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Ministers slam PSP for ‘race-baiting’ with Ceca debate; opposition party rejects ‘racist’ label, defends legitimate concerns

SINGAPORE — Government ministers took turns to label the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) racist and xenophobic during a parliamentary debate on Singapore’s foreign talent policy on Tuesday (Sept 14).

Ministers slam PSP for ‘race-baiting’ with Ceca debate; opposition party rejects ‘racist’ label, defends legitimate concerns

(Left to right) Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong and Non-Constituency Members of Parliament Leong Mun Wai and Hazel Poa in Parliament on Sept 14, 2021.

 

  • Two motions on Singapore’s foreign talent policy were debated in Parliament
  • One was raised by Finance Minister Lawrence Wong and the other by PSP NCMP Leong Mun Wai
  • PAP ministers labelled PSP’s stance as racist and xenophobic during the debate
  • Mr Leong and fellow NCMP Hazel Poa denied the labels and said they were raising issues on Singaporeans' jobs and livelihood
  • Ceca and other free trade agreements affect immigration and employment policies, Mr Leong argued

 

 

SINGAPORE — Government ministers took turns to label the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) racist and xenophobic during a parliamentary debate on Singapore’s foreign talent policy on Tuesday (Sept 14).

The exchange saw Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam accusing the PSP’s Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) Leong Mun Wai of engaging in “race-baiting” and “nationality-baiting” by linking Singapore’s free trade agreement (FTA) with India to the issue of Singaporeans’ job security.

Mr Leong and fellow NCMP Hazel Poa, however, rejected these labels, reiterating that their party was raising these issues to address the anxieties among Singaporeans over their jobs in relation to country’s foreign talent policy.

The exchanges arose as Parliament debated two motions on the issue of foreigners in the workforce on Tuesday.

A motion on securing Singaporeans’ jobs and livelihoods was tabled by Finance Minister Lawrence Wong in response to one on foreign talent policy filed by Mr Leong. 

The debate followed an earlier parliamentary exchange in July this year between Mr Leong and Cabinet Ministers over the PSP’s stance on the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca), the official name of the FTA between the two countries.

PSP has raised concerns that the Government’s foreign talent policy has led to Singaporeans being displaced from their jobs.

The party has also singled out Ceca and claimed that it allows unfettered entry of certain Indian professionals here.

‘RACIST AND XENOPHOBIC UNDERTONES’ 

In his speech on Tuesday, Mr Wong said that he had filed his motion in response to PSP’s to reiterate the Government’s position on the matter.

“(Mr Leong’s) motion appears to be addressing concerns about jobs, but it yet again falsely attributes the challenges faced (by Singaporeans) to our FTAs and foreigners,” Mr Wong said.

The “strong racist and xenophobic undertones” in PSP’s campaign against Ceca have not gone unnoticed, he added, with members of the business community expressing worry that PSP’s stance will undermine their access to workers and jeopardise their overall operations here.

Urging PSP and its NCMPs to deal with issues of job security carefully, Mr Wong said: “Please reflect on how your rhetoric can deepen fault-lines — not just between locals and foreigners, but even between Singaporeans of different races.”

Speaking in support of Mr Wong’s motion later in the debate, Manpower Minister Tan See Leng said that PSP’s stance was also detrimental to how investors perceived Singapore’s openness.

Dr Tan noted that Singapore has fallen from first to fifth place in the Institute for Management Development’s World Competitiveness Ranking this year.

He added that attacks by PSP on Ceca, FTAs and foreigners in general had affected the institute’s assessment of Singapore and business sentiments.

A subsequent exchange running for more than an hour, between Mr Shanmugam and Mr Leong, also saw the minister accuse PSP of stoking racist sentiments.

He also questioned Mr Leong for taking aim at Ceca in the motion despite claiming that his party was in support of all FTAs.

During the exchange, Mr Shanmugam noted that PSP’s own members had interpreted Mr Leong’s earlier statements in Parliament on Ceca as racist.

In July, TODAY broke the news that some PSP members had raised concerns about the party’s stance, saying that it was “targeted at the Indian community” and had a “racist undertone”, among other things.

The concerns were resolved a few days later after a closed-door meeting, which concluded with a “unified stand of commitment and support" for Mr Leong and Ms Poa on the matter.

On Tuesday, Mr Shanmugam asked if Mr Leong accepted that PSP members found his statements racist.

Mr Leong responded that “just one or two party members” had mentioned that his motion in Parliament was racist, though he added that this did not mean that he was.

When asked by Mr Shanmugam on why PSP’s motion had honed in on Ceca even though Mr Leong said that he was supportive of all FTAs, Mr Leong said that he does not have full disclosure on the movement of natural persons provision in Ceca as well as in other FTAs.

