In Parliament today (Sep. 14), Workers' Party (WP) Member of Parliament (MP) and Leader of the Opposition (LO) Pritam Singh spoke at length about foreign employment and the impact it has on Singaporeans.
Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong had earlier tabled a motion about securing Singaporeans' jobs and livelihoods, stating that turning inward away from globalisation will create more problems for Singaporeans.
This was in response to Progress Singapore Party (PSP) Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) Leong Mun Wai's 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).
Singh started his speech by first setting out WP's position on FTAs, including CECA.
WP's position on FTAs and CECA
Concerns on work pass regulations
Singh acknowledged how FTAs have encouraged investments, and created job opportunities for both Singaporeans and foreigners.
He also noted the government's explanation that CECA does not allow Indian nationals free rein to enter Singapore, and that the entry of foreigners who seek employment is regulated by Ministry of Manpower (MOM)'s work pass policies.
However, Singh questioned whether the government and MOM have regulated the work passes in the best way possible.
Not automatically beneficial for some Singaporeans
According to Singh, some groups of Singaporeans might not automatically benefit from the country's pro-trade policies and FTAs, including CECA.
These groups, such as the sandwiched class, workers who lack skills, and lower-income Singaporeans, may see depressed wages and fewer good job opportunities instead.
Singh thus urged the government to "intervene aggressively" through policy or legislation, and ensure the availability of "stronger safety nets" for Singaporeans who cannot make the transition.
"The government must ensure that Singaporeans are not discriminated against during their job search or at the workplace, and that our education and training systems provide skills that are workplace-ready, and that skills are transferred to Singaporeans by foreign talent."
Singh also urged the government to proactively report on the costs and benefits of the FTAs.
Racist and xenophobic sentiments
Singh subsequently addressed the racist and xenophobic sentiments surrounding CECA, saying that it is used as a "dog-whistle, masquerading racism for genuine economic concerns".
"The Workers' Party accepts that genuine economic concerns exist and that it is fair to raise concerns about this. However, we abhor and denounce the racism and xenophobia that has become a part of the public narrative in some quarters.
Some have gotten carried away resorting to loose and vile language online as an outlet for their frustration, something they wouldn’t do in person, or worse, extended this behaviour to the real world.
This can never be right, and must also be rejected and condemned."
In the second part of his speech, Singh emphasised that Singaporeans are facing job insecurities despite the economic benefits of FTAs.
There are Singaporeans who feel that they are "denied fair opportunities in the job market".
"As a young nation, these feelings of insecurity and dislocation can shake our national cohesion, with the country being unrecognisable to the one many of us grew up in.
Job displacement is very emotionally jarring especially when your HR department tells you that your role has been made redundant, only for you to later find out that your job has been rejigged and filled by a foreigner.
It is also upsetting for Singaporeans when they learn that a foreigner has filled a job position for which a Singaporean is suitably qualified."
Foreigners taking on higher-paying jobs in Singapore
Singh then stated that there is a strong focus on the influx of employees of Indian ethnicity — not all of whom are from India — who have taken up "competitively paying jobs" in Singapore.
"Some ask, why can’t our people do those jobs? After all, our students score so well on standardised tests. Our much-vaunted education system should have put our workforce in a much better position."
Singaporeans' sense of home is also affected due to communication barriers with the foreign workers.
"When this happens, some Singaporeans stop feeling like we are one Singapore, all rowing in the same direction," said Singh.
The concerns are even greater for the sandwiched class and low-income Singaporeans, who might lose their jobs, see their incomes stagnate, and fear for their children’s prospects in a competitive Singapore.
"Strong feelings are aroused, with many feeling that the playing field is uneven, and the government is slow to protecting Singaporeans in their own land.
Ordinary Singaporeans do not delve into the intricacies of free trade agreements. Instead, they look around and come to conclusions based on what they perceive and experience. If Singaporeans have not for years been seeing foreigners occupying well-paying jobs while qualified Singaporeans are unemployed or under-employed, we would not be talking about this today."
Repairing local-foreign employment divide
In the last segment of his speech, Singh outlined some suggestions to repair the local-foreign employment divide in Singapore.
He proposed that the government should "double down" to effectively promote and track skills transfers from foreigners to Singaporeans.
The tracking, monitoring, and reporting of skills transfer should be done publicly too, said Singh.
He then urged the government to consider having fixed-term employment passes tied to skills transfers, as well as tracking and solving the problem of under-employment in the country.
Singh also suggested fixed term employment passes, where the pass would be renewed if the company can prove that under the previous employment pass, Singaporean workers in the company have benefited.
Singh subsequently suggested setting up a permanent parliamentary standing select committee to oversee the issue of jobs and foreign employment, where policymakers can be questioned and be held accountable.
He also urged the government to "communicate more" on foreign employment.
"By this, I mean giving factual information so that public debate can be better informed. And this calls for a change of culture. The government should have started doing this years ago," he said.
Singh then stressed that being a country open to foreign investment and looking after the Singaporean worker and PMETs must be "complementary objectives".
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Top image via CNA video.