Parliament: Motion on the Foreign Talent Policy

Mr. Speaker, I rise to speak on both motions – the first filed by PSP NCMPs Mr. Leong Mun Wai and Ms. Hazel Poa on 31 Aug last month, and the second filed by the Minister of Finance, Mr Lawrence Wong on the 8th of September. At their core, both motions concern the employability of the Singapore worker and PMETs.

Sir, our local population acutely feels the consequences of Singapore being an open economy, with a large number of foreigners working amongst us and living next to us. On this lived reality, fundamental questions that have come up in the last two decades include: Where does the Singapore worker stand and what are his or her job prospects in our hub economy? These questions will continue to come up more regularly than ever, as we move into a post-COVID future.

My colleagues MPs He Ting Ru, Leon Perera, Gerald Giam and Jamus Lim will also participate in this debate, with perspectives on both motions and suggestions on the way forward.

My speech is in three parts.

First, I will set out the WP’s stand on FTAs and CECA. This part will be brief.

Second, I will iterate the public sentiments on job insecurity felt by Singaporeans.

Third, I will make a few suggestions on what should be done to alleviate the concerns of Singaporeans and ensure that the local / foreign employment divide does not become a permanent fault-line.

WP position on FTAs and CECA
Sir, let me start by stating the Workers’ Party’s position on FTAs and CECA.

First, we accept that FTAs have encouraged investment and created jobs and opportunities for both Singaporeans as well as foreigners. This is undeniable.

Second, we note the Government’s explanation that CECA does not allow Indian nationals free rein to enter Singapore, and that the entry of foreigners who seek employment is regulated by the Government’s and specifically the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM) work pass policies. However, we believe that it is fair to ask whether the Government and the MOM have, for many years past, failed to regulate work passes in the best way possible. I note that the Minister for Manpower recently announced that anti-discrimination legislation will be introduced. This is one of the things that the Workers’ Party has called for in its manifesto.

Third, the Workers’ Party does not assume that good jobs are automatically being created for Singaporeans by virtue of Singapore’s pro-trade policies and strong network of FTAs, including CECA.

We believe that for a few groups – such as the sandwiched class, workers who lack skills and lower income Singaporeans – the opposite may very well occur. These groups may see depressed wages and fewer good job opportunities. Our view is that the Government needs to intervene aggressively through policy or legislation to ameliorate this, and ensure the availability of stronger safety nets for Singaporeans who cannot make the transition. The Government must ensure that Singaporeans are not discriminated against during their job search or at the workplace, that our education and training systems provide skills that are workplace-ready, and that skills are transferred to Singaporeans by foreign talent. Finally, the Government should proactively report on the costs and benefits of our FTAs across time, a subject MP Jamus Lim will touch on as well.

The Workers’ Party also notes that there have been some elements in our society or perhaps from abroad, that have used CECA as a dog-whistle, masquerading racism for genuine economic concerns. The Workers’ Party accepts that genuine economic concerns exist and that it is fair to raise concerns about this. However, we abhor and denounce the racism and xenophobia that has become a part of the public narrative in some quarters. Some have gotten carried away resorting to loose and vile language online as an outlet for their frustration something they wouldn’t do in person, or worse, extended their behaviour to the real world. This can never be right, and must also be rejected and condemned.

Locals and Job Insecurity
I now move to the second part of my speech – public perceptions on job insecurity.

Mr. Speaker, the Government would accept that there have been long simmering emotions amongst a sizeable number of Singaporeans surrounding CECA and more generally, over the perception that Singaporeans are denied fair opportunities in the job market. Some of this has resulted in highly charged conversations and incidents, both online and offline even without the PSP’s focus on the subject.

Immigration and the job prospects of locals are not only issues for Singaporeans. Globalisation has meant that local populations of many countries, particularly advanced economies, share such concerns.

As a young nation, these feelings of insecurity and dislocation can shake our national cohesion, with the country being unrecognizable to the one many of us grew up in. Job displacement is very emotionally jarring especially when your HR department tells you that your role has been made redundant, only for you to find out later that your job has been rejigged and filled by a foreigner. It is also upsetting for Singaporeans when they learn that a foreigner has filled a job position for which a Singaporean is suitably qualified.

