An advertisement featured in HDB lifts appears to have showcased its support for Singapore’s Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) by promoting FTAs’ contributions to the country’s economy – but it failed to address public discontent with the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA).
In the advertisement seemingly by Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI), it noted that the existence of FTAs has enabled Singapore to “stay relevant to the world”, given the merchandise trade value has grown from S$720 billion in 2005 to S$970 billion last year.
In addition, the advertisement said that Singapore’s services trade value increased three-fold from S$170 billion in 2005 to S$500 billion last year, and that the country’s investments abroad also grew S$935 billion in 2019.
Its advertisement highlighted that 50,000 international companies operate out of Singapore, of which 750 have made Singapore their regional headquarters, as a result of the FTAs.
Singapore’s tariff savings when exporting overseas have also increased from S$590 million in 2008 to S$1.1 billion last year, indicating that FTAs have helped companies grow their businesses from the Republic.
The advertisement also implied that Singaporeans have benefited from the FTAs as nearly 50,000 firms that exported or invested abroad had employed 1.1 million local employees in 2019.
It ends off by asking the viewer to report any unfair hiring practice to Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP).
TAFEP was set up in 2006 by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), and Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) to promote the adoption of fair, responsible and progressive employment practices in Singapore.
Looking at the advertisement, we can infer that the FTAs are indeed beneficial to Singapore, but then again Singapore has 26 FTAs with various countries, of which CECA in particular has stirred up a public debate.
CECA, an FTA that was signed in 2005 between Singapore and India, was blamed for allowing Indian nationals into Singapore to displace Singaporeans’ jobs.
In contrast to nationals from Malaysia and China who take up the bulk of the migrant workers in Singapore, Indian nationals are seen to take up jobs in the professional sectors of industries as compared to the former nationals who are largely concentrated in the blue collar sectors which are largely shunned by locals due to the harsh working environment and low wages.
Advertisement did not address whether FTAs contributed to the influx of foreign professionals
Many questions have been put to the government over the years regarding the actual data pertaining to talent transfer between Singapore and India under CECA, among other details, the government’s answers have been scarce.
In Parliament on 6 July, Progress Singapore Party’s (PSP) NCMP Leong Mun Wai asked about 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, Manpower Minister Tan See Leng noted 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 Dr Tan.
“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 added.
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.
He 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.
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.
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.
Dr Tan replied 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.
Given the parliamentary questions posed by Mr Leong, it’s safe to say that the main issue here is the inflow of foreign professionals in Singapore, which then begs the question: When did the free movement of foreign professionals become an integral part of FTAs?
Now, notwithstanding TAFEP’s role in ensuring fair hiring practices in Singapore, the MTI advertisement seems to have disregarded Singaporeans’ concern about provisions in FTAs — CECA in particular — to the displacement of local professionals from their industries.
DPM Heng Swee Keat says clauses in CECA about movement of natural persons was not a bargaining chip for the trade
Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, who said that he did not plan on speaking in Parliament on 6 July, eventually rose to “put on record” that the movement of natural persons in Chapter 9 of CECA was “not used as a bargaining chip” in settling the free trade pact.
Chapter 9 in CECA, on the movement of natural persons, pertains to temporary entry for individuals into both countries.
Mr Heng became the chief negotiator for CECA when he was in the Ministry of Trade and Industry as a permanent secretary.
He noted that his Indian counterparts had deemed the agreement important enough to involve a permanent secretary of their own, which is how he ended up being the chief negotiator for CECA.
“I can tell you the amount of homework I had to do to look at how we can come to an agreement. I went to different parts of India because there were objections from every part of India, from business groups to states,” said Mr Heng.
He further explained: “The chapter on the movement of natural persons was indeed one that the negotiators in India were very keen on and they said, ‘What do we get?’. Well, I said, ‘No, because this is of great importance to Singapore. You have a population that is over a billion’.
“Singapore had a population of, at that time, probably about three million or so. And I said, ‘We would be easily swamped. So, we must have very strict agreements on this’.”
Now, based on the statistics provided by Singapore to the United Nations (UN) Population Division Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the number of Singaporeans living in India has dropped from 4,780 in 2005 to 4,155 in 2019.
Mr Leong had also asked the Minister for Trade and Industry in July about how many of the 97,000 locals hired by Singaporean companies with investments in India are new jobs that can be attributed to the signing of CECA and how many are existing jobs that are re-designated.
In a written reply, Mr Gan Kim Yong said that this specific data is not available as “companies consider multiple factors before they hire new employees, define job scopes, or re-designate existing positions”.
The decline in the number of Singaporeans living in India since the inception of CECA in 2005 and contrasted with the increased number of Indian nationals living in Singapore now raises another question: How are ordinary Singaporeans benefiting from the clauses in CECA on the movement of natural persons?