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Foreign talent debate: Shanmugam grills NCMP Leong Mun Wai on ‘racist’ stance, knowledge of FTAs, ‘right’ number of foreign PMETs

SINGAPORE — For more than an hour, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam grilled Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) Leong Mun Wai on various issues on Tuesday (Sept 14), with Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin wading in at times.

Law Minister K Shanmugam and Mr Leong Mun Wai, Non-Constituency Member of Parliament, debating motions in Parliament on the impact of the Government’s foreign manpower policy on Singaporean workers.

Law Minister K Shanmugam and Mr Leong Mun Wai, Non-Constituency Member of Parliament, debating motions in Parliament on the impact of the Government’s foreign manpower policy on Singaporean workers.

SINGAPORE — For more than an hour, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam grilled Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) Leong Mun Wai on various issues on Tuesday (Sept 14), with Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin wading in at times. 

These included Mr Leong’s knowledge of the legal provisions in the free trade agreement (FTA) between Singapore and India, otherwise known as the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca). 

Mr Shanmugam also pressed Mr Leong on whether his comments could be perceived as being racist, and whether he differentiates between citizens born here and those who are naturalised or given citizenship. 

His questions to the member of the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) came in the midst of a debate on two separate motions on the impact of the Government’s foreign manpower policy on Singaporean workers — one filed by Mr Leong and fellow NCMP Hazel Poa, and another by Finance Minister Lawrence Wong — which were done at the same time.

The motion by the NCMPs was about how the Government needed to take action to address how some Singaporeans have been displaced from their jobs as a result of certain provisions in FTAs such as Ceca.

The following are excerpts of some of the exchanges. 

1. On perception of Mr Leong’s stance as racist 

Mr Shanmugam: Does Mr Leong accept that his statements on Ceca, his and his party’s statements, having been interpreted by some of PSP’s members as being racist, may well be interpreted by Singaporeans as racist as well?

Mr Leong: The reason why I state our position at the beginning of my speech is exactly anticipating what the minister is going to ask on this. Ceca is an economic agreement, trade agreement that we want to have more information. Because the perception is that there are certain terms on the movement of natural persons (that) are not beneficial to Singapore. So we want more information, not necessarily directed at just Ceca as an FTA…

Mr Shanmugam: I'm sorry... that's nothing to do with what I asked.

Mr Leong: In that case, minister, sorry, can you repeat the question again?

Mr Shanmugam: Some of Mr Leong's party members interpreted his statements as being racist… My question was, if his own party members can think like that, it's entirely possible for other Singaporeans to take a similar view.

Mr Leong: For a discussion on any topic, there are people who have a different view. But Ceca is an economic agreement that is the concern of many Singaporeans. So we are asking for more information. 

Mr Shanmugam: We've heard that. That wasn’t my question.

Mr Leong: Sorry, minister. 

Speaker Tan: Do you have a response specifically to minister? 

Mr Leong: Sorry, minister. 

Speaker Tan: Mr Leong, would you be responding?

Mr Leong: Yes, yes. Sorry, I want the minister to repeat the question again.

Speaker Tan: For the third time, minister. 

Mr Shanmugam: Now, Mr Leong, it's commonsensical, isn't it, that those PSP members will not be the only ones who think that your statements are racist. If they can think like that, your own party members, other Singaporeans can reasonably think that your statements are racist, too. It’s a simple point.

Mr Leong: So okay, actually just now, my answer is going to that point. Okay, but doesn't mean that (just because) some (people) accuse somebody who is trying to find out more and trying to discuss about an economic agreement (and think) that that person is racist, then we need to shut down the whole discussion. 

Mr Shanmugam: No, we are not talking about shutting out. In fact, we are having a long debate, we are going to be here for very long. And it will be even longer if we don't get answers. So, nobody is shutting anybody out. Just a logical conclusion.

Mr Leong: There will be some people who will think there is racial undertone.

2. On Mr Leong’s knowledge of legal provisions in FTAs, including Ceca 

Mr Shanmugam: ... I'm afraid Mr Leong doesn't even know what his motion says. Did he even draft it? So that's the first question. Second question. Will he now, in the context of his motion, agree that we are debating the provisions of Ceca and will he accept that there is nothing in Ceca that allows for free movement of Indians into Singapore?

