I spent 3 years of my life negotiating CECA to get protections we needed: Heng Swee Keat

Heng also responded to Leong's questions about the Singapore's education system.

Ashley Tan | Syahindah Ishak | July 06, 2021, 08:13 PM

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat had not yet weighed in on the debate.

However, the two Ministerial statements by Ong Ye Kung and Tan See Leng on Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) and the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) involved subjects he was intimately familiar with.

A former Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Trade and Industry, Heng had negotiated his fair share of FTAs -- including CECA.

Following a testy exchange between Ong, Tan and Leong Mun Wai of the Progress Singapore Party (PSP), Heng stepped up to share his own relevant personal experiences with negotiating the agreement.

Not a bargaining chip

Heng recalled his experience as permanent secretary, where he led a negotiation team in 2003 to travel to India and discuss the terms for the CECA agreement.

Heng said that he was "terribly troubled by the way that PSP has taken this", and felt the need to address Leong's allegations that the 'Movement of Natural Persons' chapter in CECA provided Indian professionals a "free hand" to work in Singapore.

He emphasised that the chapter was an important one, but it was not used as a bargaining chip in negotiations.

Giving a brief recount of the history of Singapore's Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) and his own involvement, Heng said that he accompanied former Foreign Minister George Yeo to the Doha Round of trade negotiations in 2000.

However, Yeo accurately foresaw that the negotiations would not go far, and decided to pursue the country's very first FTA with New Zealand.

Despite other countries not being optimistic about the prospects of the agreement between the two small countries, Heng said they persisted and went on to do several other FTAs.

He added, "I was in the trenches, negotiating many agreements with our ASEAN counterparts..." Singapore then went on to negotiate FTAs with bigger countries such as Japan, Australia and the U.S., and more recently, the European Union.

Spent three years negotiating CECA

Heng also responded to Leong's question about what Singapore's bargaining chip was.

"The honest answer is very little," he said. Singapore only imposes tariffs on just three items — beer, stout and another alcoholic drink called samsu.

However, Heng added that the key quality to Singapore's public policy is to remain creative and adaptable to meeting the needs of other countries, who have their own list of concerns and priorities.

He continued that negotiations for CECA was not a smooth-sailing process, and it took him three years.

"So let me tell Mr Leong and your team that I spent three years of my life negotiating this agreement, because, although I was a permanent secretary, and permanent secretaries usually just supervise ,they don't get into the trenches, the Indian side decided that it was important agreement, they would have a perm sec, and Minister George Yeo said, 'Well you have no choice'.

So I ended up being the chief negotiator for CECA. And I can tell you the amount of homework I had to do to look at how we can come to an agreement. I went to different parts of India, because there were objections from every part of India, from business group to states."

Heng once again highlighted that the agreement was extremely important, citing the large population numbers of India as compared to Singapore. "So we must have very strict agreements on this," he added.

The movement of natural persons was one of the chapters that were "the most difficult to conclude", because India was keen on it, but Heng said he "never let go", and the team got what it needed.

"Please be reasonable and don't mislead Singaporeans," he said, about Leong's claims.

Local talent

Leong had also questioned Singapore's education system and why it doesn't produce enough local talents for the needs of the economy.

In response to this, Heng, the former Education Minister, said that he is "extremely proud" of what the schools and Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs) have done to develop and train Singaporeans.

Heng elaborated that the World Bank has ranked Singapore the best in the world at educating its people. Singapore also has six universities, as well as polytechnics and Institutes of Higher Education (ITEs) which provide "the most valuable practice-oriented learning".

He added:

"Mr Leong, you will better serve Singaporeans if you help Singaporeans understand how changes are taking place so quickly, and you must help to encourage people to upgrade and learn new skills, and work to support our unions in forming company training committees and job security council and the like in order to raise the ability of Singaporeans to compete.

So, I think, to say that our education system has not done a good job or the government has not put enough, I would seriously ask you to rethink that and come back and debate us on that."

Competition is important

Heng then emphasised that competition in Singapore is important for the country's growth, particularly in areas concerning innovation and technology. He explained:

"It is very important for us to bring in some of the best people to work with Singaporeans...It is going to be a different world. So please do not get stuck in the old world and think that, you know, we can excel all on our own. Let us have an open attitude to work with countries around the world who are willing to cooperate and work with us."

Heng added that with Singapore's growing digitalisation, having the right policy can help Singapore cope with changes, remain open, maintain unity, and move forward.

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Top image from Gov.sg/YouTube. Pic taken before latest Covid-19 measures.