Screenshot from CNA’s video

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday (2 Sept) said he acknowledged the concerns that people have on job security due to the pandemic-induced economic downturn, and reassured that the government “will always be on the side of Singaporeans”.

Speaking in Parliament yesterday, Mr Lee said the government is aware of Singaporeans’ concerns on fair treatment at the workplace and is taking the issue “very seriously”.

“That is why we have the Tripartite Alliance for Fair & Progressive Employment Practices, where Singaporeans who feel unfairly treated can seek redress. We also have the Fair Consideration Framework, which we are tightening further.

“We are also working with unions to make sure any retrenchments are done fairly, and no company is retrenching a Singaporean only to fill the same post with a foreigner, without good justification,” he asserted.

When evaluating applications for employment pass and S passes, the government takes into account the employer’s commitment to supporting the local PMETs in employments or discriminated against qualified Singaporeans, Mr Lee said.

“This has always been government policy. But we particularly want to emphasise these considerations now in these uncertain times to remind all employers to play their part in building up their Singaporean workforce, the Singaporean core.”

He pointed out that one specific “red flag” is when a company has an “over-concentration of a single foreign nationality in its ranks, especially when compared to other companies in the same sector”.

This concentration, if left unchecked, can cause social resentment and workplace problems, said the Prime Minister.

“Therefore, when that happens, we ask the firm to please relook their hiring practices. Most companies are responsive, and work with us in good faith.”

Having said that, the issue of concentration can “be easily played up” and some individuals “are stirring this up”.

Mr Lee cited the example of how a photo of DBS CEO Piyush Gupta in a room full of Indian employees taken in September last year went viral on Facebook. The post was captioned with “Eye sight test: Find a Singaporean or Chinese in this DBS photo”.

“The picture resurfaced recently and went viral which just shows that during tough times, this subject is more neurologic. Many people took offence, got worked up and berated DBS. But it was fake news,” said Mr Lee, claiming that the photo was taken in India and not in Singapore.

He added that the person who circulated the photo on social media “surely knew this” but had misused the photo “to insinuate” that DBS in Singapore was being unfair to Singaporeans.

The Prime Minister went on to pledge that “the government will always be on the side of Singaporeans” and asked, “What is the point of creating jobs for foreigners if it does not benefit Singaporeans?”

Though he mentioned that the government has made some adjustments on the work pass policies, Mr Lee said it has to be careful not to give the impression that it no longer welcomes foreign workers because “such a reputation would do us great harm”.

“Ultimately, our aim is to grow our economy, create good jobs for Singaporeans and raise our standards of living. Foreign workers and work pass holders help us to achieve this,” he said. “By being open to talent from around the world, we create more opportunities for ourselves.”

Netizens urged to abolish CECA

Over on social media, many netizens were not convinced with the Prime Minister’s remark that says the government will always be on Singaporeans’ side.

Penning their thoughts in Channels News Asia‘s Facebook post, many netizens urged the Prime Minister to prove his point by abolishing the Singapore-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) which was signed by both countries back in 2005.

Some netizens pointed out that many Singaporeans have to work in the food delivery sector as companies tend to hire more foreigners.

While others questioned the Prime Minister, “How does it benefit Singaporeans when foreign PMETs have jobs and Singaporeans don’t?”

Why CECA receives backlash from netizens?

The controversial CECA, or the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement, is a free trade agreement between Singapore and India which was signed 15 years ago.

The agreement facilitates freer movement of Indian national professionals in sectors such as technology, medicine, engineering and finance into Singapore. Double taxation and tariff barriers are also lifted under CECA.

But many Singaporeans have called for the government to abolish the agreement as they think that the CECA brings in more foreigners in the city-state and take away jobs from the local citizens. In fact, Peoples Voice (PV) party had also initiated the #AbolishCECA campaign on 26 August to push for the abolishment of the agreement.

“People’s Voice strongly believes that CECA needs to be abolished and that Parliament needs to take DECISIVE action swiftly to do so, rather than [to] continue with this disastrous CECA treaty which has cost many Singaporeans their livelihoods and continues to do so,” PV urged.

On 27 August, the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) clarified that there is no provision in the CECA that allows Indian nationals to be given citizenship in Singapore. This was the second time the government has made such clarification in nine months.

“None of our free trade agreements, including CECA, obliges us to automatically grant Employment Passes to any foreign national. All foreign nationals applying for Employment Passes must meet our prevailing criteria, and all companies must comply with rules on fair hiring,” the MTI said in a statement.

Despite the Ministry’s clarification on the matter, netizens remain sceptical about CECA, with some even asked the government to explain the benefits of CECA for Singapore.

Meanwhile, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing on 29 August defended the existence of the CECA, saying that it protects Singaporean companies that invest in India and also attracts foreign investors who invest in India, who in turn employ Singaporeans to manage their investments.

“We have more than 650 companies in Singapore that have invested in India. Now at home, these companies employ more than 100,000 Singaporeans and permanent residents (PRs),” said Mr Chan.

The Minister, however, refused to reveal the number of intra-corporate transferees who have applied to become PR and have then gone on to become citizens, as well as the timeline for the next review of CECA.

He only noted that “the proportion of the Chinese, Indians, Malays in Singapore remain relatively stable over the years”.

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