Ministerial Statements proved nothing more than smoke-screens to sell narrative that FTAs are important for S’pore’s survival

by Kok Ming Cheang

Two Ministerial Statements that proved nothing more than a smoke-screen to sell a standard narrative that Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) are important for Singapore’s survival.

That was how I viewed the Parliamentary debate last Tuesday (6 Jul) and reported by the Straits Times a day later (in confusing language.)

Two ministers, Mr Ong Ye Kung — former Education and Transport Minister who is now the Health Minister and Dr Tan See Leng, the new Manpower Minister teamed up, with well-prepared speeches to sell a narrative we already know.

However, the outcome of their speeches paled miserably compared to the effort put in.

The objective of the sudden Ministerial Statements (usually reserve for state matters of the highest order or urgency) over the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) soon became clear: to demolish Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) Leong Mun Wai and his team mate, Ms Hazel Poa who is also a NCMP and discredit Progress Singapore Party (PSP) in Parliament.

The two ministers didn’t succeed because their objectives were wrong. They were not there to address the concerns of Singaporean PMETs (professionals, managers, executives and technicians) in losing their jobs and livelihoods and how to help them recover.

What wrong did these two political seedlings do to warrant such heavy attack? Politics is a contest of ideas — are politicians from the People’s Action Party (PAP) so lacking in confidence that whoever crosses their path must be demolished before their opponent becomes an old oak tree in Parliament?

This is not the politics Singaporeans want.

While trying to educate Singaporeans on the value and benefits of FTAs to Singapore, the real target was Mr Leong Mun Wai and team-mate Ms Hazel Poa.

The ministers glorified FTAs: “FTAs had enabled Singapore to ramp up investments from overseas and create thousands of jobs in Singapore.” Mr Ong made a serious allegation: “When you attack FTAs, and worse, if your attack succeeds, you are undermining the fundamentals of our existence, all the sectors FTAs support, and the hundreds of thousands of Singaporean jobs created in these sectors.”

Such an allegation makes it look like PSP has committed a national crime? Did anyone from PSP (or other opposition) ever attack FTAs except CECA? Was CECA even discussed in Parliament before it was signed in 2005?

So, what wrong did these two political seedlings do to warrant such heavy firepower?

The PAP politicians claimed that they must debunk falsehoods about CECA, which were apparently attributed to PSP.

Minister Ong “was referring to allegations by the PSP , going back to before last year’s general election,
about how CECA allows professionals from India ‘a free hand’ to come and work in Singapore.”

“Mr Ong said that the PSP has claimed for months that FTAs and CECA have led to the unfettered inflow of Indian professionals, which then displaces Singaporeans from their jobs and brings about all kinds of social ills.” “It has stirred up a lot of emotions,” he said.

If true, why didn’t the government respond immediately when the above claims were made? The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA​) was passed on 8 May 2019.

I am sure there ought to have been safeguards in the CECA which protect Singapore’s interests like:

  • “None of our FTAs including the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) gives intra-corporate transferees unfettered access to our labour market”;
  • “CECA does not allow unconditional entry of Indian PMEs; and
  • “CECA does not affect S’pore’s ability to regulate immigration.”

But if the regulations and process of applications are stringent enough, how did Singapore end up with 177,000 Employment Pass (EP) holders in 2020 compared with 65,000 in 2005?

40% of the increase in EPs issued to foreign professionals were in the finance and infocomm sectors. And 25% EP holders last year were from India compared with 14% in 2005.

For those Singaporean PMET who have lost their jobs and livelihoods to foreign PMETs, all the regulations that the government has to safeguard the local labour market do not matter. (The government has dropped “T” from this category of employees and uses PMEs instead.)

Seeing is believing, be it on the morning and evening trains, in Changi Business Park or MBFC, there are hoards of foreigners, mostly from one similar nationality, visibly present. How can the ministers blamed PSP for stirring up emotions on issues concerning jobs and livelihoods?

To be fair, Mr Ong said “the government has been taking steps to address their concerns.” The salary levels for work pass applicants were revised, enforcement work to ensure fair employment practices was stepped up and some employers were taken to task for non-compliance.

Unfortunately, none of these actions seems convincing enough for the Singapore PMETs because they are looked upon as putting up a show to soothe the ground.

Mr Ong believes he can sell a standard narrative with his simplistic argument.

Even when EP holders increased from 2005 to 177,000 in 2020, Singapore PMETs should not have reason to complain because the number of local professionals, managers and executives (PMEs) grew by more than 380,000 in the period, so he seemingly implied.

