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After 10-hour debate on foreign labour, motion on securing Singaporeans’ jobs passed in Parliament

After 10-hour debate on foreign labour, motion on securing Singaporeans’ jobs passed in Parliament

Office workers wearing protective face masks cross the road at Raffles Place on Sept 6, 2021. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

SINGAPORE: Parliament on Wednesday (Sep 15) passed a motion by Finance Minister Lawrence Wong on securing Singaporeans’ jobs and livelihoods, and rejected a competing motion by Progress Singapore Party (PSP) member Leong Mun Wai, after a marathon debate that started on Tuesday afternoon and carried on past midnight.

Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) Mr Leong had filed a motion calling upon the Government to “take urgent and concrete action to address the widespread anxiety among Singaporeans on jobs and livelihoods caused by the foreign talent policy and the provisions on Movement of Natural Persons in some free trade agreements (FTA) like the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA)”.

Mr Wong’s motion, filed after Mr Leong’s, stated that the House:
(a) acknowledges Singaporeans’ anxieties about jobs and competition in a globalised and fast-changing economy;
(b) affirms Singapore’s need to stay open and connected to the world in order to grow and prosper;
(c) supports Government actions to manage the population of foreign manpower, ensure fair treatment by employers, and invest in education and upskilling, to create more good jobs for Singaporeans;
(d) calls on the Government to continue to update and improve its policies to secure the well-being and livelihoods of Singaporeans in an uncertain post-pandemic world; and
(e) deplores attempts to spread misinformation about free trade agreements like the Singapore-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA), stir up racism and xenophobia, and cause fear and anxiety amongst Singaporeans.

The Workers’ Party (WP) Members of Parliament (MP) voted against both motions after their suggested amendments to the motions were turned down by the House.

The debate began just before 2pm on Tuesday, and the final votes were taken at about 12.30am on Wednesday.

MORE DISRUPTIONS, VOLATILITY

In particular, the Government took issue with how the PSP linked Singaporeans' job anxieties to FTAs, as ministers pinpointed globalisation as a key factor.

In his closing remarks, Mr Wong said that Singapore will see more disruptions and volatility in the global economy, with new jobs created and many jobs being transformed or becoming obsolete.

“How Singapore capitalises on these opportunities while addressing the anxieties around jobs will determine our success and whether we remain cohesive and intact as one people,” he said.

He criticised the PSP’s arguments as “simplistic and wishful thinking”, and reiterated that squeezing out foreigners would not lead to jobs automatically going to Singaporeans.

“I think all of these arguments miss out on the most important point, and that’s the stark reality that Singaporeans are great in the workforce but there are just not enough of us,” he said.

Mr Wong also cautioned that many firms will not set up shop in Singapore if there are manpower policies that restrict them from hiring international talent, resulting in worse outcomes for Singaporean workers. 

On PSP’s point that there are many underemployed mid-career Singaporeans, Mr Wong said that the Government is trying its best to retrain mid-career workers, but this “does not happen overnight”.

Acknowledging that an open economy has downsides with not everyone benefitting, Mr Wong said: “Some have been knocked down by the winds of change, and it’s not simply a matter of bouncing back on your feet again, especially when you’re older.”

But the Government will provide the “best support” it can give to those who have been knocked down, he said.

“At the end of the day, I recognise that this strategy that I have set out - that the Government is pursuing - is not something that’s easy to implement politically,” he said.

“WE HAVE TO DECIDE WHERE WE STAND”

Mr Wong also cautioned against having “xenophobic undertones” in Singapore politics.

“We will be going down a very slippery slope. It will start with seemingly innocent comments and questions being raised, or dog whistles and coded phrases but over time, the comments become normalised, and racist and xenophobic sentiments become more prevalent.”

To PSP’s protests that they have not been racist or xenophobic, he said: “If it looks like a duck, if it walks like a duck, if it quacks like a duck, it is a duck.

“Whatever Mr Leong or (fellow PSP NCMP) Ms Hazel Poa may say, the fact is that this is how people see and perceive the PSP campaign.”

The Finance Minister said that the debate is not just about jobs and livelihoods but also about the nation’s values.

He said that the motion that stands in his name talks about Singapore’s overall economic strategy to stay open, connected to the world, and to deal with the downsides of an open economy as it helps Singaporeans cope and adjust.

