Ministerial statements on Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) and India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation (CECA) have been delivered in Parliament on Tuesday (6 July), but the ministers appear to have given more “motherhood statements”, rather than providing specific figures as requested by the Progress Singapore Party’s (PSP) Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMPs).
Earlier, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung announced that he and Manpower Minister Dr Tan See Leng will deliver ministerial statements on the matter at this month’s Parliament sitting. This was prompted by PSP’s NCMP Leong Mun Wai accepting Law Minister K Shanmugam’s challenge to seek “further clarification” on foreign employment policies and CECA.
In a Facebook post on 1 July, the Health Minister noted that the duo will explain how important FTAs are to Singaporeans and how they work. They will also address the “false allegations” that FTAs permit foreign professionals a free hand to live and work in Singapore.
“We will also move to open our Ministerial Statements for debate. This will allow members of the PSP to respond to our statements if they wish to,” he added.
Mr Ong also claimed that the unhappiness towards Indian immigrants in Singapore is fuelled largely by false allegations made by PSP on how the CECA has allowed Indian professionals to come here easily for work.
He went on to note that while there are concerns about racist behaviours in Singapore that need to be addressed, PSP’s “false allegations” on CECA had made it worse here.
Not long after Mr Ong made the announcement, PSP’s secretary-general Francis Yuen issued a statement on the party’s Facebook page saying that PSP refutes the “false allegations” put forth by the Minister.
“We are bewildered by Mr Ong’s baseless allegations that we 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,” the statement read.
It also pointed out that Mr Ong’s “serious allegations” were made without facts pointing to where or when PSP made such alleged false statements in the first place.
Leong Mun Wai’s first question was barely half answered
In particular, NCMP Leong Mun Wai had filed questions in Parliament on the number of nationals from countries under Singapore’s FTAs—namely China, India, US, and Australia—who have entered and worked in Singapore using Intra-Corporate Transferee (ICT) visas, professional visas, and dependent passes for each year from 2005 until last year.
In response, Dr Tan told the House on Tuesday that the total number of ICTs have “consistently been very small” as there were only about 4,200 ICTs working in Singapore last year, of which 500 were brought in from India.
This is out of 177,000 Employment Pass (EP) holders in Singapore, said the Minister.
“None of our FTAs, including CECA, gives ICTs unfettered access to our labour market, they all have to meet the Ministry of Manpower’s work pass criteria,” he said.
Dr Tan went on to explain that such employees are subject to additional checks on their seniority, employment history and work experience. They are also subject to “more conditions” on their eligibility to bring in dependants, and apply for permanent residency or future employment in Singapore.
Dr Tan also clarified that there is no such category as “professional visas”, adding that all 127 categories of professionals under CECA currently come in under the regular work pass framework.
“The PSP has made Indian Nationals coming in through CECA a focus of contention but I’m afraid they’ve been barking up the wrong tree.
“The number of ICTs coming in under our FTAs, and in particular CECA, is a very small number relative to the total numbers of EPs. So I suggest we set aside this red herring and move on,” he added.
Shifting away from the question, Dr Tan asked to focus on the “heart of the matter” instead, which is how Singapore can remain open to global talent to create opportunities for Singaporeans while managing the attendance of social repercussions.
“Singaporeans are pragmatic and understand that we need to remain open to global talent. However, they also face real challenges,” he said, acknowledging that the growth in EP holders has come at the expense of local professionals.
He noted Singaporeans concerns that some workplaces have become more concentrated with a single nationality, and that there may be discrimination against local job seekers and workers.
“I’m not suggesting that all of our approaches are perfect and obviously, we are always a work in progress. But we will continue to refine them in the light of experiences, always with a focused view to having a system that can deliver good jobs, livelihood and a thriving economy for Singaporeans,” he noted.
We note that Dr Tan only provided figured for various passes issued under the FTA for 2020, instead of every year since 2005 as requested by Mr Leong. There was also no breakdown of the figures by country.
Leong Mun Wai’s second question was hardly answered
In his second Parliamentary question on the FTAs and CECA, Mr Leong asked the number of nationals from China, India, USA, and Australia, holding EPs or S Passes who are currently working in companies with fewer than 10 employees.
This question, however, was hardly even answered by the Ministers.
Mr Ong revealed that the number of EP holders has increased from 65,000 in 2005 to 177,000 in 2020—an increase over 15 years of 112,000 or an annual growth rate of just under 7 per cent—but the increase in the number of local professionals is much higher by over 380,000.
“These numbers underline an important point: that competition between foreign and local PMEs is not a zero-sum game,” he remarked.
Meanwhile, Dr Tan told the House that about a quarter of the 177,100 EP holders in Singapore hail from India last year, which has increased from about one-seventh in 2005, but he did not provide any specific numbers to this.
