PSP’s 'anti-foreigner' rhetoric deepens fault lines, says Lawrence Wong as Leong Mun Wai denies 'racist' accusations
SINGAPORE: Finance Minister Lawrence Wong on Tuesday (Sep 14) appealed to Progress Singapore Party (PSP) leaders to refrain from "anti-foreigner" rhetoric as it can deepen fault lines between locals and foreigners, and those between Singaporeans of different races.
Addressing the House in a Parliament motion on securing Singaporeans’ jobs and livelihoods, Mr Wong set out the Government’s economic and labour policies and repudiated PSP’s claim that its foreign talent policy has caused anxiety among Singaporeans on jobs and livelihoods.
Speaking on a competing motion on foreign talent policy, Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Leong Mun Wai (PSP) denied that there were “racist and xenophobic undertones” to his arguments against foreign professionals and free trade agreements, including the India–Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA).
“It is a shame that this Government has persistently tried to link the public discourse on CECA to racism. I hereby state categorically that PSP is against linking the public discourse on CECA to racism. It is confusing Singaporeans, and even dividing Singaporeans,” Mr Leong said.
Following their opening speeches, a combined debate on the two motions ensued.
This debate is the second in Parliament on foreign manpower policy in Singapore, with the first, in July, also initiated by the PSP’s Mr Leong.
Mr Wong said that the Government cannot accept PSP’s motion on foreign talent policy, which is why it has moved a separate motion on the same issue.
“Please reflect on how your rhetoric can deepen fault lines – not just between locals and foreigners, but even between Singaporeans of different races," Mr Wong said.
“The strong racist and xenophobic undertones in the PSP’s campaign against CECA have not gone unnoticed.”
Mr Leong said in his speech that the issue needed to be debated further as the party had not received satisfactory answers from the Government on the questions it had raised.
“Our motion today is about jobs and livelihood of Singaporeans, not xenophobia or racism,” he said.
CONCERNS FROM BUSINESSES, JOBSEEKER
Mr Wong said that the business community had expressed concerns about the rhetoric against foreigners and free trade agreements.
“They are worried that the PSP’s anti-foreigner stance will undermine their access to workers, and jeopardise their overall operations here,” he said.
Singaporeans also feel the impact, said Mr Wong as he shared an email from an Indian Singaporean who was worried about not being shortlisted for jobs due to concern over foreign workers from India.
“As Mr Ong Ye Kung said in July, we are prepared to fight the next election on this issue; we are prepared to fight any party that chooses to take a populist line and stirs racism and xenophobia,” said Mr Wong.
He invited Mr Leong to share PSP’s approach to the issue of job creation.
“I’ve set out comprehensively the Government’s strategy. We stay open and connected to the world, to create more jobs and uplift all Singaporeans,” said Mr Wong.
“We take concrete measures to deal with the downsides of an open economy – manage the inflow of workers, tackle discrimination at the workplace, and look after the minority who are displaced.”
He reiterated that Singapore cannot turn inwards and as a small island, needs to stay open and connected to survive.
“If we were to take a politically craven approach and impose many stringent conditions on (companies’) ability to operate here, we will lose out on many good investments, we would have fewer foreigners for sure,” he said.
“But many Singaporeans will also be deprived of good jobs and career opportunities. It’s like cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.”
Mr Wong said that the Government’s strategies to grow the economy and create good jobs have worked and cited data over the last decade to support this.
From 2010 to 2019 – up until COVID-19 struck – median income in real terms grew by 3.2 per cent a year for residents and household incomes rose.
Between 2010 and 2020, local professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMET) employment grew by about 300,000, nearly three times the increase in Employment Pass and S pass holders over the same time period, at about 110,000, he added.
Calling the PSP’s thinking “fatally flawed”, he said: “The PSP wants to sweep these aside. They downplay the jobs, opportunities and outcomes we have created, and play up the anxieties.
“The PSP assumes that if we reduced the number of foreigners here; then all their jobs will automatically go to Singaporeans.”
Instead of that happening, Singapore is likely to lose its status as a business hub and its economy will “go down in a tailspin”.
“We’d end up with far worse problems, and it’s not foreigners, but Singaporeans who will ultimately pay the price.”
"OPENED THE FLOODGATES"
Mr Leong presented a different take, saying that the Government “opened the floodgates” for foreigners who have taken up jobs Singaporeans want to do, and there has been a “large displacement of Singaporean PMETs”.
“Easy” immigration policies and “unfair” wage policies have forced many Singaporeans out of jobs, and then into long-term underemployment, he said.