The emotions that we see today, while directed differently – towards Indians in some cases – have been directed at other communities in the past. As noted by Minister for Manpower in his Ministerial Statement in July and I quote, “In the 2000s, we experienced a similar situation when the share of PRCs in our foreign workforce increased significantly, before tapering as China’s growth took off. Both then and now, the larger numbers did not go unnoticed, and created frictions within our communities.” Unquote. An important distinction between the vitriol directed against the PRC workers was that many of them were employed in low to middle income sectors, while there has been an acute focus on Indian professional workers today.

Today, the influx of employees of Indian ethnicity – not all of whom are from India, some are from the US and elsewhere – taking up competitively paying jobs has also activated emotions in a not small number of Singaporeans. Some ask, why can’t our people do those jobs? After all, our students score so well on standardized tests. Our much-vaunted education system should have put our workforce in a much better position. This is a subject MP Gerald Giam will speak more about in his speech.

Our sense of home is also affected when some EP and S-Pass holders struggle to speak, let alone communicate in our workplace lingua franca – English – which represents a fundamental basis around which we organize public affairs in Singapore. When this happens, some Singaporeans stop feeling like we are one Singapore, all rowing in the same direction.

Those Singaporeans who ride on the opportunities created by a growing economy, or who are new immigrants doing well economically, can more readily accept the new status quo. It is a small price to pay and one can interpret the new reality as the price of progress and economic growth. But for those who lose their jobs, see their incomes stagnate, and fear for their children’s prospects in a competitive Singapore – and these are commonly the sandwiched class and low-income Singaporeans – strong feelings are aroused, with many feeling that the playing field is uneven, and the Government is slow to protecting Singaporeans in their own land.

Ordinary Singaporeans do not delve into the intricacies of free trade agreements. Instead, they look around and come to conclusions based on what they perceive and experience. If Singaporeans have not for years been seeing foreigners occupying well-paying jobs while qualified Singaporeans are unemployed or under-employed, we would not be talking about this today.

Over the last two decades, the effect of the Government’s immigration and foreign talent policies has been so pervasive that former PM Goh Chok Tong covered the subject in his autobiography released only a few months ago and I quote, “….take PRs for example. In the years before, the numbers rose to 50,000, then 70,000 a year. It was nearly 80,000 in 2008! I was surprised and annoyed. I told PM so. Since then, we have kept the numbers to around 30,000 PRs every year. But even then, when you add the numbers up over the years, you will begin to feel the cumulative effect within the society and in daily living….As a government, we needed to monitor the inflows of PRs and foreign workers as well as demographic changes more closely. No surprise that the people reacted in the way they did….the negative ground sentiment went beyond crowdedness. It also encompassed perceived job competition from foreigners and preference of some companies for foreigners over Singaporeans.” Unquote.

If a former Prime Minister whose job was not directly threatened or been taken away by a foreigner can say he was ‘surprised and annoyed’, how much more so for a Singaporean who has experienced such fear of, or even actual loss of their livelihood?

What Needs to be Done
Mr Speaker, I now move to the third part of my speech on what needs to be done to repair the local / foreign divide.
I make five suggestions which I will elaborate on in turn.

One, policies and procedures must be introduced to more effectively promote and track skills transfers from foreigners to Singaporeans;

Two, fixed term employment passes tied to skills transfers should be considered;

Three, the problem of underemployment must be tracked and solved;

Four, the Government should set up a Parliamentary Standing Select Committee dedicated to overseeing this issue of jobs and foreign employment; and

Five, the Government needs to communicate more, and much better on jobs and foreign employment that it has been doing up to now.

1st suggestion: Promoting and tracking the transfer of skills to Singaporeans
My first suggestion is that the Government should double-down on how it monitors the success of skills transfer initiatives which are generously funded with taxpayers’ money. Do skills transfer initiatives work and to what extent?

I spoke about the Capability Transfer Program or CTP during the Committee of Supply debates. This Government program has been extended to 2024 and in its own words seeks to, and I quote, “support pervasive innovation throughout the economy and build deep capabilities in our local workforce to support companies, associations and professional bodies to speed up the transfer of global capabilities into Singapore” unquote. Does it do what it promises?

There has to be a reckoning, a balance sheet drawn up, where the successes and shortcomings of such initiatives to transfer skills to Singaporeans are properly accounted for and assessed across sectors and industries. In response to my queries in Parliament, the Government reported that five million dollars has been spent over the last five years, and this initiative has benefited 970 Singaporeans. Without more, this does appear underwhelming.

