It is exceptionally concerning to see senior politicians apparently capitalising on racial issues to score points. And yet, this is what the Peoples’ Action Party’s (PAP) Ong Ye Kung has seemingly done when he posted an inflammatory statement on his Facebook page. On any given day, this would be reprehensible. At a time when so many incidents of racism are coming to light, this is downright irresponsible and reckless on the part of Mr Ong. Frankly, it is as disappointing as it is shocking to read. I expected better.
According to the Minister for Health, it is the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) that is to blame for the recent spate of racist incidents in Singapore. Mr Ong implied that it is because the PSP had raised questions about the controversial Singapore-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) that has spurred the racist incidents. Mr Ong has also alleged that such questions raised by the PSP were “false”
“They occur amidst an undercurrent of sentiment against immigrant Indians over the past 2 years. There are concerns from Singaporeans that need to be addressed, but the unhappiness is also fuelled in no small part by false allegations by the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) about how the Singapore-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) has given Indian PMEs a free hand to come here to work.”
Unsurprisingly, the PSP has categorically denied Mr Ong’s “baseless allegations” and the party’s secretary-general, Francis Yuen has said that the party is “bewildered by Mr Ong’s baseless allegations that [they] have contributed in no small part to the undercurrent of sentiment against immigrant Indians through PSP that CECA has given Indian PMETs a free hand to work here.”
Back in June 2021, PSP’s Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP), Leong Mun Wai had said that the party would be asking questions related to the number of employment passes, S passes and work passes issued from 2005 to 2020. This was in response to Minister for Law and Home Affairs, K Shanmugam’s challenge that the PSP should file a motion to debate CECA in Parliament.
“It is in the public interest that all data and information regarding our employment situation is revealed. We are concerned about the lack of opportunities for our local workforce due to unfair hiring practices in some sectors.”
How has Mr Ong come to the conclusion that asking questions about a trade treaty that many have already criticised as unfair in Parliament fans the flames of racism?
Has Mr Ong conflated perceived unfairness with racism? Or, more concerning, is Mr Ong using the race card as a means to silence critics?
It is an undeniable fact that racism exists in Singapore. It is a serious issue that requires open dialogue, understanding and a willingness to listen. At the same time, we must also be able to discuss issues that affect our country in an open manner without the race card being inappropriately used. By doing this, Mr Ong may rob the country of a right to revisit trade treaties that are unfair to the country while denying those who have suffered genuine racism a right to have their grievances properly addressed. By seemingly confusing the 2 issues (whether deliberately or otherwise), Mr Wong is doing the country a grave disservice.
Racism doesn’t go away just because we don’t talk about it. Nor will a trade treaty magically become fairer just because the race card is misguidedly misused.
CECA has been criticised as being unfair because of its terms and not because of which country it was signed with. Even if the CECA was signed with China or the USA or any other country, it would still be unfair.
CECA has caused so much anger among Singaporeans because there is a perception that Singaporeans are losing out because of unfair terms in the treaty which lead to a larger flow of immigrants into Singapore when compared with the outflow of Singaporeans to the corresponding country. This in turn creates the perception that resources are being stretched and that there is a lack of jobs.
This is not an issue about India or Indians. This is an issue about a potentially unfair treaty. Yet, because the treaty was signed with India, the issue of race and nationality has raised its ugly head.
Are there racist people who are vocal about CECA? Yes, of course, there are. Do we need to acknowledge racism and deal with it through education and awareness? Yes of course we do.
But, are we allowing the distraction of race and nationality to take our attention away from a treaty that may not be fair for Singapore regardless of which country it is signed with? Worse still, is Mr Ong using the racial tensions to divert attention away from an unfair treaty?
Jamus Lim of the Workers’ Party had tried to talk about this issue. In so doing, he made sure to say that this wasn’t an issue about immigrants. He took pains to say that his comments about CECA were “focused on the economics of the pact”.
He clarified that to the extent that he had any reservations, it was based on what he felt to be “inequities in the outcomes that result when a large, developing nation signs a free trade deal with a smaller, albeit richer, one.” In other words, CECA would still be an unfair treaty even if it was signed with another country.
Why then is Mr Ong attacking the PSP in such a manner at such a time of aggravated tension?
Who is actually fanning the flames of racism here?