It will be "logical" and "honourable" of the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) to withdraw their allegations on CECA, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said in Parliament on Tuesday, July 6.
But he said he "felt sad" that the party did not do so, even after being given the facts about CECA and other Free Trade Agreements (FTAs).
Ong also found common ground with Leader of the Opposition, Pritam Singh of the Workers' Party, on the benefits of releasing early information to help quell falsehoods over issues of race or xenophobia.
Sad that PSP didn't withdraw their allegations: Ong
Ong said that civil servants have put tremendous efforts into negotiating the FTA, and to advance Singapore's interests while protecting the country's areas of sensitivities.
He said that because of his and Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat's backgrounds as former trade negotiators, they had first-hand experience of the efforts of government officials to negotiate such agreements.
Ong said despite the long hours and time spent away from families, our officials work hard at their jobs as they know that it makes "a huge difference to Singapore" by benefiting industries and companies, and creating jobs for the people."
He added that this is where he is coming from, so he "felt sad, somewhat, that the PSP did not withdraw their allegations".
He said that when the government explains how an FTA works, and how Chapter 9 of CECA works, it is "a statement of fact", and not "a matter of your opinion or your perspective".
"So the logical thing for PSP to do, I felt, is to withdraw the allegations, then we can discuss employment policies, how we can better protect, educate, train our workers, and these are very legitimate questions," he said. "But PSP did not do the logical thing."
CECA Chapter 9 does not allow an unfettered inflow of Indian nationals: Ong
Ong added that he couldn't hear "a definitive position" from both Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMPs) from PSP, Leong Mun Wai and Hazel Poa, on the issue.
"I think what I heard was they could not conclude either way now whether CECA is better or worse for our workers.
But if you cannot conclude either way, then the honourable thing is to also withdraw the allegations while you figure out which way you want to lean, but I don't think we saw what was logical nor honourable."
Ong had earlier noted that the PSP alleged that CECA gives Indian professionals a "free hand" to work in Singapore, and that Leong had claimed that economic policies Singaporean Professionals, Managers and Executives (PMEs) were most affected by FTAs and CECA.
Ong defended CECA further as well, saying the FTA is "fundamental" to Singapore's survival, and that "CECA Chapter 9 does not allow an unfettered inflow of Indian nationals".
He added that he and DPM Heng Swee Keat, who had earlier talked about the history of CECA, "felt compelled to say something today" as they were former trade negotiators "fighting in the trenches" with their fellow teammates.
Singh: Could misunderstanding on CECA be addressed earlier if information was released earlier?
Earlier, Singh raised a point on the number of intra-corporate transferees (ICT) that were working in Singapore through CECA.
The question was first raised by WP parliamentarian Leon Perera in 2016, Singh said, adding that the reply the ministry gave at that time was that it "does not disclose data on foreign manpower with breakdown by nationality, including data on ICTs".
Thereafter, following Leong asking the same question in February this year, the government disclosed overall ICT numbers over Employment Pass (EP) holders, which was around five per cent, Singh said.
He highlighted the value of possibly releasing such information earlier, before discussions surrounding the issue took on a xenophobic slant.
Opportunity to nip it in the bud
"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 said.
He further cited a Straits Times reporter who mentioned in August last year that "ICTs were a key bone of contention with respect to CECA", and asked if "a lot of the misunderstanding [and] reactions [that] we see on CECA could have been addressed" if this information had been made known earlier.
Singh said the 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."
Singh also asked Tan about the strengthening of the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment, and asked for an update.
Tan: Workers' Party not the first to talk about legislation for TAFEP
In response to Singh’s question directed to him, Tan said that the government was reviewing existing frameworks.
He also highlighted that the suggestion Singh had given about legislation had not just been raised by the WP, as other MPs such as Patrick Tay and Louis Ng had also previously spoken on the matter.
Tan gave the government's position as such:
"Where we are today is a very tight rope that we're navigating. On one hand, we want to continue to strengthen, to tighten. On the other hand, businesses, have this competing interest of asking us to be a bit more lax."
Tan then reiterated his ministry's commitment to reviewing the framework in areas such as fair opportunity, development, hiring, promotion and the transference of capabilities, among other areas, as it was cognisant of the anxieties among Singaporeans.
He said, "One of the assurances I want to give to the house: To everyone who has raised it and who's concerned about this, is to allow myself, together with a team together with a tripartite partners to go deep, look at all the different implications, look at also the various options, to see how we can strengthen it."
Ong: Early disclosure of information might have addressed issue earlier
In his reply to Singh, about the early disclosure of information, Ong agreed that perhaps with such information, falsehoods could be "quelled much earlier".
However, he explained that this is not always possible for certain data.
He said, "We work in the bureaucracy, some data is classified secret, confidential. So we are not at liberty to always disclose them."
Nevertheless, 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.
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