Singapore officials defend CECA trade pact with India amid immigration concerns
- The 2005 trade pact is in the spotlight after opposition parties claimed it allowed unfettered access to Indian workers
- Singapore has been having an ongoing national debate on racism and ruling PAP politicians said criticism of the pact is fuelling anti-Indian sentiment
Criticism of the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) has simmered for some time among the PAP’s adversaries, with the likes of the opposition Progress Singapore Party (PSP) and the Peoples Voice party highlighting the matter in last year’s general election.
The 2005 trade pact is again in the spotlight following an ongoing national debate on racism in the city state. Officials have charged that criticism of CECA – one of the country’s 26 free trade pacts – was in fact baseless and fomented anti-Indian sentiment in the multiracial nation.
The critics countered by saying the government was being too quick to label them as racists while not publicising data to back up the official position that the trade deal creates jobs for citizens.
Leong Mun Wai, an ex-banker who is one of the PSP’s two representatives in Singapore’s parliament, last month said the party accepted the PAP’s challenge for a parliamentary debate on CECA, adding that the time had come for a “rebalancing” of Singaporeans’ interests against those of expatriates in professional, managerial, executive and technician (PMET) roles.
Ong Ye Kung, a former top trade bureaucrat who now serves as health minister, told parliament on Tuesday that claims by parties such as the PSP had “stirred up a lot of emotions” among local workers facing challenges in the workplace.
“CECA-themed websites” filled with “disturbing xenophobic views about Indian immigrants” have sprouted, Ong told lawmakers in the first of two ministerial addresses on the matter.
“Words gradually become deeds, and toxic views turned into verbal and physical assaults on Indians, including our citizens,” Ong said.
While free trade pacts had over the years become a “keystone of the economic superstructure we have built”, these deals “have been made political scapegoats by the PSP to discredit the policy of the PAP government”, Ong said.
He noted that the PSP’s leader Tan Cheng Bock – a former PAP stalwart – had suggested in a media interview that Indian nationals were given a “free hand” to obtain jobs in Singapore via CECA.
Data showed this was not the case, Ong said, noting that only 500 Indian nationals had obtained jobs in Singapore in 2020 through intra-corporate transfers – which allow companies to bring India-based staff into Singapore without having to first advertise the jobs to locals.
CECA critics say one of their key gripes is the chapter in the agreement allowing for intra-corporate transfers, which they deem heavily slanted in India’s favour.
Manpower Minister Tan See Leng, delivering the second of two statements on the matter, said none of the republic’s free trade agreements allowed foreign nationals unfettered access to the local labour market.
In fact, transferees have to meet qualifying work-pass criteria including relevant education and professional qualifications.
“The PSP has made Indian nationals coming in through CECA a focus of contention. But I am afraid they have been barking up the wrong tree,” Tan said.
Tan noted that the proportion of Indian nationals holding employment passes – the top-tier work pass granted to professionals – had risen from 14 per cent in 2005 to 25 per cent in 2020.
However this increase was not because of favourable treatment of Indian nationals but due to prevailing trends in the global flow of talent, the minister said.
“China and India, over the last decade or so, are two of the largest suppliers of tech talent. But, you would have read, China has sprouted so many unicorns and the PRC companies themselves have a huge demand of their own, so many Chinese talents decide to stay in China to work,” Tan said.
“India’s talent, on the other hand, they’ve continued to look outwards. They have also the advantage of being English-speaking. This phenomenon is not unique to Singapore. It is global.”
The PSP has said it will table a motion for a full debate on CECA.
The party did not win any seats in last July’s general election but has two non-constituency members of parliament – Leong and Hazel Poa – on account of registering the best losing performance in the polls.
In a caustic exchange with Leong, Health Minister Ong urged the opposition lawmaker to concede that trade pacts were fundamental to the country’s survival and that CECA did not allow an unfettered flow of Indian PMETs into Singapore.
With Leong demurring and countering with a series of questions of his own – and asserting that the PSP required time to assess the details released by the ministers – Ong suggested the PSP politician was “waffling”.
Also weighing in on the nearly four-hour discussion was Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, who like Ong, was a former bureaucrat and led the CECA negotiations.
At the time, his Indian counterparts were “very keen” on the chapter surrounding movement of persons and had asked “what do we get?”, Heng said, adding that he insisted on strict rules after taking into account that Singapore could be “easily swamped” by Indian nationals.
Alluding to the PSP’s position on the trade pact, Heng said that he spent three years hammering out the agreement and that it was done with the interests of Singaporeans at heart. “Please be reasonable and don’t mislead Singaporeans,” he urged Leong.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong did not participate in Tuesday’s discussion, but said in a Facebook post that the ministers’ statements were aimed at putting the public debate on FTAs and CECA “on a sound factual basis”.
The government will address the public’s valid concerns about jobs, foreign competition and the large foreign worker presence in the country, “but if we put the blame on CECA, that will not solve our problem but instead make it worse”, he said.