Singapore Parliament rejects Opposition proposal on employment under free trade pact with India

The Parliament also passed a motion on securing Singaporeans’ jobs and livelihoods.

Singapore’s Parliament on Wednesday rejected a proposal from the Opposition hitting out at a free trade pact with India for allegedly paving the way for Indian professionals to take up domestic workers’ jobs in this country.

After a marathon debate that started on Tuesday afternoon and carried on past midnight, the 2005 Singapore-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) was singled out by Parliament, Channel News Asia reported.

The Parliament, where the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has an absolute majority, also passed a motion on securing Singaporeans’ jobs and livelihoods.

The Opposition Progress Singapore Party (PSP) has repeatedly highlighted the CECA with India as an example of how Singaporeans have lost out to foreigners.

PSP’s Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) Leong Mun Wai had filed the motion calling upon the government to take urgent and “concrete action” to address the widespread anxiety among Singaporeans on jobs and livelihoods caused by the foreign talent policy and the provisions on Movement of Natural Persons in some free trade agreements (FTA) like the CECA.

“People movements in FTAs like CECA are part of a much larger problem. We still cannot agree that CECA is net beneficial to Singapore,” Leong said in an exchange of rebuttals.

This was the second debate on CECA after one was initiated by the Opposition in July 2021.

In his closing remarks, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said Singapore will see more disruptions and volatility in the global economy, with new jobs created and many jobs being transformed or becoming obsolete.

“How Singapore capitalises on these opportunities while addressing the anxieties around jobs will determine our success and whether we remain cohesive and intact as one people,” he said.

He criticised the PSP’s arguments as “simplistic and wishful thinking”, and reiterated that squeezing out foreigners would not lead to jobs automatically going to Singaporeans, the report said.

“I think all of these arguments miss out on the most important point, and that’s the stark reality that Singaporeans are great in the workforce but there are just not enough of us,” he said.

Mr. Wong cautioned that many firms will not set up shop in Singapore if there are manpower policies that restrict them from hiring international talent, resulting in worse outcomes for Singaporean workers.

In his round-up speech, Leong rejected suggestions that the PSP is attacking foreigners, highlighting that everyone in the House has a “common objective” of improving the job prospects and livelihoods of Singaporeans.

While Leong acknowledged that Singapore needs foreign talent, he said the government’s foreign employment policies have “displaced” many local professionals, managers and executives (PMEs).

Leong said it is better to prevent displacement in the first place, pointing out that the government should “change course” and gradually reduce foreign work pass numbers.

Acknowledging that an open economy has downsides with not everyone benefitting, Mr. Wong said, “Some have been knocked down by the winds of change, and it’s not simply a matter of bouncing back on your feet again, especially when you’re older.” But the government will provide the “best support” it can give to those who have been knocked down, he said.

“At the end of the day, I recognise that this strategy that I have set out – that the government is pursuing – is not something that is easy to implement politically,” he said.

Mr. Wong also cautioned against having “xenophobic undertones” in Singapore politics.

“We will be going down a very slippery slope. It will start with seemingly innocent comments and questions being raised, or dog whistles and coded phrases but over time, the comments become normalised, and racist and xenophobic sentiments become more prevalent,” he said.

The Finance Minister said that the debate is not just about jobs and livelihoods but also about the nation’s values.

He said the motion that stands in his name talks about Singapore’s overall economic strategy to stay open, connected to the world and to deal with the downsides of an open economy as it helps Singaporeans cope and adjust.

He added that the motion by Leong ostensibly deals with anxieties about jobs but “persists with a negative campaign to link this to free trade agreements and CECA, and to continue to stir racism and xenophobia”.

“So we have to decide where we stand and make a choice,” he said.

The Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) between India and Singapore was signed on June 29, 2005 to boost economic ties between the two countries.

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