He added that the motion by Mr Leong ostensibly deals with anxieties about jobs but “persists with a negative campaign to link this to free trade agreements and CECA, and to continue to stir racism and xenophobia”.

“So we have to decide where we stand and make a choice,” he said. 

“SINGAPOREANS’ SUFFERING WILL GO ON”

In his own round-up speech, Mr Leong rejected suggestions that the PSP is attacking foreigners, highlighting that everyone in the House has a “common objective” of improving the job prospects and livelihoods of Singaporeans.

While Mr Leong acknowledged that Singapore needs foreign talent, he said the Government’s foreign employment policies have “displaced” many local professionals, managers and executives (PMEs).

Mr Leong went on to list a number of differences in PSP’s stance on foreign employment, arguing that displacement occurred in “large part” due to foreign work pass holders.

He also disagreed with the Government’s stance that the displacement problem is not serious, and that the emphasis should be on retraining.

Mr Leong said it is better to prevent displacement in the first place, pointing out that the Government should “change course” and gradually reduce foreign work pass numbers.

The NCMP said Singapore can overcome companies’ and foreigners’ resistance to these new policies by “staying united”, and predicted that “Singaporeans’ suffering will go on” if the Government continues to come up with similar policies.

“People movements in FTAs like CECA are part of a much larger problem,” he said. “We still cannot agree that CECA is net beneficial to Singapore.”

LEONG SPARS WITH SHANMUGAM

The round-up speeches concluded a protracted debate that started with Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam and Mr Leong sparring over the very definition of the PSP motion.

It seemed to pick up from where Parliament left off on Jul 6, when members heard deliberations on foreign employment after two ministers spoke about the importance of FTAs.

On that day, Mr Leong said his party fully supported FTAs, but stopped short of withdrawing his claim that CECA gives Indian PMEs unfettered entry into Singapore.

On Tuesday, Mr Shanmugam again sought to get Mr Leong to acknowledge that the legal provisions in CECA prevented this sort of unfettered entry, but Mr Leong said he was more focused on the economic interpretation of these provisions.

The back-and-forth often spiralled into questions over semantics, with Parliament Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin interjecting several times to explain Mr Shanmugam’s queries and to ask Mr Leong to clarify his statements.

When pressed again, Mr Leong said he did not have a legal opinion on the CECA provisions, but suggested that Indian PMEs could be getting easier entry into Singapore under CECA than what the Government has presented.

In the bigger picture, Mr Shanmugam questioned why Mr Leong singled out CECA in his motion, highlighting that some PSP members have expressed concern that Mr Leong’s continued focus on CECA targeted the Indian community and had racial undertones.

Mr Leong acknowledged that some people could find his comments on CECA laced with racial undertones, but insisted that he was also concerned with other FTAs, such as the ones Singapore signed with Australia and the US.

Mr Leong also called for the Government to release more data on its FTAs before he could assess their impact on Singaporean livelihoods.

When Mr Shanmugam asked Mr Leong to say how many foreign PMEs would be a good number for Singapore, Mr Leong said he would first need figures on Singaporeans who are underemployed.

“I think what this House is witnessing is ... Mr Leong doesn’t know the meaning of the motion that he has put up,” Mr Shanmugam said, noting that Mr Leong has not given a “credible explanation” for why he singled CECA out or why he referred to CECA’s provisions.

“So it’s meaningless, the motion. It doesn’t make any sense to him, let alone to us.”

Mr Leong rejected the minister’s comments, stressing that the motion was focused on the economic and not legal impact of FTAs, and that he had asked for data that has not been provided by the Government.

“Don’t jump the gun and make the conclusion now,” he added.

WP CALLS FOR RELEASE OF MORE INFORMATION

Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh then waded into the debate, reiterating that the Government should “share detailed facts that matter to the people, and not only consolidated facts that broadly support the Government’s position”.

In particular, the WP chief said the Manpower Ministry (MOM) should disclose the number of intra-corporate transferees (ICT) from India approved under CECA over the years, so that Members could make a better assessment of the impact of ICTs under CECA compared to other FTAs.

ICTs are overseas employees at a multinational corporation who have worked for at least a year in the company, before being posted to a branch or subsidiary in Singapore.

Companies that want to fill a role with an ICT are exempted from the requirement of advertising the job on MyCareersFuture.sg, although the candidate still has to meet prevailing work pass criteria before being allowed to work in Singapore.

