In Parliament today (Sep. 14), Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong spoke on a motion that he had filed about securing Singaporeans' jobs and livelihoods, stating that turning inward away from globalisation will create more problems for Singaporeans.
Progress Singapore Party (PSP) Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) Leong Mun Wai would speak on a motion on Singapore's foreign talent policy, with a particular focus on Singapore's free trade agreement (FTA) with India: the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA).
In his speech, Wong criticised the PSP motion as having "strong racist and xenophobic undertones", and echoed what Minister for Health Ong Ye Kung said previously, saying that the government is prepared to "fight any party that chooses to take a populist line and stirs racism and xenophobia".
Singapore cannot turn inwards
In his speech, Wong acknowledged Singaporeans' anxieties about jobs and competition, exacerbated by the "economic churn and uncertainty" caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
He noted that this has happened all over the world, with some countries starting to turn inwards and become more protectionist because of it.
However, Wong said that this is "not a viable option" for Singapore, as it has thrived over the years due to its openness to global businesses:
"As a small island state with no natural resources and no hinterland, the only way we can survive and prosper is to stay open and connected."
If Singapore were to take a more "politically craven approach" and impose many stringent conditions on global companies operating in Singapore, the country would lose out on many good investments, he said:
"We would have fewer foreigners for sure. But many Singaporeans will also be deprived of good jobs and career opportunities.
It’s like cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face."
PSP's motion falsely attributes challenges to FTAs and foreigners: Wong
Speaking about PSP's motion, Wong said that while it appears to be addressing concerns about jobs, it "yet again falsely attributes the challenges faced to our FTAs and foreigners".
Pointing to employment data, Wong noted that local PMET jobs grew by about 300,000 in the decade between 2010 and 2020. This is nearly triple the increase in Employment Pass (EP) and S Pass holders during the same period, which was about 110,000.
He claimed that PSP wants to downplay the achievements that Singapore has had and the jobs and opportunities that it has created, and instead play up the anxieties.
"The PSP assumes that if we reduced the number of foreigners here; then all these jobs will automatically go to Singaporeans," Wong said.
If policies became overly-restrictive, though, companies would simply move out of Singapore and find other locations to operate in, causing Singapore to lose all of the jobs that the companies had brought in.
"If we are not careful, decades of hard work to build up our business hub will be wasted. Our economy will contract and go down in a tailspin.
We’d end up with far worse problems, and it’s not foreigners, but Singaporeans who will ultimately pay the price."
There are downsides to globalisation
Wong said that the government recognises that globalisation is not an unmitigated good.
"Being a hub economy brings many benefits to Singapore and Singaporeans but it also comes with its share of costs. The rapid pace of change and the 'creative destruction' that takes place in any vibrant economy means that there will be people displaced from their jobs."
However, he stated, the issue is not foreigners.
He pointed out how, with technology and innovations, people can now work from anywhere in the world, and the dislocations that have come from these advancements have created nationalist and protectionist sentiments around the world.
"'People don’t lose jobs because of technology or innovations,' [politicians] say. 'But it’s because of these foreigners in our midst, they are the reason you have been displaced.'
And if they can mobilise existing racial prejudices against particular foreign nationalities here, better still."
Wong said that the approach that the PAP and NTUC have taken is to "work hard to protect every worker and help those who are displaced", so that they can "grow the economic pie for everyone, and ensure that the cost of globalisation and openness does not fall unfairly on the displaced workers".
They also continually update Singapore's manpower policies and rules, in order to manage the flow of work pass holders and ensure that they are up to par, such as by raising the minimum qualifying salary for EP holders twice in 2020.
The government also "uphold[s] fair employment practices and take a strong stance against discrimination at the workplace", which they are doing by enshrining the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices (TAFEP) requirements in law.
"Strong racist and xenophobic undertones"
Wong said that Leong's motion is "barking up the wrong tree because the issue is not about local talent versus foreign talent".
"This is not a zero-sum competition, as I have explained," he added.
Wong said that he "look[s] forward" to Leong's elaboration on PSP's position:
"I hope that when Mr Leong rises next, he will speak clearly. If he acknowledges that FTAs, including CECA, are not the cause of the challenges faced by our PMETs, then we can put this issue to rest once and for all.
But if he continues to equivocate, or to make misleading or false claims, then we can only conclude that CECA is a cover for the PSP to stoke racist and xenophobic sentiments."
Wong called out the "strong racist and xenophobic undertones" of PSP's campaign against CECA, and the impact that it has had both on businesses and on individuals.
He appealed to PSP to "reflect on how your rhetoric can deepen fault-lines — not just between locals and foreigners, but even between Singaporeans of different races" and to "refrain from exploiting Singaporeans’ anxieties for your own political gain".
Wong closed his speech by asking Leong to share with the public the PSP's approach to deal with the important issue of jobs and what alternative PSP is offering:
"I hope Mr Leong will give us a satisfactory answer later with concrete policy alternatives, and not resort to anti-foreigner rhetoric to stir anger and fear, or disaffection against the government."
Top photos via MCI.
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