Exchange at Ministerial Statements on Free Trade Agreements and Foreign Manpower

Ms Hazel Poa (Non-Constituency Member): I thank the two Ministers for their Ministerial Statements, providing a wide range of information and explanation, and for this additional opportunity for us to seek clarifications on an issue that is of great concern to many Singaporeans. An open debate based on the right information can only be beneficial to all parties involved, whether in or out of this House.

I would like to seek a few clarifications. The first one relates to Minister Ong’s claim that PSP has made false allegations that CECA is allowing a free flow of Indian PMEs. Can I ask the Minister to provide the specifics of these false allegations that he mentioned, including details like when and where and who? He gave partial quotes, but partial quotes can be taken out of context and if he can provide the specifics, we can look into it further.

Secondly, Minister Ong said at the beginning of his Statement that he would be happy to provide all information that we request for in order to have a more robust debate on the Motion subsequently. But at the end of the two Ministerial Statements, unfortunately, the bulk of the information that we have requested for in our nine Parliamentary Questions is not released. So, will there be any more data forthcoming in the form of Written Answers?

Thirdly, we agree that FTAs are important to Singapore’s economy and we are not calling for the abolition of FTAs. Our concern is over specific provisions in FTAs relating to the movement of natural persons. In CECA, just now Minister Ong mentioned that the listing of the 127 professions does not mean that anybody who applies under this will be approved, but it can be rejected even if they apply. Article 9.5, clause 2, under the heading of “Professionals”, states that “each party shall grant temporary entry and stay for up to a year” and it goes on to list several conditions.

So, my question here is, because it says “shall grant temporary entry and stay for up to a year”, if an applicant meets the criteria that are listed in this clause, namely, proof of nationality, letter of contract or similar documentation, educational certificates or similar documentation, as well as the minimum salary requirements for EPs, for anybody who satisfies these conditions, are we obliged to approve their application?

Fourthly, under this clause, temporary entry and stay is up to one year. I would like to seek a clarification: can this entry and stay be further extended or renewed or re-applied?

Mr Speaker: Minister Ong Ye Kung.

Mr Ong Ye Kung: Thank you, Mr Speaker. Let me try to answer the hon Member’s four questions. I hope I got them all correct.

Proof of the allegations of PSP:

On 3 August 2019, Dr Tan Cheng Bock – I think he was then Secretary General of PSP – stated on The Online Citizen Asia Facebook page, I quote, “PSP will call for a review of the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement, known as CECA. This agreement, you must understand, was negotiated by our current Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat and signed in 2005. Amongst the terms of CECA, it allowed the free movement of professionals in 127 sectors to enter and work in Singapore.”

On 7 July 2020, Dr Tan, in an interview with Mothership said, I quote, “CECA is an agreement between Singapore and India to bring in, to allow, I think, 127 categories of professionals to come to Singapore and be given that free hand actually, practically free hand, to come and work here.”

On 31 August 2020, Mr Francis Yuen, on the PSP Facebook page and website, he urged the Government to release more data on the matter, which is fair enough. But then went on to state that the Government, I quote, “could not share the next level of details, including the number of Indian nationals converted to PR and those who subsequently gotten citizenships within the eight years under the intra-corporate transferee provision of the agreement.” And then that starts to suggest that they come in and then become PRs and citizens as well.

Most recently, on 22 June 2021, in a Facebook post, Mr Leong Mun Wai said, “the most important economic policies that have affected the jobs and livelihoods of Singaporeans relate to foreign PMEs and Free Trade Agreements, in particular, the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement with India.”

As Members of the House and also members of the public, through our handphones, we would also have received many other unattributable divisive messages coming through our feeds and chat messages. And I think these quotes and all these messages you receive, if you are Singaporean, especially one facing challenges at the workplace, feeling insecure, you are bound to feel upset and angry. You are bound to feel, “I do not want to welcome foreign PMEs”. You will grow suspicious of them, even reject them. And that will be a natural reaction because the messages feed on our worries and our fears.

We have seen how this has turned out in so many other countries, how the extreme right, nativist, populist parties have grown in strength, just by tapping into that fear and insecurity because of globalisation. It is there.

But these far-right or nativist parties, they have been growing stronger in many places around the world and created divisions in societies. Sometimes, they have replaced the governments who take a more moderate policy. I really hope that it does not happen here because if it happens in Singapore, as it happened elsewhere, our policies, our politics would have gone disastrously wrong.