“The top nationalities that comprise around two-thirds of our EP holders has been consistent since 2005 – namely, China, India, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, and the UK. The interest is really in Indian EP holders,” he explained.
The Minister noted that by comparison, the proportion of EP holders from China has remained “relatively stable” across the same period.
“Now, is this the result of more favourable treatment for Indian EP holders due to the CECA? The answer is no,” he remarked.
Dr Tan reiterated that all work pass holders have to meet the same criteria before they are allowed to enter the labour market in Singapore, and that there is “no differentiation based on nationality”.
“Rather, these numbers reflect trends in the global demand and supply of tech talent,” he said, adding that the larger increase in Indian EP holders is driven by the rapid growth of Singapore’s digital economy.
“We do not have enough locals to fill the jobs available. In the Infocomm sector alone, 6,000 jobs currently remain unfulfilled,” said Dr Tan.
Dr Tan also noted that China and India have been “two of the largest suppliers of tech talent”, but while Chinese talents decide to stay in their own country—because China has “sprouted so many unicorns” and has a huge demand—India’s talent continued to “look outwards”. Again, he did not provide specific numbers.
“Our companies are both creators of technology as well as adopters of tech talent. Given our shortage of manpower, even if the workers don’t come from India, they will come from somewhere else,” he added.
Furthermore, around 30,000 Permanent Residents and 20,000 new citizens are granted each year on average for the past couple of years. However, it remains unknown how many of these Work Pass holders were converted into PRs and citizenships and whether they are included in the figures provided by the Minister.
Again, we note that Mr Leong’s specific question was hardly answered.
No answer given to Hazel Poa’s question
Besides Mr Leong, PSP’s NCMP Hazel Poa also posed questions on the numbers of Dependant Passes and Long-Term Visit Passes that have been issued to relatives of nationals from China, India, USA, and Australia who are EP and S Pass holders, respectively, for each year from 2005 to last year.
Dr Tan answered: “Ms Hazel Poa has asked for numbers on dependants in Singapore. This is relevant, insofar as they are competing with locals for jobs. But as shared previously, the vast majority of dependants do not work during their stay in Singapore.”
He noted that the number of Dependant Pass holders who have sought employment in Singapore via a Letter of Consent (LOC) constitute only about one per cent of all Work Pass holders.
“In fact, Members would remember that we regularised the work arrangements of DP holders in May this year – DP holders who wish to work in Singapore can no longer obtain an LOC. Instead, they will have to qualify for a relevant work pass on their own merit, and go through normal work pass routes,” he added.
Dr Tan continued: “There will always be calls from workers to tighten our foreign workforce policies further, just as there will always be calls from businesses to relax them. It is the constant tightrope that MOM and MTI have to navigate delicately amidst highly competitive global markets for both investments and talent.”
Once again, we note that both the ministers did not quite address the question posed by Ms Poa.
Statistics cannot be revealed due to foreign policy reasons, says Dr Tan
At one point during his speech, Dr Tan highlighted that the Government is unable to provide detailed statistics on Singapore’s foreign workforce, especially by nationality, due to foreign policy reasons.
“We are not aware of any country that reports at the level of granularity requested,” he remarked.
Ms Poa questioned if there would be more data being released as the Ministers had not provided all of the information that PSP had requested. To this, Mr Ong answered that they have “tried best” to do so.
Mr Ong went on to clarify that he had not promised that they would tabulate and provide all data, but that Dr Tan would only provide more detailed answers to the specific questions, including “providing the data which will be useful for our subsequent debate and putting that data in context”.
“We try to provide as much as we can, but I think there’s a limit to what we can do,” he added.
Unlikely to see a motion filed without transparency from Government on labour statistics
Earlier on 22 June, Mr Leong shared that PSP will seek “further information” on foreign employment policies and CECA from the Government at the Parliament sitting in July.
This was following his acceptance of the challenge from Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam in May to file a motion to debate the CECA in Parliament, to which he responded that PSP is interested in taking up the issue of CECA at “some point in time”.
Mr Leong wrote in a Facebook post that the PSP has accepted the challenge to have “a thorough debate” on Singapore’s employment policies and the CECA, in the spirit of “protecting our domestic economy and our people”.
“The Progress Singapore Party (PSP) feels strongly that the time to rebalance the interests of the Singaporeans vis-à-vis Foreign PMETs (defined as all the work pass holders) in the job market is long overdue,” he wrote, adding that this is necessary to create a “win-win” situation for Singaporeans and foreign nationals.
The first step to this, he stressed, is by obtaining “prompt and complete information so as to promote transparency”.
However, based on the response and the data provided from the two Ministers, it may still be months before PSP is able to dig out the information that it requires to engage in a meaningful debate with the Government.
Without the information sought by the NCMPs, any motion filed by PSP on the matter of CECA will digress into a mud fight of ideology and rhetoric.