Health Minister Ong Ye Kung’s ministerial statement on the Free Trade Agreements (FTA) and the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) offered “absolutely no evidence” on how such agreements have benefitted Singaporeans, said People’s Voice Party chief Lim Tean.
Mr Ong delivered his statement in response to several Members of Parliament (MPs), particularly the Non-constituency Member of Parliaments (NCMPs) from Progress Singapore Party (PSP), who had filed Parliamentary questions on the two subjects for Monday and Tuesday’s session.
In a video uploaded on Facebook on Tuesday (6 July), Mr Lim branded Mr Ong’s speech as that of the “typical globalist who revels in FTAs” who “tell you that Singapore cannot do without” such agreements.
“I was expecting him to give figures which the PSP had sought from him on the number of dependency passes, S passes, E passes, and so on,” he said.
Instead, Mr Lim said, Mr Ong gave “very few figures” related to matters such as Singapore’s investments in India under CECA.
“He gloried in how Singapore’s investments in India have gone from S$1.3 billion in 2005 to S$61 billion dollars in 2019. He says 660 companies have invested in India.
“Who are these companies? And out of the additional S$60 billion dollars invested in India during this period, how much of that has translated into benefits back home for Singaporeans?” Mr Lim questioned.
“Maybe it has benefited the Indian economy. Maybe more Indians in India have been employed as a result of these investments. Maybe corporate profits or the Indian subsidiary have benefited.
“But how has that come back? or in the words of the neoliberals, how has that trickled down to Singaporeans?” He further prompted.
Mr Lim added that Mr Ong did not also offer figures on Indian companies’ investments into Singapore.
The politician also said that he shares the concerns of certain Singaporeans who have complained about the high concentration of professionals, managers, executives, and technicians (PMETs) from India in zones such as Changi Business Park — a concern which he noted the Minister had raised.
“How does a Singaporean worker feel (about that)? Or when you go to Marina Bay Financial Center and you see again the multitude of foreign Indian nationals working there? How does an unemployed Singapore PMET feel about the situation?”
Addressing Mr Ong’s claim that the presence of foreign PMETs actually cushion the negative impact of the economic downturn on their local counterparts, Mr Lim noted that as of June this year, the unemployment rate for young Singaporeans between the ages of 15 to 29 stands at 9.8 per cent.
“Last year, it was even higher, and we have many thousands of unemployed PMETs, but as Ong Ye Kung himself admitted, the number of foreign PMETs rose from 65,000 in a particular year to the current figure of 177,000.
“Now, what is the government doing to ensure that Singaporeans have priority for this group? He doesn’t address all of that,” said Mr Lim.
He continued: “I do not need a lesson in the benefits of an FTA from him. Where is the beef, the raw beef as the Americans would put it? Where are the numbers to tell us that these FTAs, particularly CECA, are benefiting Singaporeans and Singaporean workers?”
“FTAs may be good, provided they are beneficial to Singaporeans and they are fair … CECA is anything but fair and beneficial to Singaporeans,” said Mr Lim. “His statement has convinced me more than ever that CECA must be abolished.”
TOC will run a live chat with Mr Lim at 7pm this Friday about FTAs, CECA, and other issues raised so far in Parliament in July.
In his ministerial statement on Tuesday, Mr Ong said that CECA and the FTAs have not curtailed the power of immigration authorities to regulate the entry of foreign PMETs into Singapore under such agreements.
Speakin within the context of his background as a former trade negotiator in the civil service, Mr Ong said that the Government “retains full rights” to determine who can enter, live, work, and obtain permanent resident status in Singapore.
He dismissed PSP’s claim that the 127 categories of professionals listed in CECA allow Indian nationals to flock to Singapore to work freely, saying that all foreign PMETs have to meet all of the relevant criteria set by the government to enter for employment purposes.
Further, allowing foreign PMETs to apply does not indicate automatic approval by the Singapore authorities.
Anti-FTA and anti-CECA sentiments, Mr Ong said, are “seductively simplistic”, as to attack FTAs is to undermine the fundamentals of Singapore’s existence as a trade-dependent nation and the way its citizens earn a living.
Singapore’s 26 FTAs with nations such as the United States, China, European Union countries, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand are a “keystone” of the Republic’s “economic superstructure”, said Mr Ong.
The nation’s decision to ink such agreements as far back as the late-1990s was a thoroughly considered one, and one that has given Singapore an “early mover advantage”.
FTAs, said Mr Ong, has enabled the Economic Development Board to utilise such agreements to attract greater foreign investment into Singapore.
Singapore’s reliance on trade and related agreements, the Minister stressed, is a question of survival, given the city-state’s small size and lack of natural resources.
Its geographical location and positionality must thus be worked to its advantage, he said.
Mr Ong noted how Singapore’s homegrown small and medium enterprises (SMEs) thrive through the export of their products overseas, from foodstuff such as barbeque pork and frozen roti prata, to medical devices and machines.
Subsequently, when such SMEs grow, more jobs will be created for Singaporeans, he said.
The presence of foreign PMETs, said Mr Ong, cushions the negative impact on the local workforce during an economic downturn, other than becoming a complementary segment of Singapore’s manpower landscape.
Local employment, he added, has been stable. Additionally, Singaporeans workers have access to government subsidies and financial assistance such as the Jobs Support Scheme which their foreign counterparts are not eligible for, said Mr Ong.
Acknowledging that certain sectors have a high concentration of PMETs of certain countries of origin, such as Indian national tech professionals in Changi Business Park, Mr Ong said that the government is “taking this seriously and seeing what we can do to lessen the problem”.
However, he stressed that it is not a straightforward matter of axing their companies’ operations, fearing that such a move would drive away current and potential future foreign investments.
While the People’s Action Party (PAP) will “always fight for the welfare of Singaporeans”, Mr Ong stressed that as a “city-state connected to the world”, Singapore would want to “welcome diverse talents” who can respect our norms and culture.
“Try durian, try sambal belacan, speak a few phrases of Singlish,” he said.
Ministerial statements cannot be considered a debate on CECA: Leong Mun Wai
Earlier, PSP NCMP Leong Mun Wai on 5 July said that MPs will need time to process content and information revealed through such ministerial statements.
Even when Mr Ong had indicated that the ministerial statements will be opened for debate immediately after they have been delivered, Mr Leong noted that MPs can only speak once for 20 minutes and ask for clarification if called upon to do so by the Speaker.
“In contrast, a Private Member’s Motion tabled by a parliamentarian will give him (or her) time to set out his case, since the mover of the Motion is allocated 40 minutes to speak both at the start and the end of the debate.
“In between, members will have a chance to rise to speak for or against the motion, and there will be chances to respond and clarify. Such a format will allow for a more substantive and informative debate,” he said.
A separate debate, Mr Leong added, would also create room for MPs to discuss FPP and FTA issues “on a broader scale”.
“The recent World Values Survey conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) found that more than half of the people surveyed were worried about losing or not finding a job. If our FPP/FTA strategy was that effective, then why are our people so worried about their employment prospects? These worries cannot just be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic alone,” he stressed.
Referencing the motion PSP intends to table in a future parliamentary sitting, Mr Leong stated that the party will “decide on the timing to file the motion after receiving the relevant data from the government”.
“The actual date of the debate will depend on other schedules of Parliament as well as the decision of the Speaker,” he remarked.