'He has given no credible explanation on why CECA is singled out': Shanmugam blasts Leong Mun Wai in 1-hour jobs debate

Shanmugam said many Singaporeans, especially in their 40s and 50s, have legitimate concerns about jobs.

Sulaiman Daud | September 14, 2021, 11:14 PM

If you weren't tuning in to Parliament on Sep. 14, you missed an intense debate between Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, and Leong Mun Wai of the Progress Singapore Party (PSP).

Shanmugam had questions for the Non-Constituency Member of Parliament, which mostly centred on the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) and Leong's comments about the free trade agreement (FTA).

The debate between the two lasted over a full hour, with Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin also getting involved at times.

Here follows a blow-by-blow account of the verbal fisticuffs.

Round 1

Do you accept that some of your party members feel your statements are racist: Shanmugam

We began with Shanmugam citing examples of how the PSP has specifically targeted CECA:

  • PSP founder and chairman Tan Cheng Bock during the PSP launch in Aug. 2019 said it was targeting CECA.
  • Since entering Parliament, Leong has frequently mentioned CECA.
  • Leong's social media posts, where he blamed CECA and FTAs in general for affecting the jobs and livelihoods of Singaporeans.

But Shanmugam then observed that Leong had said in his earlier speech that he was in favour of FTAs. So he asked if he specifically opposed CECA.

Shanmugam also mentioned that certain members of Leong's own party have been troubled by his comments, and said that PSP's stance could be construed as singling out a certain race and community. He asked:

"Mr Leong, your statements have been interpreted by your own party members as being racist. People in your party think your statements are racist. Would you accept?"

PSP allows "minority" number of members to express contrary views: Leong

Leong said that PSP is "supportive" of FTAs in general, and even CECA, but they "need more information".

He also challenged Shanmugam to name occasions where he has mentioned CECA other than his Facebook post of June 22, which took place after he was challenged to a debate by Shanmugam in May.

He defended Tan Cheng Bock by saying that Tan was responding to feedback he received from Singaporeans, and said that government ministers have used the term "free flow" to describe workers before Tan.

As for the party members who expressed concern, Leong said that PSP is an open and liberal party that allows members to express their views, even if they have different opinions.

Round 2

I'm quite confused by the answer: Shanmugam; I'm quite confused as well: Speaker Tan

Shanmugam and Leong next tussled over whether Leong was in fact supportive of CECA and FTAs in general, or not.

Shanmugam noted Leong's comments about being supportive of CECA, and asked for it to be recorded.

Leong called a point of order and said that Shanmugam was "misquoting" him. He said he is not supporting CECA "whole-heartedly" but needs more information.

At this point, Speaker Tan interjected, and asked if Leong was supportive of CECA, or not.

Leong said he does not have enough information.

Tan asked again, to which Leong said, "I'm not supportive." After Tan asked Leong to clarify his position, he replied that he wants to look into each FTA's provisions.

"I'm quite confused by the answer," said Shanmugam. "I'm quite confused as well," remarked Tan.

Why was CECA singled out in Leong's motion, if it was no different from other FTAs: Shanmugam

Shanmugam then asked why CECA was specifically mentioned in his motion of debate, if it was no different from any other FTA.

Leong claimed that while the government said CECA has no impact on the government's ability to regulate immigration, it has not provided enough data to "prove" this.

Shanmugam asked again why CECA was specifically mentioned by Leong in his motion, and whether it has a "special place in Mr Leong's affections".

He also said that Leong "does not know" what's said in his own motion, if he couldn't explain why CECA was singled out for mention.

We are also concerned about the US, China and Australia FTAs: Leong

Leong then cited the FTAs that Singapore signed with the U.S., China and Australia as examples of concerning agreements "like CECA".

Shanmugam accepted that Leong was "equally concerned" about the agreements with this country, and that CECA is not specifically being singled out.

Shanmugam then returned to the question of whether he accepts that his statements on CECA, having been interpreted by some PSP members as racist, may well be interpreted by Singaporeans as racist too?

