Foreigners keep Singapore ‘economically relevant’, but pay attention to the Singapore worker: Pritam Singh

Foreigners keep Singapore ‘economically relevant’, but pay attention to the Singapore worker: Pritam Singh

Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh called for the formation of more Select Committees to improve governance and look after the needs of Singaporeans in his first Parliament speech in his new role. Deborah Wong reports.

SINGAPORE:  There is a need to pay more attention to Singapore workers even as foreigners remain important in helping to “power” Singapore’s economy, said Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh in Parliament on Monday (Aug 31).

Delivering his speech during the debate on the President's Address, Mr Singh said one of the things that needs to change in Singapore is how it manages and accommodates foreigners in the economy.

“Their presence gives Singapore a vitality that keeps us economically relevant and also provides jobs and opportunities to our fellow Singaporeans. Many of us count the foreigners in our midst, regardless of race, language or religion as our friends,” he said. 

“That openness and friendly attitude must continue as a manifestation of the Singapore spirit and the Singapore we leave behind for future generations of Singaporeans," he added.

But it is precisely because we need foreigners to help power our economy that we need to pay more attention to the Singapore worker ... some of whom feel excluded from opportunities created in their homeland.”

READ: Parliament confirms duties, privileges for Pritam Singh as Leader of the Opposition

CALL FOR ANTI-DISCRIMINATION LEGISLATION

Mr Singh, speaking for the first time in a parliamentary debate as Leader of the Opposition, called for the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) to publish the names of "recalcitrant" employers who do not give locals a fair chance in hiring and promotion. 

MOM had recently placed 47 companies on the Fair Consideration Framework (FCF) watchlist for discriminatory hiring practices. A wealth management firm on the watchlist was found to have almost three-quarters of its professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) of the same nationality, he noted.

In another example of a bank, almost two-thirds of the PMETs are of the same nationality.

“The obvious question is, how did those two companies get to those stages without MOM taking action before this?” asked Mr Singh.

READ: 47 employers added to watchlist for suspected discriminatory hiring practices: MOM

“MOM website states at one point and I quote: ‘MOM does not tolerate unfair hiring practices and employers who do not give locals a fair chance in hiring and promotion will face scrutiny and stiff penalties if found to have unfair hiring practices,” he added.

“However, for three-quarters and two-thirds of PMETs of two companies to be non-Singaporeans of the same nationality, Singaporeans may be justified in asking if MOM has tolerated their unfair hiring practices for some time.”

This is a "complex issue", Mr Singh acknowledged, noting that a company may turn to hiring foreigners if, for instance, its customers are not in Singapore, are from the same country as the PMETs it hired or if customers do not speak any of the languages widely used in Singapore.

“The problem is that we simply do not know enough,” he said. 

“And the vacuum has given space for more toxic conversation to ferment. We should nip this forthwith and some details earlier this week from MTI (Ministry of Trade and Industry) about intra-corporate transferees and the minister for MTI have been important. To this end, more information and not less, is certainly more helpful.”

READ: CECA does not give Indian nationals automatic access to citizenship, PR status, employment: MTI

To address the issue, Mr Singh listed several suggestions, including having MOM publish the name of “recalcitrant employers”. "We can then understand the operating paradigm of such businesses and how they intend to make the transition to fair hiring practices," he added.

In addition, Mr Singh suggested that a Parliamentary Select Committee can investigate the limitations of the workforce and the needs of the economy, as well as the issues faced by Singapore workers amid competition and constraints faced by employers.

"Beyond this, a far more purposeful way to prevent companies from hiring unfairly would be for Parliament to pass anti-discrimination legislation and impose penalties for discriminatory practices by egregious offenders," he added.

PLUG POSSIBLE GAPS IN EDUCATION

Tied closely to the issue of hiring foreigners is whether the education system here is adequately preparing citizens for jobs available, said Mr Singh. 

“Two main justifications given for the hiring of foreigners are first, that they are unable to find Singaporeans with the expertise and second, that foreigners do jobs that are undesired by Singaporeans. 

"As it is unlikely that well-paying banking jobs are undesired by Singaporeans, the justification of these banks in hiring foreigners must be that they are unable to find enough Singaporeans with the needed expertise,” said Mr Singh. 

“If that is true, then we need to ask where the gaps are in our education and lifelong learning training systems. These gaps must be found and plugged as soon as possible.”

Pritam Singh in Parliament
Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh speaking in Parliament on Aug 31, 2020.

Mr Singh also touched on local tradesmen, calling on authorities to regulate who can practice each trade.

"In places like Australia, New Zealand and Germany, tradesmen make good wages that match or even outstrip those of university graduates," he said.

“Uplifting our tradesmen will require a paradigm shift in how workers are viewed and trained. If it succeeds, it will raise the self-esteem and incomes of Singaporeans who may not be academically inclined but who have acquired valuable skills that many of us in this House would not be able to fully master," Mr Singh added.

