SINGAPORE: Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam on Tuesday (Sep 14) challenged the Progress Singapore Party's (PSP) Leong Mun Wai on several issues related to his motion on foreign talent policy.
From Mr Leong's understanding of his own motion, to accusations of race-baiting, Mr Shanmugan questioned Mr Leong repeatedly in the debate that lasted more than an hour.
Mr Leong had filed a motion for Tuesday’s Parliament sitting, which states: “That this Parliament calls 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 like the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement.”
A competing motion on jobs was filed by Finance Minister Lawrence Wong for the same sitting. In his speech, Mr Wong appealed to the PSP to refrain from “anti-foreigner” rhetoric as it can deepen fault lines between locals and foreigners, and those between Singaporeans of different races.
On the other hand, Mr Leong said in his speech that the Government has “opened the floodgates” for foreigners who have taken up jobs Singaporeans want to do, and there has been a “large displacement of Singaporean PMETs”.
This debate is the second in Parliament on foreign manpower policy in Singapore, with the first in July when Manpower Minister Tan See Leng and Health Minister Ong Ye Kung delivered ministerial statements with the aim to debunk “false allegations” about the Singapore-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA).
ON CECA AND STATEMENTS “WITH RACIAL UNDERTONES”
Rising to speak after Mr Leong delivered his speech, Mr Shanmugam first sought clarifications on the NCMP’s stance on free trade agreements (FTAs), in particular, CECA.
Mr Leong had also repeatedly made “comments which carry clear racial undertones” on CECA since entering Parliament, the minister said.
In response, Mr Leong said that CECA was included in the motion because FTAs and CECA “are part of the equation when we talk about immigration”. He added that that PSP was “supportive of FTAs and even CECA in general” but the party needed more information about all the trade agreements before it was able to “wholeheartedly” support them.
Mr Shanmugam then asked why CECA was being specifically identified in the motion if the opposition was generally supportive of FTAs and CECA.
To which, Mr Leong repeated that there was no full disclosure on the provisions under the chapter titled “movement of natural persons” in CECA, as well as some other FTAs. These other trade pacts included those that Singapore had signed with Australia, China and the United States, Mr Leong later said when pressed by the minister to specify.
For example, Singapore’s FTA with Australia “also contains a clause allowing ICTs (intra-corporate transferees) to bring in dependents”, said the NCMP.
“So we would like to know more. Before we know more information about that, we cannot shut off discussion on FTAs and CECA, which the Government is trying to do,” said Mr Leong, adding that data provided in the Jul 6 ministerial statement was “not conclusive”.
Mr Shanmugam also asked Mr Leong for his take on how his previous comments on CECA had troubled his own party members who, according to media reports, interpreted the comments as targeting the Indian community and having a racial undertone.
“My question was, if his own party members can think like that, it’s entirely possible for other Singaporeans to take a similar view,” the minister said.
Mr Leong said that PSP is “an open party” and it allows its members to freely express their views. He later added that people would have different views on any topic put up for discussion and that the party was asking for more information on CECA as it was a “concern of many Singaporeans”.
He was interrupted by Mr Shanmugam who said he was not answering the question. To which, Mr Leong eventually said that “there will be some people who will think there is (a) racial undertone”.
ON PROVISIONS UNDER CECA
Mr Shanmugam also asked Mr Leong if he agreed that CECA does not allow a free flow of Indians into Singapore.
The minister noted that Mr Ong had explained in his ministerial statement in July that there is “nothing” in CECA that implies Singapore must let in PMEs from India unconditionally. Mr Ong had also debunked a claim made by PSP that a list of 127 categories of professionals under CECA allowed Indian nationals in these professions to come to work in Singapore freely for one year.
In response, Mr Leong said “the word ‘free flow’ is not the property of PSP” and “has been used by the Government as well”. He repeated the need for more data to prove that CECA “has no influence over (Singapore’s) immigration policies”.
“We asked for ICT numbers but only one year’s number is given. Can you give all the numbers? You give all the numbers from 2005 to 2020, and the number of ICTs who have later on become PRs and new citizens and obtain new work passes,” said Mr Leong, before being interrupted by Mr Shanmugam who said he wanted to remind the NCMP that these were two different issues.
“Those are matters of numbers and details, and we can deal with that separately,” said Mr Shanmugam, while repeating his question to the NCMP if he accepts Mr Ong’s statement that there is nothing in CECA that allows for free movement of Indian workers.
This prompted Mr Leong to say the debate should focus on “economic effects”, instead of a legal document. To which, Mr Shanmugam referred to the NCMP’s motion, which stated job anxieties “caused by the foreign talent policy and provisions on movement of natural persons in some free trade agreements, like CECA”.
“That's just untrue based on what Minister Ong has said. We are arguing about your motion which refers to the provisions of CECA. Sir, I'm afraid Mr Leong doesn’t even know what his motion says,” said the minister who asked Mr Leong if he would, in the context of his motion, agree that the debate was on the provisions of CECA and that there was nothing in the trade deal that allows free movement of people.
A lengthy to-and-fro then ensued between the minister and Mr Leong, with Speaker of the House Tan Chuan-Jin interjecting to ask the NCMP to clarify his views about the provisions.
Mr Leong later said he “(did) not have a legal opinion” on the provisions at that point. He also repeated that he was “focusing on the economic effect of those provisions” and that more data was needed as there were “some initial doubts whether the movement is easier than what the government has represented”.