Mr Leong: The provisions that we put in the motion is actually pertaining to the economic effect of the provision.

Mr Shanmugam: I have read out what ( Health Minister Ong Ye Kung had said in July), what these provisions are... does Mr Leong have any basis to contradict that or challenge that, or does he accept it?

Mr Leong: Can I ask my colleague Hazel Poa to come in and answer those questions?

Speaker Tan: Yes, you may. 

Mr Shanmugam: I would like Mr Leong (to answer), because the motion stands in his name, he has put this motion, he has referred to provisions. If he doesn't know the answer, he can say he doesn't know the answer. And I'm not sure the answer is going to be found in a phone. (Mr Leong was seen scrolling the screen of his mobile phone)

Ms Poa: Some of these points that Minister Shanmugam has raised are in my speech. Can I suggest that we leave it here for now and we can discuss again… 

Speaker Tan: No, I think Mr Leong can answer them. I think they are pertinent to the issues that are at hand presently. You may raise it later or you can pass your speech to Mr Leong.

Mr Leong: As of now, we do not agree to the interpretation of the legal documents, as it is now.

Speaker Tan: What exactly is it about agreements that you disagree with or whatever that might be.

Mr Leong: I can then say that at this point, I do not have a legal opinion on those provisions.

Speaker Tan: Even if it's not a legal opinion, what is your opinion on them, a non-legal opinion?

Mr Leong: My non-legal opinion would include my interpretation of the economic effect. So it will be a bit different from what the minister is asking.

Mr Shanmugam: Again, that is a confusing answer. And (Mr Ong) has said that there is no free movement allowed and we are entitled to apply our work pass rules, and that this is how it has been operated… since Ceca has come into force and likewise for the FTAs.

Which part of that statement does (Mr Leong) disagree with?... Maybe he can look at these statements and say which part of it he disagrees with. Does he disagree that we have applied it this way? Does he say that the minister was lying in Parliament, or does he say that the interpretation that the minister had given was inaccurate and that we should in fact be obliged to give free movement for all Indians into Singapore?

Mr Leong: What I'm saying is that I'm focusing on the economic effect of those provisions. And looking at the economic effect, there are some initial doubts whether the movement is easier than what the Government has represented or not. But we still cannot come to a conclusion yet, because we need more data from the Government and the Government is withholding the data.

Speaker Tan: Minister, I suggest we move on. I don't think we're going to get any further clarity on this. We’ll just have to agree to disagree. 

Mr Shanmugam: I will take it, based on the answers, that Mr Leong really doesn't know about these legal provisions despite the wording of this motion, and he has no understanding of the provisions of Ceca.  

3. Government data on foreign PMETs

Mr Shanmugam: Mr Leong, over the last 10 years... there has been an increase of 110,000 EP (Employment Pass) and S Pass holders… During the same period, the local PMETs (professionals, managers, executives and technicians) increased by 300,000...

Second, the number of PMET job vacancies have been around 30,000 over the past five years.

Third, the size of our permanent resident population has remained stable in the last five years, 2016 to 2020. It's at about 520,000.

And Mr Leong agrees that we need some foreign PMETs. Today, it’s 350,000. If that is too much, then can he tell us what is the right number? Is it 300,000? Is it 200,000? Or is it 100,000?

Mr Leong: Okay, the number of rebalancing that we need to do depends on the Government’s estimate of what is the number of Singaporeans that are being displaced, which is something that I will push during the debate.

Mr Shanmugam: So, can I take it... that Mr Leong can confirm that he doesn't really know how many... what should the number be?

Mr Leong: Government is always controlling the number, I mean controlling the data. I will have to refer to the Government to give me some data to come up with an accurate answer. I’ve got some numbers in mind but I will prefer to wait for the data. 

Mr Shanmugam: Based on the data that's available and I've given him this data, and much of it is available in public, can I take it that he is in no position to tell us whether it should be 350,000 or whether it should be 400,000 or whether it should be fewer? He has got no basis.

Mr Leong: Yes, at this moment, I will need more data from the Government before I can come up with an accurate number.