Mr Singh acknowledged that Manpower Minister Tan See Leng told Parliament on Jul 6 that the number of ICTs from India in 2020 was a “low” figure of 500, although Dr Tan said this was in recognition of how the spread of misconceptions on CECA could do more damage.

Based on what Dr Tan said, Mr Singh said there was the implication that the Government’s “release of information on such matters would likely continue to be reactive and when it suits the Government, rather than proactive and when it suits the people”.

“I would be delighted to stand corrected on this, but if I am right that the Government prefers to remain reactive, I would suggest to the Government that this approach can no longer hold water, nor should it,” he added.

Apart from communicating more information on foreign employment better to Singaporeans, Mr Singh suggested several measures to “repair the local-foreign divide”.

This includes effectively promoting and tracking skills transfers from foreigners to Singaporeans, considering fixed-term employment passes tied to skills transfers, solving and tracking the problem of underemployment, as well as setting up a Parliamentary Standing Select Committee dedicated to overseeing the issue of jobs and foreign employment.

Mr Singh also suggested amendments to Mr Wong’s motion, including an additional point asking for more transparency, which read: (f) Calls on the Government to proactively release information on jobs and employment prospects of Singaporeans and the costs and benefits of free trade agreements and foreign worker policies, with a view to formulating better policies to ensure Singaporeans secure good jobs in Singapore and are not disadvantaged when seeking employment.

Mr Wong rejected this amendment, saying that it had nothing to do with the matter of jobs that was being debated, and that there has been “no shortage of data”.

“The Government has a different view. We see data and transparency as a means to better governance, and it’s not always the case that data is necessarily an unmitigated good,” he said.

He added that the United States has the Freedom of Information Act but trust levels in the government there is low.

DEBATE OVER LABOUR FIGURES

To this end, the Manpower Minister Dr Tan asked on Tuesday “what further information” the PSP needed, noting that MOM did not give annual data on ICTs in Singapore because the “trends were similar”.

Nevertheless, Dr Tan said he would release the figures “since the PSP persists in this line of inquiry”:

icts in singapore

He shared the number of ICTs since 2016, which showed that there were 300 to 600 from India annually in the last five years.

"These numbers have been consistently low,” Dr Tan said.

Dr Tan asserted that the PSP “fixates on the increase in the number of foreign professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) to argue that locals have been displaced and have lost out”.

“It has painted a picture of widespread displacement based on the anecdotes it has heard. But how have local PMETs actually fared? MOM publishes this data regularly, at fine granularity, but the PSP has not made any mention of this,” said Dr Tan, adding that the PSP has asked for a “slew” of data, but not used any of it in its arguments.

The Manpower Minister said that he will focus instead on how local PMETs have actually fared, sharing in the House a series of numbers and charts on this.

Over the past decade, there was an increase of 110,000 EP and S Pass holders but local PMETs increased by 300,000, figures that were also shared by Finance Minister Lawrence Wong earlier.

“This goes to show competition between locals and foreigners is not a zero-sum game,” Dr Tan said.

In addition, local PMET unemployment, other than during crises, has generally remained at 3 per cent or lower. Meanwhile, the number of PMET job vacancies has “been on an upward trend” since 2010 and has been “hovering” around 30,000 over the past five years.

Lastly, he shared that median local PMET wages rose from S$4,600 in 2010 to S$6,300 in 2020, a rise of 38 per cent, or 21 per cent in real terms.

“In fact, the proportion of our workforce in PMET jobs is among the highest in the world at almost 60 per cent, doubling up from 30 per cent in the early 1990s – this is a very different picture from the dire situation that the PSP has portrayed,” said Dr Tan.

He then addressed measures proposed by Mr Leong and fellow NCMP Ms Poa to tighten Singapore’s foreign labour flow, challenging them to explain how their suggestions will not hurt Singapore’s attractiveness to foreign investors.

One of the proposals was to raise the qualifying salaries to S$10,000 for Employment Pass holders and S$4,500 for S Pass holders in the next three years.

Dr Tan countered that Mr Leong might not be aware that qualifying salaries rise with age and that the qualifying salaries cited by the PSP NCMP, S$2,500 for S Passes and S$4,500 for EPs, are the minimum qualifying salaries at the youngest ages. The EP qualifying salary for those in their 40s is twice the minimum, for instance.