Leong asked Shanmugam to repeat the question twice more, before replying that just asking questions about an economic agreement doesn't necessarily mean the statement was racist.

Round 3

The legal text of CECA makes it clear that foreign workers can't enter Singapore without meeting qualifying criteria: Shanmugam

Shanmugam then referred to the points raised by Health Minister Ong Ye Kung in his July ministerial statement and subsequent debate on CECA.

Ong said then that nothing in CECA says that Singapore must conditionally let foreign PMEs into the country, who must meet Work Pass conditions in order to work here. Shanmugam repeated the following points made by Ong:

  • Chapter Nine of CECA makes it clear that the government's ability to regulate immigration and foreign manpower is not affected by the agreement.
  • The government retains full rights to decide who can enter the country to live, work, become PRs or citizens. This is clearly set out in two standard clauses, commonly found in all FTAs.
  • Chapters 912 and 913 have a strong immigration carve out and national treatment is not found in Chapter Nine of CECA, nor any other FTA that Singapore has entered into.
  • Nothing in CECA implies that Singapore must unconditionally let in PMEs from India.

Shanmugam also pointed out that PSP's claim that CECA's list of 127 categories implies that these workers can freely come into Singapore was false, as they still have to meet Work Pass conditions.

It is also false to claim that intra-corporate transfers (ICT) from India can freely enter Singapore, as they still have to meet Work Pass conditions.

Shanmugam said that with that in mind, would Leong agree that CECA does not allow a free flow of Indians into Singapore?

In response, Leong said that the government has not given the numbers for the PSP to decide whether CECA has "influence" over Singapore's immigration.

He said PSP asked for ICT numbers from 2005 to 2020, but only received a figure for one year.

Two different issues: Shanmugam

Shanmugam then called a point of order, saying that these are "two different issues".

One, what does the legal text of CECA and other FTAs allow. Two, within the framework of the agreement, how many workers have come into Singapore.

Shanmugam said the second issue can be dealt with separately, but as for the first, Ong has already explained how the agreement works. Shan asked:

"So unless Mr Leong says that Minister Ong Ye Kung lied, or that the government policies is other than what it says it is, let's just get an answer. Do you accept that there is nothing in CECA, that allows for free movement of PMETs? That's all, it's a simple question."

Round 4

I want Mr Leong to answer the question, not Hazel Poa: Shanmugam

Leong first said that he was not arguing about CECA merely as a legal document, but about its economic impact.

When Shanmugam said Leong should answer the question about the legal provisions before discussing its implementation, Leong tried to ask his fellow PSP member Hazel Poa to answer the question.

Shanmugam said he would like Leong to answer, because the motion stands in his name. "If he doesn't know the answer, he can say he doesn't know the answer."

And because Leong was looking at his phone, Shanmugam quipped, "And I'm not sure the answer is going to be found in a phone."

Do not agree with the interpretation of the legal documents: Leong

After some cajoling by the Speaker, Leong said, "As of now, we do not agree to the interpretation of the legal documents, as it is now."

Tan asked Leong to clarify. Leong said he was looking at the economic effects of CECA, but Tan asked again what exactly was it that Leong disagreed with.

Leong replied that he does not have a "legal opinion" on CECA.

Shanmugam said that was a "confusing" answer, and asked Leong again to specify what he does not agree with.

"Does he say that minister (Ong Ye Kung) was lying in Parliament, or does he say that the interpretation that the minister had given is inaccurate, and that we should in fact are obliged to give free movement of all Indians into Singapore."

Leong said again that he is looking at the economic effects, and there is "some initial doubt" whether CECA does what it says because he doesn't have enough data.

Agree that 127 categories of professionals don't allow free movement into Singapore: Leong

Speaker suggested that they move on, because he didn't think they would get further clarity on this.

Shanmugam agreed, and said that Leong "really doesn't know" about the legal provisions despite his motion, and he has no understanding about the provisions of CECA.