I note that the CTP is only one arrow in the Government’s quiver, but this only reiterates the point that a holistic assessment and reporting of the transfer of skills from foreigners to Singaporeans is necessary. I suggest that the extent of skills transfer from foreigners to locals be publicly tracked, monitored and reported as a KPI or Key Performance Indicator for each sector in the revised Industry Transformation Roadmaps under ITM 2.0. As each industry is tracked, reasons should be given why skills can or cannot be transferred. It should be stated clearly how these gaps are being plugged.

2nd suggestion: Fixed Term Employment passes
Second, to ease the insecurity felt by the Singaporean worker or PMET, Mr Speaker, I restate a proposal raised by my colleague Leon Perera at the Committee of Supply debates in March. He suggested fixed term employment passes that are tied to the training of, or skills transfer to Singaporean workers. Currently, employers expect the employment passes of foreigners to be routinely renewed. A fixed term employment pass would be one that would only be renewed if the applicant company can prove that under the previous EP, Singaporean workers in the company or in the industry benefited from skills upgrading.

This new category of work pass can be piloted in newer, disruptive industries such as autonomous vehicles and AI where there should be no reason why Singaporeans should not be the candidates of choice. I hope MOM can look into such alternative proposals to secure tangible and positive outcomes for the Singapore worker or PMET by tracking skills transfer to our people.

3rd suggestion: Under-employment
Third, the Government needs to track and solve underemployment. Workers Party Chair Ms. Sylvia Lim in her COS speech in 2016 suggested that underemployment should be measured. MOM said at the time that time-related underemployment is the only internationally accepted statistical definition of under-employment, and since it is recommended by the International Labour Organization or ILO, Singapore follows that norm.

Ms Lim spoke again on underemployment in her 2019 Budget debate speech to which the former Minister for Manpower responded that MOM is interested in tracking other forms of underemployment, such as skill-related underemployment but reiterated that there were no internationally recognised ways of doing so. She said that the Government was working closely with the ILO to develop suitable methodologies. We have yet to hear the result of this work with the ILO.

Skill-related underemployment appears to be reality affecting some of our workers. These workers are not undertaking work for which they are trained – for example engineers working as private-hire drivers. Some re-skilling initiatives for these workers may be necessary to better align their foundational capabilities. Yet others may have made the transition out of choice. Better measurement and regularly reporting of such underemployment would also enable Singaporeans to assess the Government’s efforts in this regard. An accurate understanding of skills-based underemployment would also have the knock-on effect of ensuring that the selection criteria for work pass applicants would be more accurately scoped. The Workers’ Party suggests that there is an urgent need to publicly track underemployment amongst Singaporeans and to publish such findings.

4th suggestion: Parliamentary Standing Select Committee
My fourth suggestion is that there should be the check and balance of a dedicated platform where the policymakers can be questioned. I suggest the creation of a permanent Parliamentary Standing Select Committee dedicated to this issue of jobs and foreign employment.

This high level of accountability would do two things. First, such a committee would closely monitor the Government’s efforts by tracking unemployment and jobs related data in addition to calling witnesses to give evidence. Such a committee could also ensure that Singaporeans are getting a fair shake at the workplace and address concerns on job security and employment prospects of Singaporeans, including where training and skills upgrading opportunities lie.

Second, such a committee by virtue of increased transparency compared to the current status quo, would minimise mischievous attempts at stoking xenophobia and unreasonable expectations of job protection regardless of competence.

In other parliamentary democracies, such permanent Parliamentary Standing Select Committees on fundamental national matters, that are appropriately resourced and supported by a strong secretariat, are par for the course. It is about time we had such a committee.

5th suggestion: Government communication
My fifth suggestion is that the Government needs to communicate more, and much better than it has been doing till now, on foreign employment. And by this, I mean giving factual information so that public debate can be better informed. And this calls for a change of culture. The Government should have started doing this years ago.

Quite clearly, this feeling of displacement and heightened sensitivity was the order of the day well before CECA entered the public lexicon. As early as Aug 2015, the Government fact-checking website, Factually, put out an article titled ‘Does CECA allow firms to hire Indian professionals in Singapore without valid work passes, or without adhering to fair employment guidelines?’ The fact that such an article was needed suggests that the Government was fully aware that CECA was in danger of becoming a fault line many years ago.

