SINGAPORE: Minister for Communications and Information S Iswaran said on Friday (Sep 4) that he is "troubled" by Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Leong Mun Wai's remarks that DBS Bank does not have a "homegrown CEO", comments which led to exchanges in the House between Mr Leong and three ministers.
Mr Leong, who is from the Progress Singapore Party (PSP), had said in Parliament on Tuesday that he is "deeply disappointed" that DBS did not have a homegrown CEO 22 years after former JP Morgan executive John Olds was made chief executive of the local bank.
The current CEO of DBS, Piyush Gupta, was born in India and became Singaporean.
“I was troubled when NCMP Leong Mun Wai lamented that we don’t have a homegrown CEO for DBS,” said Mr Iswaran in his speech during the debate on the President’s Address.
“By all means, let us passionately argue the case to do more for Singaporeans. But, as parliamentarians, let us also be careful about what our words convey; in this case, the message we send to those who – to paraphrase Mr S Rajaratnam – have chosen out of conviction to become citizens of Singapore.”
Mr Iswaran highlighted that it is important for the country to remain open – to create jobs and opportunities for Singaporeans - and be inclusive at the same time.
“But, this is easier said than done. Staying open means greater competition, disruption, and adaptation to change,” he said.
“Being inclusive is therefore a vital complement. Our efforts to embrace openness must be matched by an equal if not greater effort to achieve an equitable distribution of the benefits and the access to opportunities; to preserve a sense of fairness.”
Mr Iswaran added that to sustain the balance between staying open and being inclusive, "the foundation must be trust".
"Our citizens must know that the lives and livelihoods of Singaporeans are always our priority; that we have their backs," he said.
Mr Iswaran also reflected on the role of Parliament and the duty of MPs in his speech, saying that Parliament can and should play a significant role in the ongoing effort to strike a balance between staying open and being inclusive.
"The aim is this: We must express the hopes, aspirations, concerns and fears of our citizens at the highest forum in our country. But we should not and must not stop there. We must also be the voice of reason," he said.
"To be candid about the challenges we face, honest about the choices and trade-offs ... and ultimately what we believe to be in the long term interest of our citizens."
Parliament should also lend people hope, Mr Iswaran added.
"Now more than ever, as we deal with unprecedented challenges and seek solutions, we must work with Singaporeans to draw confidence from what we have built up over the past five and a half decades, the challenges that we have faced and overcome, and have deep conviction in our strengths and capabilities, and look to the future with belief,” he said.
"WHAT IS THE MESSAGE WE ARE SENDING TO OUR CITIZENS?"
Following Mr Iswaran's speech, Mr Leong rose to seek clarifications, while adding that the PSP is "committed to an open and inclusive society and economy".
"I want to ask the minister whether the debate that we are conducting over the last few days, when we are questioning certain issues, rebalancing certain issues ... is (it) against the spirit that he is trying to explain to us just now," he said.
In response, Mr Iswaran said: "We can always advocate the case for doing more for Singaporeans ... The issue is when we lament that a Singaporean occupying a certain position is somehow not homegrown. Then I think we really have to ask ourselves the question - as parliamentarians, as elected representatives, what is the message we are sending to our citizens?"
He added: "What does it say to those who are the spouses, the children of Singapore citizens who have become naturalised Singaporeans?"
He then asked Mr Leong: "After this debate and all the information that's been shared, does he still lament that DBS does not have a homegrown CEO?"
Mr Iswaran also asked if Mr Leong acknowledges that there is a large number of Singaporeans at the senior levels of DBS Bank, an issue that had been addressed on Tuesday after a clarification by Nee Soon GRC MP Derrick Goh.
Mr Leong said that he appreciates the clarification made by Mr Goh, but stood by his comments on DBS, saying: "I still hold on to my disappointment, I still keep to that."
He emphasised that in his speech, he had said that it was "over a period of 22 years".
"Why didn't the Government, in the process, put in certain safeguards or certain other rules to ensure that we have these skills transfer ... at least to ensure that Singaporeans will be groomed to take over the job," Mr Leong said.
"In that context, I don't think it will be taken very negatively by the international community. Singapore is open enough, foreigners know that we are very, very open. In fact, if we fail to do certain things to safeguard the interests of Singaporeans, I am afraid we may be laughed at."
"GROW OUR OWN TIMBER"
This drew a response from Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung, a board member of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, who said that this was not the case, and that he had taken pains to explain in the House how Singapore had grown its local talent pool in the finance sector in the past decades.
"That process started when we bring in foreign expertise and then put in a lot of effort to groom local talent, grow our own timber, learn from the foreign expertise and from there, many of our own ... rose up to take senior positions, and I gave quite a lot of data requested by various members to show that we're holding our own by being open to the world," he said.
Mr Ong added that it would be the "wrong approach" to achieve this by setting a quota or insisting that a company must have a Singaporean CEO who must be "born here".
READ: MAS will ensure ‘fair hiring practices’ in financial services sector, create opportunities for Singaporeans: Ong Ye Kung
Mr Iswaran then reiterated his point on how parliamentarians should conduct themselves, saying: "What we say cannot be unsaid, it is there for the record, for the future and everyone, Singaporeans - new citizens or Singapore-born - others who are here, will all be looking at us. And I think we in this House, as elected representatives, must hold ourselves up to a higher standard.
"If we don't, then I think we fail our duties as Members of Parliament and I think we ultimately do a disservice to Singaporeans."
Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Tan See Leng then asked Mr Leong, who is the CEO of private equity firm Timbre Capital, if he would "freely and happily invest in" companies if it is clearly stated that a certain percentage of the senior management had to be of a certain nationality.
Mr Leong said: "When we want to invest in a particular market, we are more concerned whether the company really has the local connections and, so by implication, whether they have enough local talent including the CEO of the company."
DBS CEO Piyush Gupta, who has led the Singapore bank since 2009, was also mentioned in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's speech on Wednesday.
Mr Lee had said that the issue of the concentration of foreigners at a company can be easily played up, citing the example of a Facebook page which had posted a wefie of Mr Gupta in a room full of Indian employees.
It was captioned “Eye sight test: Find a Singaporean or Chinese in this DBS photo”. The photo, posted last September, resurfaced recently and went viral, but was fake news, Mr Lee said.
"That picture was taken in India, where DBS had opened a new office, not in Singapore. The person who put up the post surely knew this, yet he irresponsibly misused the wefie to insinuate that DBS in Singapore was not being fair to Singaporeans, and damage was done," he said.
The Prime Minister added: "Ultimately, our aim is to grow the economy, create good jobs for Singaporeans and raise our standards of living."