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Can we afford to close off from the world?

06 Jul 2021 3 min read

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As an open trading economy, Singapore’s Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with other countries have unlocked a world of opportunities and benefits for Singaporeans. Over the years, Singapore has inked 26 FTAs with countries like China, Japan, Australia, United Kingdom and the United States.  

However, in recent months, falsehoods have spread about FTAs – in particular the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA). Allegations of unfettered inflow of Indian professionals displacing Singaporeans from their jobs and bringing about all kinds of social ills have fuelled distrust and xenophobia in our society.  

In response to some of these false claims from the PSP, Ministers Ong Ye Kung and Dr Tan See Leng delivered ministerial statements to clear the misconceptions about CECA. 

Challenging allegations that Indian professionals have a “free hand” to enter Singapore, Mr Ong – a former trade negotiator – pointed out, “Nothing in the agreement implies Singapore must unconditionally let in PMEs from India. Contrary to PSP’s claim, our ability to impose requirements for immigration and work pass, has never been in question in CECA or any other FTA that we have signed.”  

The same stringent rules apply to intra-corporate transferees. These candidates also have to meet the same work pass qualifying criteria. The number of these intra-corporate transferees from India in Singapore is in fact very small – there were only about 500 in 2020 (less than 0.3 per cent of all Employment Pass holders). 

This economic strategy is a big boost to our efforts to export, attract investments, venture overseas and create new opportunities for Singapore. While we create opportunities for local workers to grow and progress, Mr Ong also pointed out that our workforce is not big enough to meet all the needs of investments that generate the quality and range of jobs we have today. As such, we have to make a trade-off, to accept foreign PMEs so that we create good jobs for locals. In fact, we have seen how this has spurred opportunities for our local PMEs. 

From 2005 to 2020, the total number of EPs increased by around 112,000 while the number of local PMEs increased by more than 380,000. This translates to an average of three local PME jobs created for each foreign PME that entered Singapore. Today, we still have some 22,000 PME vacant positions waiting to be filled.

Meanwhile, some sectors also saw strong job creation for local PMEs. In the Infocomm sector, the number of jobs created for local PMEs was around 35,000. Over in the Finance sector, the number of jobs created for local PMEs was even greater – at around 85,000. They outnumbered the EPs issued substantially. Our citizen unemployment rate over the past decade has been remained consistently low at around 3 per cent.  

Dr Tan reiterated that all these foreign talents are subject to a very high qualify bar. “Our view is that foreign manpower should not come to Singapore just because they are cheaper to hire than locals. They should complement and not displace the local workforce. They should bring in extra skills to help the companies, and at the same time create more Singaporean jobs.” He said the Manpower Ministry would continue to strengthen the Fair Consideration Framework and stamp out discriminatory employment practices, to ensure Singaporeans have a fair chance to progress. 

Dr Tan acknowledged the concerns of Singaporeans over the concentration of Indian professionals in certain sectors such as InfoComm. This is not a result of CECA, but a global phenomenon as India is one of the largest suppliers of tech talent globally. He acknowledged that a high concentration from a single nationality could lead to frictions, just as a high concentration of employees from China caused friction in the 2000s. The Manpower Ministry is constantly balancing this with the need for talent to grow our economy, and it is refining the EP framework to achieve a strong Singaporean core complemented by a diverse foreign workforce.  

While globalisation has generated opportunities and created jobs, both Mr Ong and Dr Tan acknowledged that it has also spawned greater competition, displacement of industries and jobs, and inflow of immigrants. Ultimately, this strikes a nation’s sense of identity and security. Much as the concerns of the people are valid, Mr Ong cautioned against how these fears can be exploited and become an agenda to sow suspicions, hatred and division in our society.  

The PAP’s goal has always been to create a better life and future for Singaporeans. Our openness to trade is precisely to create better jobs for Singaporeans. As a country with no natural resources, we should not close ourselves from opportunities across the globe. The PAP Government will always fight for the welfare of Singaporeans and will continue to do so to keep our country safe, ensure that our people reap the benefits of globalisation and no one is left behind.  

As Mr Ong concluded: “We cannot survive – we cannot earn a living – without being connected to the world, without being welcoming to the world, without the House unanimously supporting our FTA strategy. And we must always be a big-hearted people, even while we grapple with the significant challenges of globalisation to forge the best path forward for Singapore.”