In July, I shared with this House that more than five years ago, in 2016, my parliamentary colleague WP MP Leon Perera asked the then-Minister for Manpower a straightforward parliamentary question on the number of Intra-Corporate Transferees (ICTs) through CECA. Specifically, Mr. Perera asked how many ICTs from India had been approved under CECA from its first year to the latest year for which data was available. Then Manpower Minister, Mr Lim Swee Say replied, and I quote, “ICTs from any country, including India, would need to meet the Ministry’s work pass qualifying criteria to work in Singapore. The only difference is that ICTs from all countries are exempted from the advertisement requirement in our Jobs Bank. The Ministry does not disclose data on foreign manpower with breakdown by nationality, including data on ICTs.” Unquote.

The Government simply refused to answer a question of national relevance for which data was readily available. Is this acceptable? Can Singaporeans be blamed for assuming that the numbers must have been so huge that the Government saw fit no to reveal them?

To say that no other government reveals information to the granularity requested ignores the fact that Singapore is sui generis – of its own class. How many other multi-racial hub-economies, immigrant-needy and in our unique geographical and demographic situation can we name? None.

The Government’s position on revealing ICT information seemed to change with Minister Tan See Leng’s speech in Parliament in July. I quote, “we recognize that if misconceptions continue to spread, in spite of all our attempts to address them in many other ways, even more damage will be done. So, I will share some numbers to address the misconceptions and allow for a meaningful engagement of the issue.” Unquote.

Minister Tan revealed that the number of ICTs from India was a low figure of 500 in the year 2020. But I should point out that this was a number after the onset of Covid-19. Quite obviously, there must have been a reduction of Indian nationals entering Singapore in 2020 compared to previous years.

The ICT numbers that Mr. Perera asked for in 2016 would allow us to make a better assessment of the impact of ICTs under CECA compared to other FTAs. Revealing the numbers would promote a fact-based conversation. The Government’s initiative to release only the ICT figures for 2020, instead of placating CECA detractors, is actually having the opposite effect – it begs the question of what the figures for the earlier years were.

To help us base today’s debate on facts, may I call on the Government to now answer the question asked by Mr Perera in 2016? How many ICTs have come from India under CECA from 2005 to 2019?

As far as the release of information from the Government is concerned, may I add that I read the Minister’s speech with an implicit caveat that the Government’s release of information on such matters would likely continue to be reactive and when it suits the Government, rather than proactive and when it suits the people. I would be delighted to stand corrected on this, but If I am right that the Government prefers to remain reactive, I would suggest to the Government that this approach can no longer hold water, nor should it, a point MP He Ting Ru will make in her speech as well.

The desire to interrogate facts communicated by the Government will only increase, a point I have shared previously in this House. The Government must share detailed facts that matter to the people, and not only consolidated facts that broadly support the Government’s position. For example, since July, the Government has been using digital notice boards, located at every ground floor lift lobby in HDB blocks, to launch an aggressive campaign to address the concerns surrounding CECA. One prominent figure in the digital notices is that 97,000 Singaporeans have benefited from CECA.

But where should Singaporeans go when they want more details? For example, at what wage levels were these jobs? Which industries benefitted? Were these jobs part-time or full-time ones? This also invites a question on correlation and causation. Is it possible that these are net jobs created by firms since 2005 that are in India through CECA? If so, that does not necessarily mean that the advantages afforded by CECA created those jobs. Such information is not provided in the displays. I do not believe such additional information is a bridge too far, if the Government wants to clear the air. Surely it would not be difficult to incorporate additional detailed information or to have it available by way of QR code in the digital notice display. As intimated earlier, particularly for an issue as sensitive as this, the default position of the Government should be to release more information and explain the situation.

Sir, the Government remains in the most privileged position to move swiftly to assuage public concerns or misunderstanding. The Government needs to reflect on its own omissions and resistance when it comes to providing data and information, and how it ought to take some responsibility for the groundswell of misinformation about CECA.

Many Singaporeans receive news and information through social media. Much of the racist vitriol and xenophobia directed at Indians over CECA can be found online and from anonymous posts. In 2018, the report of the Select Committee for Deliberate Online Falsehoods identified particular traits within the ecology of social media such as confirmation bias, the illusory truth effect, and the slow drip of falsehoods. Such realities make it more important to be forthcoming and aggressive in releasing information.

Separately, the foreigner / local issue is a fault-line that can be exploited by external parties to compromise and destroy Singapore’s psychological defences.

