SINGAPORE - In a strong criticism of what he described as a "reactive" policy towards communication, Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh on Tuesday (Sept 14) said the Government has to take some responsibility for the misinformation swirling about the India-Singapore free trade agreement.
Emotions had been simmering on the ground long before the Progress Singapore Party had latched onto the issue of the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement with India (Ceca) and foreign employment, added Mr Singh (Aljunied GRC), who is the Workers' Party chief.
The Government's refusal to release data and answer questions of national relevance earlier had allowed people's misunderstandings to fester, and falsehoods to proliferate, he said.
Calling for a change of culture in communication, Mr Singh, who has pushed for freedom of information laws in the past, urged the Government to release more information to better inform public debate on the issue.
"The Government needs to reflect on its own omissions and resistance when it comes to providing data and information, and how it ought to take some responsibility for the groundswell of misinformation about Ceca," he said.
Mr Singh was speaking during the debate on two motions surrounding Singapore professionals, managers, executives and technicians and the competition they face from foreigners.
One was filed by PSP Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai, and the other by Finance Minister Lawrence Wong.
In a 30-minute speech, Mr Singh set out his party's stand on FTAs and Ceca.
It is undeniable that FTAs have encouraged investment and created jobs and opportunities for both Singaporeans and foreigners, he said.
He also noted that there have been some elements here and abroad that have used Ceca as a dog-whistle, masquerading racism for genuine economic concerns.
The WP abhors and denounces racism and xenophobia, he stressed.
But Mr Singh said it was fair to ask if the Ministry of Manpower had regulated work passes in the best way possible, adding that the WP does not take it as a given that Singapore's pro-trade policies will guarantee good jobs for all Singaporeans.
In fact, some groups have ended up worse off, he said, pointing to the sandwiched class, workers who lack skills and lower income Singaporeans.
For these groups, there was a perception that the playing field is uneven, and some have directed their anger at foreigners of Indian ethnicity who have become more visible and taken up well-paying jobs here, he said.
"Ordinary Singaporeans do not delve into the intricacies of free trade agreements. Instead, they look around and come to conclusions based on what they perceive and experience," added Mr Singh.
"If Singaporeans have not for years been seeing foreigners occupying well-paying jobs while qualified Singaporeans are unemployed or under-employed, we would not be talking about this today."
Mr Singh noted that this influx of foreign workers and permanent residents from the mid 2000s had bothered former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, who had stepped down as Prime Minister by then.
In the second volume of Mr Goh's biography, Standing Tall, he had said that he was "surprised and annoyed" and had told Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong so.
Citing this, Mr Singh said: "If a former prime minister whose job was not directly threatened or been taken away by a foreigner can say he was 'surprised and annoyed', how much more so for a Singaporean who has experienced such fear of, or even actual loss of their livelihood?"
He warned that these feelings of insecurity and dislocation can shake Singapore's national cohesion.
Giving suggestions on how to address these sentiments, Mr Singh said the Government would have to communicate more and much better on foreign employment.
He noted that WP MP Leon Perera had asked in 2016 about the number of intra-corporate transferees - foreign employees brought in from the overseas offices of multinational corporations - allowed into Singapore through Ceca.
But the Government had "simply refused to answer a question of national relevance for which data was readily available".
"Is this acceptable? Can Singaporeans be blamed for assuming that the numbers must have been so huge that the Government saw fit not to reveal them"? he said.
He added that the release of the figure earlier this year, during a Parliamentary debate on FTAs and Ceca, had achieved the opposite effect.
The figure of 500 given was for 2020, after the onset of Covid-19, and it begs the question of what the figures for the earlier years were, he said urging the Government to make release them.
While more information has been given in the course of addressing the issue in the past months, "the Government's release of information on such matters would likely continue to be reactive and when it suits the Government, rather than proactive and when it suits the people"," Mr Singh added.
He warned that this could leave the door open for external parties to exploit the foreigner-local issue to compromise and destroy Singapore's psychological defences, particularly in the face of the ongoing cold war between the United States and China.
"Particularly for an issue as sensitive as this, the default position of the Government should be to release more information and explain the situation."
He also made four other suggestions, including: tracking the extent of skills transfer from foreigners to locals and reporting it as a key performance indicator for each sector; introducing fixed term employment passes that can only be renewed if a company can prove that its Singaporean workers have benefited from skills upgrading; tracking skills-related underemployment; and setting up a permanent Parliamentary Standing Select Committee dedicated to scrutinising the issue of jobs and foreign employment.
Other WP MPs weigh in
Speaking after him, Ms He Ting Ru (Sengkang GRC) urged the Government to take the opportunity to re-think the way it manages and discusses the local-foreigner issue.
She noted that countries around the world are grappling with immigration and its impact on the economy and society with nativist politics on the rise.
"Too easily have immigration and migrants become convenient bogeymen, just like Ceca and our FTAs appear to have done, often against all data that suggest otherwise," she said.
She cautioned against taking a polarising approach that dismisses legitimate concerns as "xenophobia" and "racism", and decries support for greater international movement of labour as "sell-outs".
To bridge the gap between locals and foreigners, it is not just Singaporeans who have to adapt to having foreigners in their midst, but foreigners must also play their part in integrating into the communities they live in, said Ms He.
She questioned the People's Association's initiatives in this regard, and said that the discontent exhibited by some locals suggest that the PA will have to redouble its efforts.
Mr Perera, meanwhile, questioned if the assumptions underlying some of Singapore's policies should be relooked.
For instance, the belief that Singaporeans will be absolutely better off if companies are attracted to set up shop here and allowed to bring in foreigners to fill the cutting-edge jobs.
He noted that the Government has often said that this will lead to good jobs being created for Singaporeans, but noted that a large population of foreigners places burdens on scarce resources of land and other areas like healthcare capacity.
It also runs the risk of entrenching work cultures that disadvantage Singaporeans in the longer-term.
Mr Gerald Giam (Aljunied GRC), a founder and director of a local IT solutions and consulting company, said while many good jobs had been created in the infocommunications and technology sector, the admission of many entry-level foreign ICT professionals over the past 20 years and the commoditisation of skills like computer programming has put downward pressure on wages.
Coupled with the perception of crony hiring and discrimination against locals, this had made many Singaporeans stay away from the ICT industry in favour of other sectors, leading to a dearth of local talent in this industry, he added.
He also said that Singapore should have started a bigger push to encourage more students to study IT two decades ago and urged the Government to train ahead of demand for future ICT jobs.
WP MP Jamus Lim (Sengkang GRC), meanwhile, noted that while FTAs were generally beneficial, they should be reviewed from time to time to evaluate if such agreement shave been detrimental to the job prospects of local PMETs.
He also called on the Government to institute a freedom of information initiative that will guarantee the full release of accurate and complete trade, production, and labour market data, pertaining to the study of Singapore's FTAs.
Amending of motions
Mr Singh proposed that Mr Wong's motion be amended to reinforce the importance of "correcting course and adjusting or changing policies going forward" to address Singaporeans' anxieties.
Among the proposals were for a new clause to be added calling on the Government to proactively release information on jobs and employment prospects of Singaporeans.
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Ms He, meanwhile, proposed amendments to Mr Leong's motion, but this was disallowed by Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin, who deemed that the amendments would change the meaning of the motion.
The changes proposed by Mr Singh did not go through in the end, with the majority of MPs voting against it.
The WP MPs present eventually voted against both Mr Wong's and Mr Leong's motions.
This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.