During the Parliamentary debate over the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) on Tue (6 Jul), Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said that the clauses in the agreement on the movement of natural persons were not used as a bargaining chip in settling the free trade pact.
Heng himself was the chief negotiator representing Singapore to negotiate with India over the terms in CECA. It was finally signed in 2005.
Heng recalled that his Indian counterparts were “very keen” on the chapter in question, “They said, ‘What do we get?’ Well, I said no… you have a population that’s over a billion; Singapore has a population of, at that time, probably about 3 odd million. And I said we will be easily swamped, so we must have very strict agreements on this.”
“I never let go, and we got what we needed,” Heng said.
“Let us have an open attitude to work with countries around the world who are willing to cooperate and work with us.”
Many Singaporeans have criticised clauses in the chapter regarding the movement of natural persons in CECA for paving the way for Indian professionals to take jobs from locals. The PAP government has repeatedly said that nothing in CECA interferes with its ability to regulate immigration and foreign manpower.
But still, it was revealed that the proportion of Indian nationals among EP holders grew from 14 percent in 2005 to 25 percent at the end of last year. Manpower Minister Tan See Leng attributed the huge increase in the number of Indian professionals in Singapore over the last 15 years to market demand for tech talents rather than CECA.
Tan, however, did not reveal any breakdown for S Pass holders, who are mid-level foreign skilled staff earning at least $2,500 a month.
India wants to see free movement of professionals to Singapore
In any case, 5 years after CECA was signed, India was still harping over the chapter on movement of natural persons inside CECA.
In 2010, at the time when India and Singapore were reviewing CECA, India told Singapore that allowing immediate free movement of skilled people and substantially higher investment in India’s capital markets are essential for the survival of CECA with Singapore. This was reported by Indian media Financial Express on 26 May 2010.
India was unhappy over the pace of the opening up of services and capital investment, despite five years of operation of the agreement.
At the time, Financial Express quoted a commerce ministry official saying there would be many Indian doctors, architects, engineers and nurses wanting to go to Singapore to work.
“The CECA between India and Singapore was signed in August 2005. According to the agreement in services, the two countries agreed to allow free movement of IT professionals, chartered accountants, architects, engineers and doctors,” Financial Express reported.
And subsequently in 2013, Indian media Business Standard reported that changes to the Employment Pass Framework law by Singapore irked India as the new law does not give India a preferential treatment incorporated in the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CECA) between the two countries, operational since 2005.
“This stance by the Singapore Government is expected to affect Indians working as middle-level managers, executives and technicians.” Business Standard reported.
“Speculations are rife that India might take up the issue with World Trade Organization’s (WTO) dispute settlement body. However, according to Singapore such a decision was imperative in the interest of the natives as the share of the foreign workforce is rising very rapidly.”
Business Standard reported that Indian officials involved in the negotiations said that this is a violation of the services trade agreement under CECA. This will also adversely affect Indians who are working there as it might lead to job losses, especially for the middle level workers.
According to the media outlet, India submitted a request to Singapore for addressing the matter but has not received a formal communication yet.
As of the time of report, there were about 200,000 non-resident Indians in Singapore working in ITES, financial services and scientific research sectors among others, according to one estimate.
Singapore recognises nursing degrees from India
In 2018, the review was finally concluded with new additions to CECA. Even though the new CECA enhancement included expanding tariff concessions for an additional 30 products, it also quietly recognises nursing degrees from 7 Indian education institutes by Singapore.
Singapore’s MTI only briefly mentioned that both countries have “agreed to a Mutual Recognition Agreement on Nursing to facilitate better understand of the Parties’ standards in regulating the training and practice of nursing” in the annex section of its press release.
However, the Indian government was more specific. It said in its press release that Singapore has started recognising nursing degrees from 7 of its education institutions.
The Business Standard of India also reported that it will be “easier for domestic nurses to explore employment opportunities in Singapore now, as India has signed mutual recognition agreement (MRA) with the south east Asian nation in this sector”.
And the Hindu said that India has formalized a MRA in nursing with Singapore which would allow “nurses trained in seven nursing institutions across India to gain employment in the South-East Asian country (Singapore)”.
Currently, Singapore has already started negotiating with India again in further enhancements to CECA in a new review.