, "I take it that this is PSP's position, notwithstanding hearing all our explanation. This is most regrettable but we will have to accept how they feel."
Top image from MCI's YouTube channel.