Health Minister Ong Ye Kung and Manpower Minister Tan See Leng made their ministerial statements in Parliament on Tuesday (July 6) on the necessity of pursuing Free-Trade Agreements (FTAs).
During their speeches, the two ministers addressed supposed falsehoods about the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA), and specifically called out Progress Singapore Party (PSP)'s Leong Mun Wai on a number of statements he made about it.
In response, PSP's Hazel Poa asked the minister a number of clarifications, stating that an open debate, "based on the right information", can only be beneficial to all parties involved.
Poa asked Ong to specify what false allegations PSP made
Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) Poa started by asking Ong what he meant by false allegations made by the PSP regarding CECA.
"Can I ask the minister to provide the specifics of these false allegations that he mentioned? Including details like when, and where, and who? He gave partial quotes, but partial quotes can be taken out of context," she said.
Poa said that if Ong could specify what false allegations the PSP supposedly made, the party would be able to "look into it further".
"Bulk of information" PSP asked for was not answered
In addition, Poa also noted that during Ong's ministerial statement, he said that he would be happy to provide the PSP all the information they may require, in order to allow everyone involved to have a "more robust debate" on the motion.
However, Poa said both Ong and Tan's speeches did not address "the bulk of the information" that the PSP requested for in the nine parliamentary questions they posed, and asked whether the data would be released in the form of written answers instead.
PSP not against FTAs
Poa also emphasised that the PSP is not calling for the abolition of FTAs.
She said that the PSP agrees that FTAs are important to Singapore's economy, but is concerned about specific provisions within the FTAs, relating to the movement of natural persons.
In particular, Poa pointed out that under a specific clause within the FTAs, it states that "each party shall grant temporary entry and stay for up to a year", to eligible foreign professionals.
Poa added that the clause goes on to list several conditions, including proof of nationality, educational certificates and minimum salary requirements for employment pass holders.
Poa then asked Ong whether Singapore would be "obliged" to approve the application of such an individual under the terms of the agreement, if he or she meets the criteria.
She also noted that under the clause, temporary entry and stay for foreign professionals in Singapore is up to a year, and sought clarifications for whether this can be extended or renewed.
Ong citing examples of PSP claims on CECA
Ong proceeded to respond to Poa questions one-by-one.
To Poa's first question on the specifics of the false allegations that PSP made, Ong responded by citing several interviews and Facebook posts by key PSP members:
The Online Citizen Asia video
A 2019 video of Tan Cheng Bock — then-Secretary-General of PSP — posted by The Online Citizen Asia, in which Tan claimed that CECA "allowed the free movement of professionals in 127 sectors to enter and work in Singapore".
Mothership interview with Tan Cheng Bock
A Mothership interview published on Jul. 7, 2020, in which Tan said that "CECA is an agreement between Singapore and India to bring in to allow, I think, 127 categories or professionals to come to Singapore and be given that free hand actually, practically free hand, to come and work here".
Facebook post by Francis Yuen
A Facebook post by PSP Secretary-General Francis Yuen on Aug. 31, 2020 urging the government to release more data on CECA, and stating that the government "could not share the next level of details including information on the number of employees from India who converted to PR status and those who subsequently received citizenship within the 8 years".
Facebook post by Leong Mun Wai
A recent Jun. 22 Facebook post by PSP NCMP Leong Mun Wai that stated: "The most important economic policies that have affected the jobs and livelihoods of Singaporeans relate to foreign PMEs and free trade agreements — in particular, the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement with India".
Hope that Singapore won't experience rise of far-right, nationalist parties live overseas: Ong
Ong stated that these quotes, together with "unattributable, divisive messages" that Singaporeans encounter online and in message chats, are bound to make people upset and angry — in particular, people who are facing challenges at the workplace or feeling insecure.
"You're bound to feel that, "I don't want to welcome foreign PMEs". You will grow suspicious of them, even reject them. And it will be a natural reaction, because the messages feed on our worries and our fears."
Ong spoke of the situation in other countries:
"We have seen how this has turned out in so many other countries — how the extreme-right nativist, populist parties have grown in strength just by tapping into that fear and insecurity because of globalisation, is there."
He said that these "far-right, nationalist parties or nativist parties" have been growing stronger and have created divisions in societies.
In some cases, he noted, they have even replaced the governments which have more moderate policies.
"I really hope that it doesn't happen here," Ong said. "Because if it happens in Singapore, as it happened elsewhere, our policies [and] our politics will have gone disastrously wrong."
No country releases data to that level of granularity: Ong
Responding to Poa's question about whether there would be more data being released, as the government had not released all of the information that PSP had requested for, Ong said that they "tried [their] best".
He repeated a point that Tan See Leng made earlier, that "no countries release data to that level of granularity".
Ong also clarified that he had not promised that they would tabulate and provide all data, but rather that Tan would provide more detailed answers to the specific questions, including "providing the data which will be useful for our subsequent debate and putting that data in context".
"We try to provide as much as we can, but I think there's a limit to what we can do," Ong said.
Regarding Poa's question on Singapore's obligations under the FTAs, Ong said as a trade negotiator, they always look for the word "shall", as it means that they must do something, or else be in breach of the agreement.
In CECA, the "shall" statement that they had agreed to is: "You shall grant temporary entry and stay up to one year for the duration of contract."
Ong explained that this means that if Singapore approves of an individual and they meet Singapore's work pass conditions, the government shall grant them one year of admission.
"I think it's very reasonable," Ong said.
"Imagine you apply for something for the government, and then they tell you, 'I approve but don't know how long.' Tomorrow revoke. Can't be, it's not market friendly at all."
Ong also highlighted "carve-outs" that are laid out at the beginning, which state that the chapter does not apply to immigration measures.
"The government's policy on immigration, on the granting work pass, granting PR, granting citizenship, does not cover this chapter.
And then it goes on to say what then the government, what then parties must do. So you shall have grant one year of approval, should you approve. This is how you read the agreement."
Top image via YouTube/MCI.