He said that he hopes to see Leong and the PSP mention the U.S., Australian and Chinese FTAs from now on, instead of just CECA.

But Shanmugam did succeed in getting Leong to agree that the 127 categories of professionals listed in CECA does not freely allow Indian nationals to enter Singapore, and they first have to meet Work Pass qualifying criteria.

Round 5

How many foreign PMETs should Singapore have?: Shanmugam

Shanmugam got Leong to agree that the Singapore economy needs some number of foreign PMETs, and that number cannot be zero. Shanmugam then provided the following statistics:

  • Over the past 10 years, there has been an increase of 110,000 EP and S Pass holders.
  • During the same period, the local PMETs increased by 300,000.
  • Over the past five years, the number of PMET job vacancies is 30,000.
  • The size of the PR population has remained stable in the past five years, at 520,000.

So with these numbers in mind, Shanmugam asked Leong to specify what is the "right number" of foreign PMETs. Leong replied that the number depends on the number of Singaporeans being displaced from jobs.

When Shanmugam said it means Leong doesn't really know what the number should be, Leong said that he has "some numbers in mind" but he would prefer to wait for data.

I need more data: Leong

Shanmugam pointed out that he has given some data. Leong said he would need more data. Shanmugam asked if this meant that Leong could not say if there were too many foreign PMETs in Singapore.

Leong denied this, and said there were many underemployed Singaporeans who had given feedback to the PSP, as well as a rise in the number of gig workers and self-employed persons. He again asked for more data.

Shanmugam reiterated that this showed Leong couldn't say whether 350,000 foreign PMETs was too many or too little.

Leong said, "I'm not going to say what is the number in my head until the government gives me more data."

Shanmugam moved on, and asked Leong to explain why there are 30,000 PMET job vacancies left unfilled over the past five years.

Leong said this data was not set out in a "proper time series data set", so it could not be analysed, and therefore he did not have an answer.

Round 6

As Leong has no credible explanations and has no view on CECA, the motion is meaningless: Shanmugam

Shanmugam pointed out that the number of unfilled PMET jobs was set out in July, and that Leong had said back then he would study it. He said that the House is witnessing a motion put up by Leong who doesn't know what's in the motion.

Shanmugam then went on:

"He has given no credible explanation on why CECA is singled out. He has no credible explanation as to why he refers to the provisions which means legal provisions, the clauses in this CECA, in his motion, and then, asserts here that he doesn't know anything about the provisions on CECA. He's got no view on that. Then he shouldn't have referred to that. So it's meaningless the motion. Doesn't make any sense. To him, let alone to us.

And he says there are too many foreign PMETs, but now he says he doesn't know if there are too many, and he doesn't know what the number ought to be. He doesn't tell us what further data that he needs.

Sir, none of this is to say that there aren't Singaporeans who have lost their jobs, that there aren't Singaporeans who are underemployed. That there aren't Singaporeans, particularly in their forties and fifties, who are not in a very good situation. We all know that. Those are all true. But the point is to find the right solutions."

Shanmugam said that job displacement is indeed taking place, but it's "not legitimate" to create a racist, xenophobic, "them-vs-us" fervor.

He added, "That is doing (a) serious disservice to Singaporeans. That's not the way Members should behave, I'm sorry to say. You got to take this seriously, you got to know what your own motion says."

Lots of accusations: Leong

Leong said that although Shanmugam made "lots of accusations", he brought up the motion not to discuss the "legal provisions", but the economic impact of the FTAs on Singaporeans.

He also said that the government has not provided the data he has asked for, and that while the government's stance is job displacement is mostly due to global forces, PSP's stance is that it is not.

Shanmugam replied that Leong can "fulminate as much as he wants", but the text of the motion, and the other statements that Leong and PSP have made suggest that CECA allows the free movement of Indians into Singapore.

Shanmugam said that if Leong "doesn't know" what the motion means, if it has been drafted by someone else and he put his name to it, he should say so.