Mr Shanmugam: And therefore it follows logically... that Mr Leong is not able to assert here or anywhere else that we have too many foreign PMETs in Singapore. That would be right?

Mr Leong: That is not accurate because we have, we are seeing so many underemployed Singaporeans around… We have also seen in statistics the number of gig workers that are increasing, and also the number of self-employed Singaporeans is also increasing.

Okay, so there are Singaporeans that are being displaced. So we got some rough numbers, but we want the Government to give us more accurate numbers.

Mr Shanmugam: My question was a simple one. Mr Leong agreed earlier that he doesn't know if 350,000 is too many or too few. So it's a natural conclusion that he doesn't really know if there are too many foreign PMETs here. It's basically based on what he says…

Mr Leong: I'm not going to say what is the number in my head until the Government gives me more data. Not that I don't have an idea of how many Singaporeans are being displaced. 

4. On differentiating between naturalised Singaporeans and those born here 

Mr Shanmugam: Members of this House will recall... what (Mr Leong) said about the chief executive officer of DBS bank. He professed his deep disappointment that DBS is still without a homegrown CEO. Can I ask whether Mr Leong still believes what he said, that naturalised Singapore citizens should not hold top positions?

Mr Leong: That is definitely not the case. When you are citizens, naturalised or homegrown, you are citizens. I have raised the issue during my maiden speech because I was talking about the succession plan, about skills transfer, which is part of what we are going to discuss today. About DBS, when he was appointed the current CEO, he was still a foreigner. Why wasn't a chance given to a homegrown Singaporean?

Mr Shanmugam: None of that answers the point I made. I am quoting Mr Leong. He professed his deep disappointment when Mr Piyush Gupta was and is the CEO, during his maiden speech, where DBS is still without a homegrown CEO, meaning he is disappointed that it was Mr Gupta and not a homegrown CEO. So let's not beat about the bush. I'm asking whether he continues to have those beliefs or has he changed his mind?

Mr Leong: If the minister means that I am differentiating naturalised Singaporeans and homegrown Singaporeans, then I can confirm the answer is no. 

Mr Shanmugam: Thank you, therefore, Mr Leong has changed his mind, it appears, from last year.

Mr Leong: I didn't change my mind, my stance has always been like that.

Mr Shanmugam: What is the meaning of the statement that ‘DBS is still without a homegrown CEO’? We are not talking about succession plans here. I'm just asking for an interpretation of Mr Leong’s words. 

Mr Leong: What I was referring to was, at the point of appointment... he was still a foreigner. But anyway, when I made that statement, I was not, in any way, having Mr Piyush Gupta in mind. I was just talking about the many CEOs that DBS have got, and (it) never had a succession plan. That was the intention but okay, being one of the top lawyers in Singapore, maybe the Law Minister could make some interpretations and ask me in that way. Yeah.

Mr Shanmugam: …The natural interpretation of a statement that ‘I have deep disappointment that DBS is still without a homegrown CEO’ at a time when a naturalised Singaporean is a CEO… whatever may be the workings of Mr Leong's mind, the normal interpretation would be that he is disappointed that it's Mr Gupta and not a homegrown Singaporean. Wouldn't that be the natural interpretation?

Mr Leong: That was not the intention. 

Mr Shanmugam: I did expressly say, we'll leave aside whatever Mr Leong may have intended. I'm simply asking whether what I've said is a fair interpretation, natural interpretation of what he said.

Mr Leong: How it is interpreted, I think it depends on who is listening to it.

Speaker Tan: I think the question is whether it's fair for anyone in public to interpret it that way as the minister has put across. Because that was what was said, I remembered. I think many of us would have remembered that. I think a few of us raised our eyebrows because we're wondering what exactly you meant.

So would it be fair that that's how people would interpret it, notwithstanding whatever your intent might be? Because what we say in Parliament matters, because that's how the public will perceive it, which is why the choice of words and phrases is important.

Mr Leong: That was not my interpretation.

Speaker Tan: That's not the question at hand. Would that be interpreted the way it's been put across by the minister?

Mr Leong: I would say some minority of the people might interpret it that way.

Related topics

Parliament K Shanmugam Leong Mun Wai FTA Ceca foreign talent PMET

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