Wrong to have total free flow of people: DPM Tharman

It's not just wrong politics but also wrong economics, DPM says at a forum in New Delhi

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has expressed confidence in India's future despite the complex challenges it faces. PHOTO: ST FILE

Singapore has been one of the strongest advocates when it comes to the free flow of goods and services, but there must be limits to the movement of people.

Otherwise there will be less push for businesses to be more productive, and "more fundamentally, you become a society where people don't feel it's their own society", said Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam yesterday at an economics forum in India.

"This is a reality not just because of (President Donald) Trump in the US or Brexit in UK. It is a reality all over the world,'' he said when asked a question about tighter restrictions on Indian professionals moving to Singapore.

Noting that a third of Singapore's workforce is already made up of foreigners, he added: "It would be mindless to have an open border without any policy framework to govern and constrain the flow of people into your job market. It will not just be wrong politics but wrong economics."

Mr Tharman, who is in India on a three-day visit ending today, was speaking at the Delhi Economics Conclave held by the Indian Finance Ministry.

Earlier this year, India had expressed concern that curbs on the movement of Indian professionals to Singapore violate the terms of the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca) signed by the two countries in 2005. A review of the agreement to update the terms has been under negotiation for more than six years as India seeks more access for its professionals and banks.

India's National Association of Software and Services Companies said earlier this year that the movement of Indian software professionals to Singapore has been "reduced to an insignificant trickle" and that it was becoming tough for Indian software firms to operate in the Republic. Its president, Mr R. Chandrashekhar, estimated that there are fewer than 10,000 Indian software workers in Singapore.

The topic of the Ceca review came up yesterday when Mr Tharman called on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who "expressed support for the expeditious conclusion of the Second Ceca Review", said a statement from the Prime Minister's Office in Singapore last night.

The two leaders discussed the India-Singapore Strategic Partnership, agreeing that cooperation between the two countries should be deepened in future. A small team of officials from Singapore and India will be formed to explore new areas of cooperation in digital finance, while there is also scope to strengthen air connectivity between the two countries.

Mr Tharman expressed confidence in India's future despite the complex challenges it faces, including the shift from a labour-intensive economy to one which embraces technology.

The two countries have worked together to set up two vocational skills training centres in India and both Mr Modi and Mr Tharman were hopeful that these could be examples of how skills training in India can be linked closely to jobs.

On Friday, Mr Tharman met India's Minister of Finance, Defence and Corporate Affairs Arun Jaitley.

They discussed ways to strengthen relations in banking and finance, and encourage Singapore investments in India.

Singapore is India's top investor for the financial year from May 2015 to end April 2016, investing US$13.7 billion (S$18.7 billion).

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 23, 2017, with the headline Wrong to have total free flow of people: DPM Tharman. Subscribe