Leong, not surprisingly, disagreed with Shanmugam's interpretation of the motion, and that his motion is about the economic effects of CECA. He said:

"I don't expect this Parliament to just argue about legal interpretation, you know. This parliament is about jobs and livelihood of our people, about the economy. Okay, so what we are arguing, actually a larger part of it should be about economy, social economic issues."

I don't have a view yet (on CECA): Leong

Speaker Tan interjected at this point, and said that the legal provisions are a "first step", before the economic impact can be discussed. He asked what were Leong's views on the legal provisions of CECA, in black and white.

"At this point, I don't have a legal opinion," said Leong. When Tan asked again, Leong said at the moment, he has no opinion.

Shanmugam said that if Leong has no opinion, then it must logically follow that there are no provisions in CECA that he is concerned about.

When Leong repeated (again) that he had no opinion, Tan asked if he had a negative view of CECA despite not having one.

Leong replied, "I don't have a view yet. I'm trying to get a view. If the government is prepared to release more data about ICT and all that, then I will have an economic view."

Tan suggested they move on, because he didn't think they were going to make much progress.

Round 7

You said you were disappointed over the appointment of the DBS CEO: Shanmugam

Shanmugam cited the reference made by Leong in his maiden speech in Parliament, in that he was "disappointed" that DBS Bank was still without a "home-grown" CEO after the appointment of John Olds. He asked if Leong believed naturalised citizens (like current DBS CEO Piyush Gupta) did not deserve to hold top positions.

Leong denied this, and said he made the comment about succession plans, and why wasn't a Singaporean identified at the point of Piyush Gupta's appointment, as he wasn't a Singaporean then.

Shanmugam pointed out that when Leong made that speech and expressed his disappointment, Gupta was and is still the CEO.

After some exchanges, Leong claimed again he was referring to the point of appointment, and he did not have Piyush Gupta in mind. Instead, he was referring to the "many CEOs" that DBS has got, and never had a succession plan. He also said that he was not differentiating between naturalised and "homegrown" Singaporeans.

Shanmugam asked if it was a fair interpretation that what he said meant he was disappointed that Gupta became the CEO. Leong said the interpretation depended on who was listening to it.

Speaker Tan interjected, and asked whether it was fair to take it that way, adding:

"I think many of us have remembered that, I think, a few of us raised our eyebrows, because we were wondering what exactly you meant. So would it be fair that that's how people would interpret it. Notwithstanding whatever your intent might be. Because what we say in Parliament matters, because that's how the public will perceive it. Which is why the choice of words and phrases is important."

Round 8

We do not deny the legitimate concerns of Singaporeans, but Leong's views are distorted by his lack of understanding: Shanmugam

Shanmugam then moved to the concluding portion of his speech.

He said that it is not wrong to welcome talent, and it is wrong to have an issue with PRs and new citizens from specific countries.

Without beating about the bush, Shanmugam said that Leong and PSP were "race-baiting" and "nationality-baiting".

Shanmugam said that many Singaporeans, particularly those in their forties and fifties, have legitimate concerns over jobs, and the government will do everything it can to help them.

But he criticised Leong for filing a motion and saying he doesn't know about the legal provisions, when his party has attacked the legal provisions

He said Leong has painted a "dark picture" of Singapore, which bears little resemblance to reality. While Singapore can do better, the fact is that 300,000 PMET jobs have been created, 80 per cent taken by locals. He added:

"And I would say, Mr Leong's views have been so completely distorted by his lack of understanding of CECA, and his eagerness to attack Indians and CECA. And I would say, what his party and Mr Leong are doing is one of the worst types of political opportunism, using race as a bait."

Leong gave his final reply, saying:

"I strongly object to what the minister said about PSP's position on race. The reason why we raised this motion has nothing to do with race or xenophobia. We will continue to debate on why we think the situation in Singapore is far worse than what the government has presented to the Singaporeans."

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Top image from MCI.