Pressed further by the minister on why PSP’s motion singles out “some FTAs like Ceca” and which other FTAs PSP was concerned with, Mr Leong said that these included the Australia, China and United States FTAs.

COMMENTS ON DBS BANK'S CEO 

Mr Shanmugam also brought up a comment made by Mr Leong in his maiden parliamentary speech last September.

At that time, Mr Leong said he was “deeply disappointed” that Singapore bank DBS is still without a “homegrown chief executive officer (CEO)” more than two decades after American John Olds helmed it.

DBS is headed by Mr Piyush Gupta, who was born in India and became a Singapore citizen in 2009, the same year he became CEO at the bank.

Mr Shanmugam asked if Mr Leong still believed that naturalised Singaporeans should not hold top positions.

In response, Mr Leong said he did not, adding that he had raised the issue of DBS’ CEO during his maiden speech to highlight DBS’ succession planning and the lack of opportunities provided to “homegrown” Singaporeans.

Even so, Mr Shanmugam said it was “quite clear” what Mr Leong and PSP are doing. It is wrong to have an issue with new citizens and permanent residents from specific countries, he added.

“It is race-baiting and nationality-baiting without beating about the bush, and that’s what the words of (Mr Leong’s) motion suggest.”

He also said that Mr Leong’s views on Singapore’s foreign talent policy had been “completely distorted” by his lack of understanding of Ceca and his eagerness “to attack Indians and Ceca”.

“I would say what his party and Mr Leong are doing is one of the worst types of political opportunism — using race as a bait.”

NOT RACE BUT 'TRADE AGREEMENT ISSUE' 

In response, Mr Leong said that he “strongly objected” to what Mr Shamugam said about PSP’s position on race, adding that the reason for the party's motion on Tuesday had “nothing to do with race or xenophobia”.

“We will continue to debate why we think the situation in Singapore is far worse than what the Government has presented to the Singaporeans,” Mr Leong said.

Throughout the debate, the PSP NCMPs denied fanning racist sentiment, with Mr Leong accusing the Government of trying to link the public discourse on Ceca to racism instead.

“I hereby state categorically that PSP is against linking the public discourse on Ceca to racism. It is confusing Singaporeans and dividing them.

“All that Singaporeans want to know is why jobs and livelihood situations for many Singaporeans have worsened over the last 20 years,” Mr Leong said during his speech.

Ceca is not a race issue but “a trade agreement issue” that affected immigration and employment policies, he continued.

As such, Ceca and other FTAs had to be addressed in the debate on Singapore’s foreign talent policy.

Despite efforts by the Government to moderate the overall workforce growth over the years, the problem of jobs and livelihood for Singaporeans had not improved, Mr Leong argued.

As a result, the issue of foreigners resurfaced as “a big issue” in last year’s General Election.

Noting that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had spoken publicly on the need to manage the quality, numbers and concentrations of foreigners in Singapore, Mr Leong said that the issues that he raised are legitimate.

“It will be unfair if the Government continues to label the PSP and I as xenophobic.” 

Mr Leong had some suggestions on how to “restore balance in the job market”.

He said in his opening speech that the quality of work pass holders could be raised by increasing the qualifying salary of Employment Pass (EP) holders from S$4,500 to S$10,000 and those of S Pass holders from S$2,500 to S$4,500.

A single nationality cap of 10 per cent and a combined 25 to 30 per cent cap for both work pass holders and permanent residents could also be imposed on companies, depending on the proportion of their manpower strength in each business function.

WHY PSP HIGHLIGHTED CECA

During the debate, Ms Poa of PSP defended her party’s stance to highlight Ceca in the debate over foreign talent.

She said that Ceca had attracted the most attention out of all FTAs for two reasons.

Firstly, the agreement contains a clause in Chapter 9, which states that Singapore or India “shall grant temporary entry and stay” to professionals from 127 categories.

Such a clause is not found in other FTAs and this sends a “strong message of welcome” to Indian professionals.

To conclude that the absence or presence of this clause does not change anything because it is still subject to Singapore’s manpower policies “is being blinded by realities to technicalities”, she added.

Secondly, there has been a rapid increase in the number of India nationals working in Singapore in the past 15 years.

Ms Poa said that based on figures provided by the Ministry of Manpower, the proportion of EP holders from India had grown from one in seven in 2005 to a quarter in 2020.

“Based on 65,000 EP holders in 2005 and 177,000 EP holders in 2020, we can calculate that the number of EP holders from India increased by 377 per cent from 2005 to 2020, an average growth rate of 11 per cent a year,” she said, adding that this growth rate was higher than the number of EP holders from China.

Related topics

Parliament Ceca foreign talent India K Shanmugam Lawrence Wong Leong Mun Wai Hazel Poa

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