“Many businesses, including the SMEs, are already crying out that they are not able to access the foreign PMETs that they need,” he said.

On setting quotas for locals and for any single nationality in a firm, Dr Tan said that it would be difficult to attract business in a new area here if there was not enough local talent in that area.

“If the PSP insists on a 30 per cent quota, then I would like to ask: Would you turn away a company that creates 69 high-end jobs for locals because it needs 31 foreigners?

“I worry that the PSP is calling for policies that are not only short-sighted, but protectionist, and this will do grave harm to Singaporeans,” he said.

Following his speech, both Mr Leong and Ms Poa raised clarifications. Ms Poa wanted to know, in particular, if growth in PMET numbers among locals was due to “reclassification” as mentioned in her speech.

She had raised doubts in her speech on a number Dr Tan had given, specifically that local PME jobs have increased by 380,000 from 2005 to 2020.

A portion of these jobs could be due to “reclassification”, a result of permanent residents (PR) becoming citizens, and foreigners becoming PRs, she said.

She then asked if a significant portion of the 380,000 increase in local PME jobs could have come from change in resident status of the job holders, not due to creation of new jobs.

“How many new local PME jobs were created, netting off the effect of reclassification?” she asked.

Despite Dr Tan saying that the majority of growth in PMET positions in the last decade went to Singapore-born citizens, Ms Poa raised the question a few times, asking for a specific number.

Ms Poa also touched on companies that try to circumvent work pass qualifying salary criteria by underpayment, meaning making inflated claims of salaries to MOM or having the employee return a portion of their salaries in cash.

She suggested that there should be audits on successful tenderers for large contracts to ensure firms comply with manpower policies. She also proposed that MOM license HR managers so that those who fail the standards can have their licences taken away.

“We are not asking for a closed economy or closed labour market, but a reduction in our reliance on foreign manpower to a lower level and keeping a close eye on wage growth while we adjust the level of foreign participation in our labour force,” she said.

Ms Poa also made the point that tightening the labour market will lead to higher wages, showing the link through real median wage growth and labour force growth from 2009 to 2019. Her conclusion was that labour force growth depresses real wage growth.

“If our priority is economic growth, then indeed we should welcome all foreign direct investments (FDI) even if they should require a huge influx of foreign manpower,” she said.

“But if our priority is wage growth, then we would be more selective and focused in bringing in FDI that benefit primarily local workforce and does not require a high proportion of foreign manpower.”

Mr Wong countered in his closing remarks that this was also a “simplistic” conclusion and wages will not automatically rise when labour markets tighten.

“Beyond a point, if wage increases are not matched by productivity increases, we will lose our competitiveness.”

MPs OPPOSE PSP’S MOTION

MPs who spoke on the motions reiterated that many large companies in Singapore were playing a global game, and would not hesitate to leave the country if its policies did not suit them.

Without these companies, there would be no jobs for local PMEs in the first place, they said.

MP Patrick Tay (PAP-Pioneer) agreed that there should be skills transfer schemes to facilitate the transfer of skills from foreign specialists to local PMEs, adding that human resource (HR) standards should be raised to make their processes more transparent.

“HR practitioners, especially those in the recruitment functions, play a vital role in ensuring that the companies adhere to the employment legislation and regulations to improve compliance with fair employment practices,” he said.

“They are also the advocates for the recruitment of Singaporeans in positions within their companies. It is therefore important that we move towards increasing certification and accreditation of HR practitioners.”

But Mr Tay, who is part of the labour movement, opposed Mr Leong’s motion as he felt it suggested no concrete action has been taken to strengthen the Singaporean core of workers, when this has not been the case.

MP Vikram Nair (PAP-Sembawang) likewise opposed Mr Leong’s motion, arguing that Singaporeans’ job anxieties could be attributed to business difficulties, exacerbated during the pandemic, that lead to retrenchments. FTAs have nothing to do with this, he said.

Mr Nair said he also objected to Mr Singh’s proposal to amend Mr Wong’s motion and include a call to release more information, something Mr Nair called Mr Singh’s “pet topic”.

“There is actually a great deal of information out there already, this quarterly labour market data, advance market data coming out with breakdowns of Singaporeans and foreigners employed,” Mr Nair said.

“So, I think an insinuation that there isn't adequate information out there is something I cannot support.”

Source: CNA/hm(gr)

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