Ms Hazel Poa said that I promised to give all the data they requested. We tried. We tried our best. But as Dr Tan See Leng explained, no country release data to that level of granularity. But if I may just go back to my speech, what I said is, “Dr Tan will 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”. I did not promise that all the data will be tabulated and provided, and Dr Tan explained why. We try to provide as much as we can, but I think there is a limit to what we can do.

Ms Hazel Poa also asked about Chapter 9 of CECA. As a trade negotiator, we always look out for the word “shall”. When you see “shall”, it means you must do something. If you do not do it, you are in breach of the agreement. So, what is the “shall” here? You “shall grant temporary entry and stay up to one year for the duration of the contract.”

That is what we agreed to. That means if we approve, if you meet our work pass conditions, we shall grant you one year of admission. I think that is very reasonable. Imagine if you apply for something to the government, and then they tell you, “I approve but we do not know for how long”; tomorrow, revoke it. It cannot be. It is not market-friendly at all. 

Remember, the ordering of the clauses matter as well. I was mentioning page one. I printed a copy and I highlighted the second and third paragraphs, the carve-outs. Carve-outs come at the beginning. You read this Chapter, you know that this Chapter does not apply to immigration measures. Government policies on immigration and on the granting of work passes, permanent residency and citizenship are not covered in this Chapter.

Then it goes on to say what the parties must then do. So, later on in the Chapter, it says that you “shall” grant one year of approval should you approve. That is how you read the agreement. 

I hope I have answered all of Ms Hazel Poa’s questions.

But I do have some questions too for PSP. If I may ask these. I tried to correct the falsehoods of CECA because the whole purpose of this Statement is that I know PSP is preparing for a Motion debate. But I am also hoping that we all go into the debate with some common ground.

First of all, common ground must be, let us put aside the falsehoods. Therefore, I clarified which are the falsehoods and let us put them aside. Do not bring them into the Motion. What are the falsehoods?

First, CECA does not allow a free flow of intra-corporate transferees to Singapore. Most companies prefer to apply for EPs than to use the intra-corporate transferee route, which is actually more cumbersome. Hence, I mentioned, as of 2020, there were only 500 intra-corporate transferees from India, in Singapore.

Second falsehood: CECA also does not give Indian nationals from 127 professions a free hand to come to Singapore to live and work. CECA allows them to apply for EPs. It does not oblige Singapore to approve the applications. Approval is subject to them meeting our criteria. Immigration measures are carved out from the agreement, like for all FTAs. 

In the spirit of seeking common ground, we come to this House and we recognise that globalisation is a difficult thing. There are lots of pros but there are also cons. In the case of Singapore, globalisation has allowed us to grow and to create a lot of good jobs and has benefited many Singaporeans. If we had not done that, today, we will be having a very different kind of debate, of massive unemployment, of stagnating wages, of graduates not being able to find jobs.

But we also recognise there are downsides. There are two social downsides, other than the increased competition. 

First, while foreign EP holders have come in to help us sustain our growth and though the growth in local PMEs outnumber that of foreign EP holders, the presence of foreign EP holders has nevertheless created more competition, discomfort and social issues. We must manage this.

Second, Singaporeans want to know that they will be given fair treatment at the workplace. It is entirely justified. We have rules to achieve such fairness and we will continually review these rules and framework, and how they are implemented to ensure that fairness is assured.

This is what the Government, on its part, has done in the spirit of trying to achieve some common ground as we go into the debate.

So, may I ask PSP, our two hon Non-Constituency Members of Parliament from PSP, after hearing all the explanations from Dr Tan and I, will you agree to the following? 

First, the FTAs, including CECA, are fundamental to Singapore’s economic survival and our ability to earn a living and we should not shake this bedrock for political purposes. 

Second, CECA does not allow a free flow of Indian PMEs into Singapore. This is a gross misunderstanding of the agreement and FTAs in general. Nor is CECA the cause of the challenges faced by our PMEs. We must put a stop to the spreading of the falsehoods.

If you agree to this, I think we have a good chance to have some common ground that when we come into the House again for a debate on the Motion, we can have a meaningful and constructive debate.

If I may seek the clarifications of our two Members from PSP, please.

More on the exchange here