“It is my view that such a decisive shift will fundamentally alter our understanding of meritocracy.”

FORMATION OF MORE SELECT COMMITTEES 

Mr Singh proposed the formation of more Select Committees, as some conversations in Singapore can “continue to be divisive” and require a “framework for reasoned conversation”. 

“Parliament, using the platform of Select Committees, can operate as an important safety valve and agent of positive conversations that ought to have a direct impact on policies and laws,” he said.

This is especially important with misinformation and disinformation campaigns online which “manipulate content and hijack narratives”, he added.

file photo: parliament house
File photo of Parliament House. (Photo: Jeremy Long) 

The Government could create more Standing Select Committees to scrutinise spending, policies and the administration of each ministry, with the members in the committee drawn from a mix of members in the House.

He noted that such committees are “part of the normal political fabric of other democracies”, adding that they are separate from Government Parliament Committees (GPCs) which are partisan and involve only People’s Action Party (PAP) MPs.

READ: Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods: Government accepts recommendations in principle

READ: Select Committee to look into complaints on public hearings: Charles Chong

If not Standing Select Committees, the Government could form more ad hoc committees to investigate specific issues and report back to Parliament, said Mr Singh, adding that eventually, they could become permanent Standing Select Committees.

“These Select Committees must function as investigators, with no pre-determined agenda, hidden or otherwise. They must go where the evidence, obtained through submissions and witnesses, leads them,” he said.

While they are already part of Singapore’s parliamentary processes, there should be more of them, he added.

Mr Singh cited his experience with the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, which was a “good start”.

But he suggested improvements in the process, including a longer lead time for submission to be made, publishing written submissions at least two weeks before the hearings, scheduling hearings over more days, as well as releasing an interim report for public scrutiny that can prompt more written submissions and additional hearings.

WP WILL “CHART AN INDEPENDENT COURSE”

On the role of the opposition in Parliament, Mr Singh said the Workers' Party (WP) will set its “own standards” and “chart an independent course”.

“My assessment is that the public expects the WP and the opposition in general to play a constructive role in Singapore politics. It should advance the interests of all Singaporeans, whether they may be in the majority or minority on any particular issue, without fear or favour. 

“The office of the LO (Leader of the Opposition) goes a long way to institutionalising an opposition in Parliament and in our political system,” he said.

As the “voice of the people”, Mr Singh said the WP intends to raise matters important to people in Singapore that the Government and PAP backbenchers may not.

READ: Pritam Singh to allocate 50% of Leader of the Opposition remuneration to low-income residents, other causes

READ: Leader of the Opposition: A turning point but also a 'double-edged sword', say analysts

While the WP may not have enough MPs to organise themselves into a shadow Cabinet in the tradition of Westminster parliaments, it will look into five areas “critical” and of “huge importance” to Singaporeans, said Mr Singh.

They are: Health, ageing and retirement adequacy; jobs, business and the economy; education, inequality and the cost of living; housing, transport and infrastructure; and National Sustainability to ensure a long-lasting and thriving Singapore.

However, he said the ability of WP MPs to carry out their duties as the opposition depends on the quantity and quality of information shared by the Government in Parliament and released to the public, the resources given by the Government to analyse and use the information for the public’s benefit and the willingness of the Government to listen to and implement alternative ideas proposed.

Mr Singh called on the Government to “put out more information without being asked to”, especially with information and indicators benchmarked against other countries.

WHAT MUST NOT CHANGE

Even as he called for improvements in Singapore, several things must not change, said Mr Singh.

Singapore has always been a “trading nation”, and foreign investors should know that Singapore “will never close for business, no matter how many WP MPs are in Parliament”, he said.

“Opposition politics and advocacy for Singaporeans cannot ignore Singapore’s place in the world and what we offer to the world.

“We must still look outward even as we continually search for a lasting modus vivendi which accommodates the domestic pressures of being economically open and the reality of the Singapore identity that evolves and crystallises as our nation matures.”

Mr Singh added that the WP will continue to support the Government’s defence and foreign policies, including Singaporeans’ involvement in international organisations like the United Nations, World Health Organization and the World Bank.

“These policies are well-considered and they place primacy on Singapore’s interests while seeking long-term mutual cooperation with other countries and international organisations,” he said.

The party also supports cooperation with ASEAN and other countries, particularly in finalising the South China Sea code of conduct.

Singapore’s position on stamping out corruption and its emphasis on racial and religious harmony should not change, said Mr Singh.

“If anything, Singapore’s position on stamping out corruption should be strengthened so that extra-territorial corruption by Singaporeans is discouraged with as much diligence as domestic corruption,” he said.

He added that Singapore should be “grateful” for the country’s emphasis on racial and religious harmony, as it is a “source of intractable problems” in other countries.

“My WP colleagues and I look at Singapore as a glass half-full, or one that can be topped up. There is much that is right and which should remain the same. But there is also much that can, and should, change.” 

Source: CNA/mt(gs)

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