Mr Shanmugam responded that Mr Leong did not seem to understand the legal provisions despite mentioning them in his motion.
“He has no understanding of the provisions of CECA, and I assume that he has the same concerns about the provisions in the US FTA, the China FTA and the Australian FTA. If so, I hope to see those FTAs being referenced in future, rather than CECA being singled out, if what he says is true.”
ON THE NEED FOR FOREIGN MANPOWER
Mr Shanmugam then turned to the need for foreign manpower, noting that Mr Leong had said in his speech that he agreed that some foreign PMETs is needed.
The minister went on to provide some figures, noting that there has been an increase of 110,000 Employment Pass and S Pass holders over the last decade while the number of local PMETs rose by 300,000 during the same period.
He also said PMET job vacancies numbered around 30,000 over the past five years and the population of permanent residents in Singapore had remained stable in the last five years at about 520,000.
“Mr Leong agrees that we need some foreign PMETs - today it’s 350,000. If that is too much, then can he tell us what is the right number?”
“The number of rebalancing … depends on the Government’s estimate of what is the number of Singaporeans that are being displaced, which is something that I will push during the debate,” Mr Leong replied, prompting Mr Shanmugam to say that the NCMP did not know what the number should be.
To that, Mr Leong said: “Of course, Government is always controlling the … data. I will have to refer to the Government to give me some data to come up with an accurate answer. I got some numbers in mind but I will prefer to wait for the data.”
Mr Shanmugam countered that it “therefore follows logically that Mr Leong is not able to assert here or anywhere else that we have too many foreign PMETs in Singapore”.
The opposition NCMP disagreed, citing feedback from “many” underemployed Singaporeans and rising numbers of gig workers and those who are self-employed. “So we got some rough numbers, but we want the Government to give us more accurate numbers,” he reiterated.
Mr Shanmugam then asked Mr Leong for an explanation as to why he thought so many PMET vacancies had gone unfilled for the last five years.
Mr Leong said he was not able to provide an answer based on “single data”. “But if all these vacancies and numbers are being presented in a proper time-series data set, then we will be able to analyse the numbers,” he added.
This prompted Mr Shanmugam to say that Mr Leong “doesn’t know the meaning of the motion that he has put up” as he had not given a credible explanation on why CECA was singled out, why he referred to the provisions under the trade pact and whether he thought there are too many foreign PMETs in Singapore.
The minister went on to say that there are Singaporeans who have lost their jobs or under-employed, and the point is “to find the right solutions” such as reskilling workers and allowing them to find jobs in new industries.
“What is not legitimate to try and create a racist, xenophobic, ‘them versus us’ fervour, put down a motion saying that the terms of CECA are wrong and then come to Parliament and say ‘I don't know anything about the terms of CECA’. That is doing serious disservice to Singaporeans,” said Mr Shanmugam.
Mr Leong countered that the minister was making “a lot of accusations” and reiterated that he had filed the motion to discuss “the economic effect of the provisions in the FTA”.
He also said that a lot of the data that he had asked for had not been provided and that the PSP disagreed with the Government that global forces were a key reason for job displacements in Singapore.
“The displacement in Singapore … is a key point that we are debating today. Governments say (it) is due to global forces. I say, or PSP say, a large part of it is not due to global forces. So that's what we are debating about so don't jump the gun (and) make the conclusion now.”
ON “HOMEGROWN” CEOS
Lastly, Mr Shanmugam cited Mr Leong’s earlier statement in Parliament about how he was "deeply disappointed" that DBS Bank did not have a homegrown chief executive officer. The bank's current CEO, Mr Piyush Gupta, was born in India and became a Singapore citizen in 2009.
The minister asked the NCMP if he still believes in what he said and that naturalised Singapore citizens should not hold top positions.
Mr Leong replied that that “is definitely not the case”, adding that he was trying to make the point on succession plans and skills transfer as Mr Gupta had been appointed to the position when “he was still a foreigner”.
Mr Shanmugam maintained that the “natural interpretation” of Mr Leong’s statement would be that he was disappointed “that it's Mr Gupta, and not a homegrown Singaporean” who was appointed to the top job at DBS.
This sparked another to-and-fro between Mr Shanmugam and Mr Leong, who maintained that this was not his intention.
This prompted Mr Tan, the Speaker of the House, to say: “I think the question is whether it's fair for anyone in the public to interpret it the way as minister (has) put across… notwithstanding whatever your intent might be. Because what we say in Parliament matters – that's how the public will perceive it which is why the choice of words and phrases is important.”
Mr Leong replied that “some minority of the people might interpret it that way”, before adding that the issues raised by Mr Shanmugam had been unrelated to the motion and proposed returning to the debate.
To that, Mr Shanmugam said: “It's not wrong that we welcome talent when people are committed enough to take on citizenship. It is wrong to have an issue with new citizens and PRs from specific countries, because it is quite clear what Mr Leong and PSP were doing.
“It’s race-baiting and nationality-baiting without beating about the bush, and that's what the words of this motion suggest.”
He added that the “dark picture” that Mr Leong had painted about Singapore “bears little resemblance to reality”.
“What we have is not perfect … but it's not the picture that Mr Leong is describing. 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,” said Mr Shanmugam.
“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.”
Mr Leong replied that he “strongly” objected to Mr Shanmugam’s comments.
“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,” said the opposition NCMP.