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FTAs ‘fundamental’ to creating jobs for Singaporeans; workers’ genuine concerns mustn’t be exploited to sow discord: Ong Ye Kung

SINGAPORE — The concerns that Singaporean workers have over increased competition from foreign labour are genuine and valid, but they should not be exploited by political groups to sow division and fan hatred, and attacking free trade agreements (FTAs) is akin to “undermining the fundamentals of (Singapore’s) existence”.

FTAs ‘fundamental’ to creating jobs for Singaporeans; workers’ genuine concerns mustn’t be exploited to sow discord: Ong Ye Kung
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  • Health Minister Ong Ye Kung sought to clarify untruths about free trade agreements, particularly Ceca
  • He singled out the Progress Singapore Party for using trade deals as a “political scapegoat” to discredit the Government
  • He said it is untrue that Ceca allows Indian workers “free rein” to live and work in Singapore
  • It is also false that the 127 professions listed in Ceca refer to Indian workers who can freely work in Singapore for a year, he added

 

SINGAPORE — The concerns that Singaporean workers have over increased competition from foreign labour are genuine and valid, but they should not be exploited by political groups to sow division and fan hatred, and attacking free trade agreements (FTAs) is akin to “undermining the fundamentals of (Singapore’s) existence”.

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung made this point in a ministerial statement in Parliament on Tuesday (July 6). He singled out the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) for spreading untruths about FTAs, in particular the Singapore-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca), and set out to clarify these misunderstandings. 

Mr Ong, who was speaking as a former trade negotiator, said: “FTAs and Ceca have been made political scapegoats, to discredit the policy of the PAP (People’s Action Party) Government.”

He noted that PSP has suggested on more than one occasion that FTAs and Ceca have led to the “unfettered inflow of Indian professionals”, and said that these assertions are “seductively simplistic arguments” that have stirred up a lot of emotions.

“Words gradually became deeds, and toxic views turned into verbal and physical assaults on Indians, including our citizens,” Mr Ong said.

“It is sad that serious issues concerning the economic well-being of our country and workers have descended to this.”

IMMIGRATION CLAUSES IN CECA

Mr Ong said that the main falsehoods about Ceca stem from the immigration-related parts of the agreement. 

In particular, he pointed to PSP’s claim that the agreement has allowed Indian workers to have “free rein” to come and live and work in Singapore.

There is no provision in the agreement that implies that Singapore must unconditionally let in professionals, managers and executives from India, he said.

The provisions for immigration are set out in Chapter 9 of Ceca, which makes it clear that the Government’s ability to regulate immigration and foreign manpower is not affected by Ceca, he added.

This means that the Government retains the right to decide who can enter the country to live, work or become permanent residents or citizens.

Mr Ong noted that some chapters of FTAs, such as those relating to trade in services or investments, apply a broad principle known as “national treatment”. 

“This means you cannot discriminate against foreign service providers and investors. So, regulations and benefits that apply to local firms must apply evenly to foreign-owned ones,” he explained.

However, he added, this national treatment principle does not apply to immigration in any of Singapore’s FTAs, including Ceca, as it is a sensitive area that is “carved out” of FTAs.

“If immigration had not been carved out, and if the national treatment principle had been incorporated into the Chapter 9 of Ceca, then indeed, Indian workers would have been treated like Singaporeans, and would have had free rein to come to live and work in Singapore,” he said.

“This is what the PSP claims. Except that there is a strong immigration carve-out, and national treatment is not found in this Chapter of Ceca or any other corresponding chapter in the FTAs that Singapore has entered into.”

OBLIGATIONS IN CECA

What Ceca does set out is the obligation for both countries to process applications for temporary entry with some speed and transparency, such as letting applicants know of the outcome of their application and to not leave them in suspense, Mr Ong said.

Singapore also has to accord a certain duration for the validity of work permits, but he noted that this is still subject to the applications that meet Singapore’s prevailing work pass conditions.

Mr Ong pointed out that these provisions are not unique to Ceca and similar commitment exists in other FTAs and are found in the World Trade Organization Agreement, which was signed by 164 parties including Singapore.

Additionally, Singapore does not insist that companies go through onerous processes and documentation to prove that no suitable Singapore residents will take a job before they can hire a foreigner. 

Many parties to FTAs also commit not to impose such conditions, Mr Ong said, adding that this is a common clause in Singapore's FTAs, including with India, Australia, China and the United States.

Furthermore, he said, companies in Singapore do not hire in this way.

“The common and best practice is to interview the suitable candidates, consider them fairly and make a judgement on the best person.”

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LIST OF CATEGORIES FOR PROFESSIONALS

Mr Ong also set out to debunk criticisms about the 127 categories of professionals that are listed in Ceca.

He noted that PSP has claimed that India nationals in these stated professions can all freely come to work in Singapore for a year.

This notion is false, Mr Ong said, and stressed that all foreign professionals have to meet the work pass conditions here in order to enter for work.

He clarified that this list merely indicates the type of professionals who may apply to work in Singapore and that workers outside of the listed professions can still submit work pass applications to work here.

Mr Ong also noted that there have been complaints that intra-corporate transferees from India can also freely enter Singapore to work.

This, too, is false, he said, because such workers still have to meet the existing work pass qualifying criteria in Singapore.

He also pointed out that the total number of intra-corporate transfers from all over the world is “very small”.

Last year, there were only 500 intra-corporate transferees from India to Singapore, he said, which amounts to fewer than 0.3 per cent of all employment pass holders.

Related topics

free trade agreement Parliament Ceca Ong Ye Kung India Jobs immigration

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