Amid a wave of retrenchments due to the Covid-19 pandemic, political parties crossed swords on the Government's foreign worker policy and free trade agreements such as the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca).
During a televised live debate on Wednesday, the Progress Singapore Party's (PSP) Mr Francis Yuen, who is leading PSP's four-person team in Chua Chu Kang GRC against the ruling People's Action Party (PAP), said: "We have a lot of foreign professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) working here. I think there are about 400,000 of them, and yet we have about more than 100,000 of (local) PMETs who are out of a job.
"We believe that we need foreign PMETs to complement but we need to believe that there is opportunity for us to slow it down."
Singapore Democratic Party chief Chee Soon Juan called on the PAP to "stop this foolishness" of bringing in foreign workers, especially PMETs.
It is not sustainable, he said, to bring in foreign PMETs "for the purposes of lowering wages".
Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, representing the PAP, said the number of local PMETs is increasing by 3 per cent a year, higher than the overall local workforce's growth rate, and that there are seven locals holding a PMET job for every foreign Employment Pass holder. "And are you aware that in the first five months of this year, 60,000 foreigners have lost jobs?" he asked.
Mr Yuen countered: "The fact still remains that you have amongst us over 400,000 foreign PMETs working here. And the fact also remains that we have a number of our own PMETs that are out of a job to the tune of 100,000.
"So logic will tell us that our own PMETs certainly could fill up some of the jobs that the current PMETs could do."
Mr Yuen's claim drew a swift response from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), which said that as of June last year, there were 39,000 local unemployed PMETs - fewer than half of the 100,000 figure he quoted.
The figure was taken from the Report on Labour Force in Singapore 2019 released in January this year. This year's figures will be released in the report early next year as the survey is conducted annually, it said.
Mr Yuen said that the ministry's figures are outdated, as the June 2019 figures do not include retrenchments in the third and fourth quarter of last year and the expected numbers this year.
He added that in citing the 100,000 figure, the party also considered the "large proportion who will not find jobs" among the more than 30,000 new graduates entering the job market this year, as well as PMETs displaced into the gig economy who are unaccounted for in unemployment figures.
Responding to PSP vice-chairman Hazel Poa in an online Mandarin dialogue on Thursday, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, who is the PAP's second assistant secretary-general, said Singapore's foreign manpower needs are not determined by the Government but by the needs of businesses.
"If we tighten the foreign manpower policy, we will need to think about how it will have an impact on SMEs and other businesses," he said, adding that the policy is not a zero-sum game as hiring foreign workers does not come at the expense of locals.
Ms Poa argued that the Government still plays a role in regulating and calibrating the flow of foreign labour. She also pointed out that other countries have been able to attract local workers to blue-collar professions by offering substantial wages.
The issue of foreign labour was also raised in the National Solidarity Party (NSP) and Peoples Voice party political broadcasts, with NSP secretary-general Spencer Ng saying that foreigners competing for jobs had depressed locals' wages.
Mr Ng said: "We want a country which considers all Singaporeans first. We want a government that ensures our people have the priority for quality jobs."
Peoples Voice has advocated for a freeze on all S Passes and a significant reduction in the number of Employment Passes.
Also coming under scrutiny was Ceca, inked in 2005. Claims that the bilateral trade agreement has allowed Indian nationals to take PMET jobs meant for Singaporeans re-emerged last year, after an expletive-laden video surfaced online showing an Indian national lashing out at a security guard at a condominium.
Peoples Voice secretary-general Lim Tean described the agreement on Facebook Live as a "one-way street" which allows many Indian nationals into Singapore without a reciprocal flow of Singaporean workers into India, and said that his party seeks to abolish it.
In its election manifesto, the PSP has called for a review of free trade agreements (FTAs), such as Ceca, that touch on labour exchanges.
Homing in on that point during the Mandarin dialogue, Mr Chan said such reviews would have to take into account the compromises and potential trade-offs that Singapore will have to make with the other country.
"If we want to review an FTA with India, for instance, what do you have to give up and what does India want from this side? What do we offer in exchange?" Mr Chan asked.
He had clarified last year that all FTAs, including Ceca, place no obligations on Singapore with regard to immigration, nor does Ceca give Indian nationals privileged immigration access.
Mr Chan said then: "Indian professionals, like any other professionals from other countries, have to meet MOM's existing qualifying criteria to work in Singapore. This applies to Employment Pass, S Pass and work permit. Anyone applying for Singapore citizenship must qualify according to our existing criteria."
Criticising the lack of detail in the PSP's manifesto during a walkabout yesterday, Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran said workers and businesses might lose out if FTAs were reviewed.
He said: "Singaporeans deserve to know what you are planning to give up, when you say you're going to review all of these (FTAs). You can't make broad statements then leave it to the imagination of the population."