Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran and Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung sparred with Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai yesterday over remarks in his maiden speech.
The Progress Singapore Party NCMP had on Tuesday said he was "deeply disappointed" that DBS Bank did not have a home-grown chief executive. The bank's current CEO, Mr Piyush Gupta, was born in India and became a Singapore citizen in 2009.
Joining the debate on the President's Address yesterday, Mr Iswaran told the House he was troubled by Mr Leong's comment.
"By all means, let us passionately argue the case to do more for Singaporeans," he said in his speech. "But, as parliamentarians, let us also be careful about what our words convey; in this case, the message we send to those who - to paraphrase Mr S. Rajaratnam - have chosen out of conviction to become citizens of Singapore."
ISWARAN: WHAT MESSAGE IS BEING SENT?
Mr Iswaran made the point that building trust with Singapore's international partners is the duty of not only the Government and public service, but also of Parliament. "What we say, but also what we actively advocate in this House, and ultimately what we do, are all keenly watched," he said.
"We have painstakingly built an open and inclusive economy that is able to create opportunities for Singaporeans by welcoming competitive enterprises and talent. It is a precious asset that we must not squander."
Mr Leong replied by saying his party is committed to an open and inclusive society and economy, but differs with the Government on issues relating to foreign workers and jobs. He said his party would like to see "a cap on the foreigners, at least for the immediate future, and to ensure there is skills transfer".
Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin then cut Mr Leong off and asked if he was seeking a clarification or making a new speech.
Mr Leong said: "I want to ask the minister whether the debate that we are conducting over the last few days, when we are questioning certain issues, rebalancing certain issues that we are looking for, is against the spirit that he is trying to explain to us just now."
Replying, Mr Iswaran said the process of reviewing and evolving Singapore's manpower policy is an "ongoing venture". "It is an evolutionary effort because it has to respond to the economic environment, the population's needs and concerns, and we have to then adapt and move along."
The issue is not with the process, Mr Iswaran said, but the message Mr Leong's speech sends.
"The issue is when we lament that a Singaporean occupying a certain position is somehow not homegrown, then I think we really have to ask ourselves the question: As parliamentarians, as elected representatives, what is the message we are sending to our citizens?"
The minister also asked what message Mr Leong was sending to those who have chosen to become Singaporeans, their spouses and their children.
"The question I would put to Mr Leong is, after this debate and all the information that has been shared, does he still lament that DBS does not have a home-grown CEO?
"And does he acknowledge that... much has been done in the organisation and there is in fact a large number of Singaporeans at the senior levels?"
Mr Leong replied that he would "still hold on to (his) disappointment".
"Why didn't the Government in the process put in certain safeguards or certain other rules to ensure that we have skills transfer and... ensure that Singaporeans will be groomed to take over the job?"
He added: "I don't think it will be taken very negatively by the international community. Singapore is open enough.
"Foreigners know that we are very, very open. In fact, if we fail to do certain things to safeguard the interests of Singaporeans, I am afraid we may be laughed at."
ONG YE KUNG: DON'T LIMIT SINGAPORE TO BEING BIG FISH IN A POND
Mr Ong then rose to respond to Mr Leong, reiterating several points from his own speech on Tuesday.
He noted that he had traced Singapore's journey of building up its finance sector over the last 50 years, starting with bringing in foreign expertise and growing local talent to today's situation where "many of our own rose up to take senior positions".
Mr Ong said this approach is the best way to serve Singaporeans, and cautioned against limiting Singapore to being a "big fish in a pond".
"Open up to the lagoon, open up to the sea, have a much more exciting, diverse ecosystem, but invest in our own people, hold our own. That is what we have been doing for decades.
"(We) never reached a stage where we say the only way to achieve this is to set a quota, set a rule: it must be a Singaporean CEO, born here, before we declare success. I think that would be a wrong approach."
Mr Iswaran reiterated that Parliament has to be a voice of reason.
"Don't take that lightly because what we say cannot be unsaid. It is there for the record, for the future, and everyone - Singaporeans, new citizens or Singapore-born, others who are here - will all be looking at this.
"And I think we in this House as elected representatives must hold ourselves up to a higher standard. If we don't, then I think we fail our duties as Members of Parliament, and I think we ultimately do a disservice to Singaporeans."