Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing has come out in defence of Singapore's free trade agreements (FTAs), saying these have helped more Singaporeans get employed in higher-skilled jobs.
He made the point yesterday as he refuted criticism that one such agreement, between Singapore and India, had given Indian professionals unfettered access to jobs and citizenship here.
Such falsehoods, circulated online and in WhatsApp chat groups, were aimed at scaring and dividing Singaporeans at a time of economic uncertainty, he said. Some purveyors of such untruths had gone further to play the racial card.
Warning against such behaviour, he said: "The Government takes a very serious view of these attempts to rattle Singaporeans and divide our society."
He told reporters in remarks at his office: "Times are uncertain. It is important for us to stay cohesive, help one another, and never allow others to stoke the fears and racial biases of our people. Never do this for selfish personal or political reasons. We Singaporeans are definitely better than this."
Of Singapore's 24 FTAs, the Singapore-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca) has often been fodder for critics of the Government who say it has opened the floodgates for Indian nationals to enter Singapore.
Last Sunday, participants at a Speakers' Corner gathering in Hong Lim Park denounced the agreement. This was after a video of an Indian condominium resident berating a security guard went viral. In August, Progress Singapore Party chief Tan Cheng Bock launched his new party and pledged, among other things, to make Ceca an election issue.
Addressing claims that Ceca helped Indian nationals steal jobs from Singaporeans, Mr Chan cited figures to show that the number of higher-skilled jobs for Singaporeans grew by 400,000 since Ceca was signed in 2005.
The proportion of Singaporeans in such jobs has also gone up from 50 per cent to 56.8 per cent.
In 2005, of the 1.65 million Singaporeans and permanent residents in the workforce, 825,000 of them were professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs).
There are now 2.2 million in the resident workforce, of whom 1.25 million are in PMET jobs.
Also, Singapore's unemployment rate among citizens has always been among the lowest globally and Ceca did not change that, he said.
"Our network of FTAs, including Ceca, has created many opportunities for our businesses and better jobs for Singaporeans," he added.
As to charges that Ceca gave Indian nationals unconditional access to Singapore, he said this was not true. None of Singapore's FTA allowed for this. Indian professionals must meet the Manpower Ministry's qualifying criteria like any other foreigner before being granted an Employment Pass, S Pass or Work Permit.
Criticism over Ceca has also centred on intra-company transferees, a common FTA feature globally which allows for the movement of professionals for short periods to set up offices or for ad hoc projects, for example.
Critics say this has helped companies circumvent the Fair Consideration Framework, which mandates that Singaporeans must have a chance to apply for jobs before foreigners can be considered.
But the Government has said there is a stringent definition for intra-corporate transferees and additional criteria that make it harder to game the system.
For instance, to qualify under Ceca, a person must have worked for the company outside Singapore for at least half a year before being posted here. They are also allowed to stay for a total term not exceeding eight years after accounting for any extensions.
Mr Chan also dismissed the misconception that Ceca gave Indian nationals privileged immigration access. "Anyone applying for Singapore citizenship must qualify according to our existing criteria. All our FTAs, including Ceca, place no obligations on Singapore with regard to immigration."
He said he understood Singaporeans' worries about competition and job prospects, given the current economic environment. He pledged that the Government would continue to create good jobs by attracting investments and equipping students and workers with the skills to compete globally.
"The way to help Singaporeans is not to mislead them and create fear and anger," he said.
Correction note: In an earlier version of the story, we said intra-corporate transferees must have worked for their company for at least one year before being posted to Singapore. We also said they are allowed to stay for a total term not exceeding five years. These conditions for transferees are set out in the World Trade Organisation’s General Agreement on Trade in Services. But under the Singapore-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement, such transferees are required to have worked for their company for a period of not less than six months, among other things. They are also allowed to stay for a total term not exceeding eight years. We are sorry for the error.