“The crux of the matter is that we should have been selective in taking in real foreign talent. The failure to do so was a policy failure and that’s why a rebalancing is required."
He also said that the Government did not have a "full appreciation of the severity of the problem" and that upcoming anti-workplace discrimination laws, recently announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, may not be effective.
This is as displaced Singaporeans would be in "a vulnerable position" and might not want to go through a long arbitration process.
"Although legislation is still welcome, we look forward to the Government coming up with concrete measures to tackle the quality, number and concentration issues identified by the Prime Minister," he said.
"To begin with, the Government must listen to the affected Singaporeans more patiently and then recognise the serious shortcomings of its current policies."
Mr Leong then peppered the House with several questions starting with: "Why (do) so many Singaporeans have difficulties in finding good jobs when there are so many work pass holders in Singapore?
"Are there not enough Singaporeans? Or are they not given the opportunities by employers?"
He also wanted to know the extent of underemployment in Singapore and cast doubt on official data. "The low unemployment number that the Government is touting may be masking a deepening underemployment problem which we have to look into," he said.
Mr Leong added that there is wage depression in certain sectors with more foreign workers, as well as increasing concentration of work pass holders resulting in fewer Singaporeans taking up these jobs.
He asserted that this was behind the rapid rise in employment pass holders in the infocomm sector.
"Based on feedback from many SIngaporeans, the number of work pass holders is large enough and they are here long enough to form networks among main contractors, outsourcing vendors, recruitment agencies, HR managers and even top managers which discriminate against Singaporean workers in their hiring practices," he said.
He added that there is a "huge divide" between Singaporeans' experiences and the Government's narrative.
"SENSE OF NOSTALGIA"
Mr Wong said that those who want to see fewer foreign work pass holders may be feeling “a sense of nostalgia about how things were like in the past”.
While there were fewer foreign PMETs in Singapore in the 1990s, overall standards of living were also much lower then and median salaries were less than S$2,000 compared to about S$4,500 today, he said.
“Is that what we want? Stagnate in the 1990s, while the rest of the world progresses around us?” he asked.
The Finance Minister acknowledged that there are downsides to being an open economy but said that the Government tries to attend to these.
The Government is updating its manpower policies and rules to manage the flow of work pass holders, is putting in place legislation against workplace discrimination, and does its “utmost” to help those who have lost their jobs, said Mr Wong.
He added: “After the crisis, we expect a permanent shift in support levels with more help for our workers, especially as we enter a period of greater volatility and disruption.
“MOF is working through these details carefully, to make sure that the changes we make are financially sustainable.”
"RACIST AND XENOPHOBIC SENTIMENTS"
Mr Wong challenged Mr Leong to elaborate on PSP’s position, raising two questions that Health Minister Ong Ye Kung had early asked Mr Leong in Parliament.
In July, Mr Ong asked whether the PSP agreed that “FTAs, including CECA, are fundamental to Singapore’s economic survival and our ability to earn a living and we should not shake this bedrock principle for political purposes”.
He also asked Mr Leong if he agreed that “CECA is not the cause of the challenges faced by our PMEs, and does not allow a free flow of Indian PMEs into Singapore”.
“Mr Leong had not given this House a clear answer to these questions. The PSP has had two months to think about their answers. So I hope that when Mr Leong rises next, he will speak clearly,” said Mr Wong.
Mr Wong said that if Mr Leong agrees with the above then the issue can be put to rest.
“But if he continues to equivocate, or to make misleading or false claims, then we can only conclude that CECA is a cover for the PSP to stoke racist and xenophobic sentiments,” he said.
THREE MEASURES SUGGESTED
Mr Leong said that the debate so far has been hindered by "unnecessary distraction" like comments about its racial undertones, and called for "urgent and concrete measures" to "restore some balance" in the job market.
He suggested three measures: One, that Singapore raises its qualifying salaries for EPs to S$10,000 and S passes to S$4,500 in stages over the next three years.
Two, that a monthly levy of S$1,200 on all EPs be introduced to "reduce unfair wage competition". This is to match Central Provident Fund contributions required for Singaporean workers.
Third, to impose a cap on workers from a single nationality based on a company's staff strength in each business function. Mr Leong suggested a 10 per cent cap on any one nationality, but that companies can deviate from the cap if they can justify a genuine shortage of skills required in Singapore.
"Despite the underlying suggestion in the Government's motion that the PSP is trying to fan anti-foreigner sentiment, which my party has denied, the PSP has given careful consideration and felt it is our duty to raise the issues, file this motion and have it fully debated," he said.