You might have heard that the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement was recently put up for debate in Parliament on July 6.
Also known as CECA, the term has since become a shorthand on the forums and social media, referring to Indian nationals, sometimes in a derogatory manner, particularly those who work in Singapore.
The fiery debate saw, among other things, Minister for Health Ong Ye Kung calling out the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) for repeatedly making false allegations about the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in question. So if you haven't been catching up with Parliament proceedings, we're here to give you the low-down on what went on — brace yourself.
Why was CECA debated in Parliament?
In May this year, Law minister K Shanmugam condemned "parties" who deliberately stoked fears, and encouraged racism and xenophobia over concerns of foreigners taking over the jobs of Singaporeans.
He highlighted the spread of sentiments regarding CECA, and singled out Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Leong Mun Wai for a debate over the merits of the free trade agreement.
For context, Leong's party, the Progress Singapore Party, highlighted CECA in its 2020 General Election (GE2020) manifesto, as an example of a free trade agreement that it would review.
Leong himself had also posed a parliamentary question in February, asking the Minister of Trade and Industry if there were plans to "negotiate for better terms" under CECA.
The NCMP stressed that he and the PSP were not xenophobic. Instead, they wanted to draw attention to the economic impact of the free trade agreement.
What was CECA's economic impact, according to Leong?
A "heavy indirect tax burden" which he claimed resulted in "widespread social inequalities" as well as an imbalance in the number of foreign PMETs and Permanent Residents.
And that leads us to the debate in July 6
In his ministerial statement, Ong — who used to be a trade negotiator — focused in particular on what he called PSP's repeated allegations that CECA gives Indian professionals a "free hand" to work in Singapore, as well as Leong's claims that Singaporean professionals, managers and executives (PMEs) were most affected by FTAs and CECA.
In a subsequent exchange with PSP NCMP Hazel Poa, Ong cited several instances where key PSP members, including then-Secretary-General Tan Cheng Bock alleged that CECA allows the free movement of Indian professionals into Singapore.
Ong Ye Kung: CECA used as political scapegoats
Ong straight up called these statements "falsehoods" which prompt "unattributable, divisive messages" to run rampant online and in message chats, making people — especially those who are facing challenges at the workplace — to feel upset and angry.
He dived into the details of CECA, explaining that:
- Chapter 9 of the CECA (which is available online) states that the government’s ability to regulate immigration and foreign manpower is not affected by the agreement.
- The government also retains full rights to decide who can enter the country to live, work or become PRs or citizens.
- There isn't a clause in CECA which allows Indian PMEs to be treated as Singaporeans
Ong specifically addressed the allegations that Indian nationals in 127 categories of professions (laid out in chapter 9 of the free trade agreement), as well as intra-corporate transferees can come to Singapore freely to work.
All applicants and intra-corporate transferees have to meet the requirement for Work Passes before they can enter Singapore. Singapore is not obliged to approve all such applications, said Ong.
"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."
Specifically about intra-corporate transferees, Ong revealed that the number is very small — only 500 in 2020, which made up only 0.3 per cent of all EP holders.
During the parliamentary session, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, who was the chief negotiator for CECA, revealed this little titbit:
The movement of natural persons chapter in CECA was one of "the most difficult to conclude", because India was keen on it.
However Heng said he "never let go" because with India's population surpassing a billion, such a concession would allow its people to swamp Singapore's population of about three million easily.
Singapore has obligations under CECA, though
There are obligations, though for the parties involved in CECA and Ong spelled out a couple, specifically regarding the movement of talent:
Singapore has to expedite the processing of some applications for temporary entry, and be transparent about it with the applicants so as not to leave them hanging.
CECA also obliges Singapore to accord a certain duration for the validity of work passes, but applicants have to meet the work pass requirements.
It is also not unique, said Ong, as such a commitment may be found in other FTAs and the WTO Agreement signed by 164 countries.