Furthermore, what was not clarified is that the local PMEs comprised both Singaporeans and Permanent Residents (PRs). Among the Singaporean PMEs, we should expect a certain number to be new citizens too. In reality, the local-born PMETs are pressured by competition all round.

He further said “local employment has been stable. The unemployment rate for local PMEs in June last year was 2.9 per cent …even though this was immediately after the circuit breaker period.”

However, local employment is probably only stable for now due to the creation of thousands of short-term jobs like traineeships and internships, the new “ambassadors” to supervise the Covid19 government measures and new head counts created with financial help from government. There must also be hundreds of Singaporeans, young and old, who have taken up gig jobs like Grab drivers, PH drivers, food delivery riders who are considered as employed.

Mr Ong went further to say that “foreign PMEs help cushion the impact on the local workforce when times are bad.”

To prove his point, he said “from April last year to April this year, the number of EP holders dropped by about 21,600, while the figure for S-Pass holders fell by about 26,800..” This is a small number compared to 177,000 EP holders last year.

It is, however, important to note that “quotas or levies are not imposed on EPs because of competition for global talent.

Dr Tan provided more figures in his Ministerial Statement but none of these helped to address the Singaporeans’ concern for their loss of jobs and livelihoods.

He confirmed the massive growth of EPs in Singapore: “From 2005 to last year, the total number of EPs increased by about 112,000 while the number of local PMEs grew by more than 380,000.” The proportion of EPs from India rose to about 25% last year, from 14% in 2005.

From 2005 to last year, the finance and infocomm sectors together accounted for 40% of the increase in Employment Passes issued to foreign professionals which amounted to 44,800.

It is not surprising that these two sectors attracted a great number of Indian professionals to Singapore.

In infocomm sector alone, it attracted an increase of 25,000 EPs while the number of jobs created for local PMEs was about 35,000. So Singapore PMETs could lose jobs at both ends of the labour market – loss to EPs and PRs ( classified under Local PMES.) And in the finance sector, the number of EPs increased by 20,000 while the number of jobs created in the Local PMES amounted to 85,000.

Strictly speaking, Singaporean PMETs should be having a hay day today in the infocomm, professional services and finance sectors. No wonder, CECA, amongst all the 26 FTAs that Singapore have signed, is the most contentious. The contention is not over trade and investments but jobs.

In my view, it was a great oversight by Parliament if CECA was never fully discussed before it was brought it to the government for signature.

All the statistics provided in the two ministerial statements pointed to a big pool of professional jobs available in Singapore due to the success of FTAs in attracting foreign investments and creating many good jobs here.

To India, with a huge population and high unemployment rate, the Singapore labour market is a great prize to be won in the CECA negotiations. For Singapore, what was so wrong to offer our labour market as a bargaining chip to exchange for rights to enter the huge Indian domestic market for trade and investments?

Why was Deputy Prime Minister Heng so offended when Mr Leong made his point?

Mr Heng himself “recalled that his Indian counterparts were very keen on the chapter (movement of people) in question.” If Singapore did not offer India Chapter 9 on the movement of natural persons, would India just walk away from the negotiating table, like they did with the RCEP at the 11th hour when PM Modi knew he could not get the ‘movement of natural clause’ from the 15 Asia-Pacific economies to trade off the opening of the Indian economy to foreign trade and businesses?

Despite the massive resources put in by two ministers, both failed to put up a convincing argument that CECA (not other FTAs) is net beneficial to Singapore.

PAP politicians’ standard play-book didn’t work this time — talking about all the good work they put in to secure FTAs instead of addressing the widespread unhappiness of Singaporean PMETs losing their jobs and livelihoods to foreign professionals who purportedly have higher skills and talents than our well-educated workforce. There are also doubts that they are the foreign talents that can bring Singapore forward in the knowledge and high-tech economy.

After almost a full day of debate, the most critical question is still not answered by both ministers: How many Singaporean PMETs have been displaced by foreign employees from 2005 till today?

Mr Leong stood up to the pressure: “And we don’t agree that CECA is net beneficial to Singapore at this stage.”

For Mr Ong Ye Kung, “It is regrettable because generations of FTA negotiators worked very hard to make sure our interests are protected…”

This is the same for Mr Leong and team-mate Ms Poa — in protecting Singaporean PMETs’ interest in a global economy.

Finally, when the curtain was drawn, we saw both NCMPs standing tall in Parliament.

Source: Kok Ming Cheang's Facebook post
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