Some bad actors, knowing that we rely on foreigners to address our fertility numbers and to ensure an economically vibrant and successful Singapore, and equally aware of how nation-building is more challenging for us as a result, would have their own reasons no doubt to see Singapore fail. Pitting one racial community against another is an easy way to do this. It is in our nation’s interest that the Government anticipate, change tack and drive an active, not passive, conversation informed by facts rather than misinformation on the jobs and employment situation in Singapore.

In the face of a US-China cold war, and our majority ethnic Chinese population, I would suggest that is perfectly within the contemplation of other bad actors to use Singapore’s racial balance to play out one act of a modern “great game” amongst our local population – pitting Indians against Chinese as an overlay to fraught Sino-Indian relations and to build up more anger against Indian workers and India in general.

There is some data out there on jobs, which the Government releases every now and then. But the Government can bring this all together with the key principals – such as MOM, SkillsFuture SG, WSG and MTI – in an open and accountable manner. If we can clarify issues that disturb Singaporeans, who would inevitably have less information that the Government, we will be able to focus singularly on the progress being made by the Singaporean PMET and workers and address gaps that develop.

Sir, those were the three parts of my speech:
The WP’s position on FTAs and CECA
Local concerns on job insecurity and
Suggestions on what needs to be done.

Mr. Speaker, may I conclude by saying that being a country open to foreign investment and looking after the Singaporean worker and PMET must be complementary objectives. In August last year I said in this House, “foreigners are important to Singapore and they help power our economy. Their presence gives Singapore a vitality that keeps us economically relevant and also provides jobs and opportunities to our fellow Singaporeans. Many Singaporeans count the foreigners in our midst, regardless of race, language or religion as our friends. But it is precisely because we need foreigners to help power our economy that we need to pay more attention to Singapore workers, some of whom feel excluded from opportunities created in their homeland.”

The Minister for Finance, Mr Lawrence Wong, in reference to the Ministerial Statement made by Ministers Ong Ye Kung and Tan See Leng said the tone of how we debate this issue matters. The Minister said that if investors start to feel that Singapore is less hospitable to foreign investment and talent, they will surely look for other options and there are many compelling options everywhere in the world. And we will end up worse off.

In my estimation Sir, a more open and accountable approach by the Government to the dynamic employment situation is likely to alleviate the anxieties of foreign businesses. They may well devote their intellectual capital to being a dedicated part of the solution, providing greater emphasis on in-house skills upgrading for all their workers, including Singaporeans, and become more conscious of their need to hire and train more locals.

The anxieties and concerns of the Singaporean worker and PMET are real. Our workers carry the same fears and concerns for their children. These insecurities and uncertainties are not recent. It is for this reason that the Workers’ Party proposes an amendment to the Minister of Finance’s motion which I seek to l share with this House. May I hand a copy to you Sir, and if permitted, thereafter to members.

Sir, I beg to move the following amendments.
Under limb (c), to delete the words “supports” at the start of the sentence and to replace it with “calls for stronger”.
Under limb (d), to delete the word “and”.
Under limb (e), to include the word “and” at the end of the sentence after the semi-colon.

And finally, to insert a new limb (f) which reads as follows, “calls on the Government to proactively release information on jobs and employment prospects of Singaporeans and the costs and benefits of free trade agreements and foreign worker policies, with a view to formulating better policies to ensure Singaporeans secure good jobs in Singapore and are not disadvantaged when seeking employment.”

Mr Speaker, please allow me to explain the proposed amendments briefly. The inclusion of the words “calls on stronger” in place of “supports” reinforces the importance of correcting course and adjusting or changing policies going forward to address the anxieties amongst Singaporeans that limb (a) of the Minister’s motion acknowledges has taken root in the recent past.

The new limb (f) captures what we in the Workers’ Party believe represents a fundamental change in culture needed with respect to information disclosure. A proactive approach to disclosure would operate to take the sting out of misinformation campaigns that ride on jobs and unemployment insecurity and encourage a fact-based conversation amongst our people. This would in turn buttress efforts amongst Singaporeans to provide feedback on gaps and solutions that can improve outcomes for the Singaporean worker and PMET. This limb is not inconsistent with the Government’s acknowledgement in July that it is better for data – for example, such as that requested by Leon Perera on ICT numbers – to come out early when it concerns issues like racism or xenophobia, and that it is much better to quell these issues earlier.

My colleague, MP He Ting Ru will propose an amendment to the motion by the PSP in her speech.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

14 September 2021

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