The minister acknowledged that while local PMEs had legitimate concerns over their jobs, both FTAs and CECA have been made into "political scapegoats" by the PSP.
Tan See Leng: Same issue happened in early 2000s with Chinese workers
Moving on from the technical details of CECA, Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng pinpointed the root cause of the issue: Social friction and anxiety caused by the increasing concentration of Employment Pass (EP) holders.
Such issues were expected, he said, given the transient nature of such a demographic. Such a situation had occurred in the early 2000s, when the share of foreign workers from China increased significantly, thereby creating friction within Singapore's communities.
A balance needs to be struck between ensuring that businesses here have enough manpower, and creating opportunities for Singaporean workers, said the minister.
Increase in Indian EP holders: Not enough Singaporeans to go around
As for the increase in Indian EP holders in Singapore, Tan said that this is not the result of more favourable treatment due to CECA but a reflection of the global trend in the demand and supply of tech talent.
Within Singapore, part of this trend has been driven by the need for every sector to be digitally enabled, he highlighted.
There are also not enough Singaporeans to fill vacant positions, with 6,000 jobs in the info-comm sector alone remaining unfilled, and around 22,000 PME jobs in general that stood empty.
As such, while companies are keen to take on Singaporeans, given that the local workforce is more productive, they can also decide on which overseas countries they want to bring in their manpower from based on their needs and the availability of the required talent.
More local PME jobs were created compared to those for EPs
Tan also pointed out that from 2005 to 2020, there were more local PME jobs that were created for Singaporeans, compared to that for EP holders.
During this period, the total number of EPs increased by around 112,000 while the number of local PMEs increased by more than 380,000.
Within the finance sector, the number of EPs increased by around 20,000, while the number of jobs created for local PMEs was even greater at around 85,000.
As for the info-comm sector, the number of EPs increased by around 25,000 while the number of jobs created for local PMEs at 35,000.
Tan also revealed that by absolute numbers, three-quarters of PME workers are locals, while one-quarter is filled by foreign work pass holders.
Leong: Concedes that jobs not used as bargaining chips, but still unsure if CECA is beneficial to S'pore
Ong then pressed the PSP members if they agreed that:
- FTAs, including CECA, are fundamental to Singapore's economic survival.
- CECA does not allow a free flow of Indian PMEs into Singapore.
Leong, in response, conceded that jobs and livelihoods were not used as "bargaining chips", adding that he and Poa were reassured that Singaporeans' interests are being taken care of. However, he stopped short of withdrawing the allegations which were made by the PSP.
Instead, Leong said that he was still unsure if the CECA is beneficial to Singapore and needed time to study the information.
Ong then concluded that the allegations against CECA were not being withdrawn and said that Leong's position was "most regrettable".
WP's Pritam Singh: Could misunderstanding on CECA be addressed earlier if information was released earlier?
Separately, the Leader of the Opposition, Pritam Singh of the Workers' Party, spoke on the benefits of releasing information early to help quell falsehoods over sensitive issues:
"There is opportunity to quell, or at least nip some of these issues in the bud when they start moving into the realm of xenophobia or nativism, and one important outlet for that is information."
He added that he hoped the government understood that with more information, "we can hold the line better in terms of some of these discussions, moving into a realm of xenophobia and so forth."
Ong explained that this is not always possible for certain pieces of data.
"We work in the bureaucracy, some data is classified secret, confidential. So we are not at liberty to always disclose them."
However, he acknowledged that it could have been better if some information had come out earlier, so they could move on, and issues that concern racism or xenophobia in particular could be addressed earlier.
So what's next?
PSP said that it requires more data before it files a motion for a debate, but as Ong said in Parliament, the government has "tried [their] best" to provide the data requested.
The ball is now apparently in PSP's court, for its NCMPs to table a Motion of Debate.
Here's what you need to know about CECA:
Top collage background image by Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images, screenshots via MCI's YouTube and CNA