by Dr Joseph Teo
I write this in response to the Channel News Asia (CNA) “Singapore seeks ‘quality rather than quantity’: Chan Chun Sing on changes to foreign work pass policy” (29 Aug 2020) and related coverage in the Straits Times (ST) “Chan Chun Sing clarifies 3 common misconceptions about Ceca“ (30 Aug 2020).
First, I am very encouraged by the government’s commitment to go all out to help Singaporeans compete and ensure a “fair-level playing field”, and will have “zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind”. It is important for Singaporeans to know that our government is behind us.
There are, however, a number of troubling statements in both articles that indicate that the government has an incomplete understanding of Singaporean concerns, and may have missed its mark in its response.
Firstly, I agree that given Singapore’s finite labour pool, it will “need some portion of foreign complement in the different sectors” (CNA article). However, it is inappropriate to compare the IT and finance industries with the petrochemical industry and claim that at some future point in time Singaporeans will fill positions of responsibility.
In particular, we were world leaders in the effective use of information technology (IT) and ranked number one in the UN e-Government Survey for more than 10 years. We developed many world class and first-in-the-world applications including Tradenet, CORENET, and what is now the Singpass single sign-on. We developed the world’s first central limit order book (CLOB), an automated trading system for stocks. We sent our children to the best universities in the world to study IT. Mr Tan Kiat How, MP for East Coast GRC, is one of the last few beneficiaries of the now defunct scholarship programme. We have given up our position, and have fallen out of the top 10 in e-Government rankings. I fail to understand how letting Indian nationals into Singapore and depressing IT wages will encourage Singaporeans to enter the industry and somehow make us world class again.
Secondly, I wish to thank Mr Chan for making an attempt to tell Singaporeans how CECA advantages Indian nationals and companies. Transparency is important if the government wants to garner the support of Singaporeans.
In particular, it was clarified that Indian companies that bring transferees from India “do not have to advertise the position to locals as part of the Fair Consideration Framework” (ST article). In other words, if a new job is created in Singapore, Indian companies can bring in an Indian national to fill the job without first offering it to Singaporeans.
Unfortunately, the story does not end there. In Article 9.6 of CECA, those who have been granted a privilege to work in Singapore can bring their spouses and dependants here. And Singapore “shall, upon application, grant the accompanying spouses or dependants… the right to work as managers, executives or specialists….”. That is, for every Indian national working here in a “high growth” sector, Singapore has to allow one or more dependants from India to compete with Singaporeans in jobs that are not necessarily in the “high growth” sector.
It is also confusing that Mr. Chan said that “most of the 164 members of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) have also made commitments on entry of ICTs under the General Agreement on Trade in Services” (ST article).
If similar commitments were already made at WTO, why would there be a need to include it in CECA since both Singapore and India are both members of WTO? Also, if the conditions were not “unique” as claimed by Mr Chan, then do the same arrangements apply to other countries like China and the Philippines? If so, there is cause for Singaporeans to be even more concerned.
I think that the full significance and impact of this agreement needs to be communicated to Singaporeans, including the number of people admitted into Singapore under this agreement, and in which sectors they are working. Only then can Singaporeans evaluate whether such an agreement is worth supporting.
Thirdly, there are claims made in the ST article, which indicate that the government doesn’t understand Singaporeans. In particular, the article claims “2 Myth: CECA does not benefit Singapore economically” and goes on to cite statistics about Singapore companies investing in India. I would have thought that Singapore investments in India would benefit the Indian economy, just as we seek external investments in Singapore to benefit the Singapore economy. More to the point, Singaporeans don’t necessarily believe that CECA does not benefit the Singapore economy. What Singaporeans have been trying to tell the government is that CECA does not benefit the average Singaporean economically. All the government’s justifications do not address this point.
I am very glad that the government is taking the issue seriously, and is examining ways to support Singaporeans. I don’t think that Singaporeans are unaware or afraid of the need to compete with workers in India, China or elsewhere in the world. Singaporeans just believe that there is no need to compete with them here in Singapore.
I hope the government does a serious strategic rethink of the shape of the Singapore economy. As with all crises, COVID-19 also presents an opportunity – for Singapore to create a viable future for all Singaporeans.