Finally, the government has decided to “debate” CECA – after stalling for some time. Last Tuesday’s (June 6) Parliament sitting saw two ministers delivering lengthy statements on Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) and, specifically, the Singapore-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CEC A). Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat then joined Health Minister Ong Ye Kung and Manpower Minister Tan See Leng in a concerted attempt to “defang” Progress Singapore Party’s NCMPs Leong Wai Mun and Hazel Poa – even before an expected full debate at a later sitting.
Immediately after the Tuesday session, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also addressed the issue. “Singaporeans are anxious about jobs, foreign competition, as well as the impact of the large number of foreigners working and living here,” he said. “These are valid concerns which we will address. But if we put the blame on CECA, that will not solve our problem but instead make it worse.”
Looks like the government chose to bring the whole battalion to bear on the NCMPs who were just doing their job: asking for information for a proper public discourse. Remember the 1980s when SDP’s lonely MP Chiam See Tong never gave up on asking the government to explain the linkage of land priceto the pricing of HDB flats, whether the government had properly passed the benefit of low pricing to the public. Lots of government stalling, including the release of official files with every other page heavily redacted. Similarly, dribs and drabs on CECA until now.
CECA was signed in 2005 with a couple of reviews in subsequent years. It went largely unnoticed in the public eye until the 2010s. This was when Singaporeans began to feel the pressure of living almost cheek to jowl with an influx of foreigners – in public transport and at work places. Complaints of unfair job practices which put Singaporeans at a disadvantage in their own country started to appear. This led to the setting up of the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices (TAFEP) to deal with these infringements which reportedly tended to involve an unnamed country which was not too hard to guess. The very fact that TAFEP had to be set up showed that CECA had made life difficult for Singaporeans: they were being blatantly discriminated in their own country.
Long before Leong and Poa brought the issue to Parliament, Workers’ Party MPs had already been asking questions.
One of the concerns has been intra-corporate transferees (ICTs) who do not seem to come under the usual employment rules and, hence, can be used to game the system. Under World Trade Agreement regulations governing FTAs, ICTsare allowed, meaning, companies can move their personnel around from country to country, provided overseas employees at an MNC have worked for at least a year in the company, before being posted to a branch or subsidiary in Singapore.WP’s Leon Perera asked in 2016 for a breakdown of such employees working through CECA but was stonewalled. Leong Mun Wai succeeded in getting a figure in February this year – 5 per cent of all Employment Pass holders.
Even earlier than that, WP’s Gerald Giam also brought up in 2014 some issues involving ICTs under CECA. New Delhi was reportedly asking for better privileges.
“Gerald Giam Yean Song: I have two supplementary questions, Madam. I understand that India is claiming that our Work Pass framework, which has been tightened in recent years, somehow violates CECA, or they are saying that they are entitled to allow more workers to come in here. So, can the Minister share with us his interpretation of what India’s claims are?
Secondly, can the Minister also share Ministry of Trade and Industry’s position on this, and also give us an assurance that the government will stand up to pressure from the Indians to allow more of their nationals to work here?
Then Trade and Industry Minister Lim Hng Kiang: Under the FTAs that we negotiated, there is an exchange of preferential treatment. In India’s case, in CECA’s case, one of the privileges we extend to India was to create greater conveniences for business people to move between the two countries, Singaporean businessmen to India, and vice versa.
Under the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) in World Trade Organization (WTO), we grant such ICTs, say five years. In India’s case, we allow them to do so for eight years. These are the kind of privileges.”
Leong and Poa were similarly asking for clarifications and more information to clear doubts on Singaporeans’ minds. In the exchange of words on Tuesday, the PSP stuck by their position that they fully supported FTAs but reserved judgement on CECA, presumably until more information was forthcoming or more was done to prevent our PMETs from being marginalised in their own country.
No one was “barking up the wrong tree”. No one was xenophobic. No one was making scapegoats out of anything. No one was “against Indians” (that literally came out of one of the ministers’ mouth).
Singaporeans are worried. Just look at this perceptive comment from a reader of one of the websites that the government is so eager to dismiss as “toxic”:
“SC: Just top 1% of South Asia equals 13.8 million. Certainly our 50k top is no match when it comes to any kind of competition. It’s a no brainer. The men have to serve reservist at the same time.”
If something is not done, that “only 500” of 42,000 transferees (ICTs) in 2020 (what about the other years before Covid-19?) will turn into a deluge that will drown all Singaporeans.
Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.
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