7 highlights from parliamentary debate on jobs and livelihoods, S'pore's foreign talent policy

MPs from both sides of the House spoke during a debate on two motions pertaining to jobs and foreign talent policies. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - MPs from both sides of the House spoke during a debate on two motions in Parliament on Tuesday (Sept 14).

Finance Minister Lawrence Wong had tabled a motion in response to a separate motion filed by Progress Singapore Party (PSP) Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai, to set out the Government's position on Singaporeans' jobs and livelihoods.

Mr Wong speech focused on how the Government has always been about securing jobs and better lives for Singaporeans, and stressed the importance of staying connected to the world while managing the downsides of an open economy.

Mr Leong's motion was centred on Singapore's foreign talent policy. He contended that the Government had allowed in large numbers of foreign workers at the expense of Singaporeans' livelihoods, and called on it to "restore some balance" to the job market such as by doubling the qualifying salaries for work pass holders.

Here are the highlights from the debate:

1. Policies have led to more good jobs, better living standards for Singaporeans

The data is clear that Singapore's economic policies have helped to raise living standards and create many more good jobs for Singaporeans, said Mr Wong.

The PSP's thinking that reducing the number of foreigners here will allow Singaporeans to automatically fill those jobs is "fatally flawed", and locals will pay the price if overly restrictive policies lead to companies relocating elsewhere, he added.

In his speech, Mr Wong censured the PSP for the way in which it has framed its criticism of the Government's foreign talent policy.

"Let me be clear: We are bringing in investments and growing the economy, not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end," he said.

"Our aim is to create good jobs and improve the lives of all Singaporeans."

The minister also pointed out that Singapore has more than 25,000 vacancies for professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs).

"With so many companies having difficulties filling these vacancies, how would we find people with the relevant skill sets to take on the additional 'tens of thousands' of jobs that Mr Leong thinks can be created by getting rid of the foreigners?" he asked.

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2. Call for higher EP, S Pass qualifying salaries; 'nationality caps'

The PSP recommended higher qualifying salaries for foreign professionals seeking work in Singapore as well as a nationality cap on companies' staffing numbers.

Mr Leong said that increasing the qualifying salaries for Employment Passes (EPs) and S Passes should be done in stages and over the next three years.

He also recommended a cap on workers of a single nationality, based on the proportion of a company's staff strength in each business function.

"In the long term, we aim for a 10 per cent single nationality cap to ensure diversity in our workforce, and seek talent from different parts of the world, instead of predominantly from one country or region. We also aim for a 25 per cent to 30 per cent combined PMET cap on work pass holders and PRs (permanent residents) in the long run," he said.

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3. On whether Mr Leong's statements have racial undertones

Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said that Mr Leong, since entering Parliament last year, had repeatedly commented on the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca) and that his comments carried "clear racial undertones".

The minister added: "People in your party think your statements are racist. Would you accept? I don't expect that you will accept that you are racist, but would you accept that people in your party think that your statements are racist, and have said so? It's a simple factual statement. May I seek that clarification from Mr Leong, Mr Speaker?"

In response, Mr Leong said while "one or two party members" have said that his comments in Parliament are racist, it does not mean that he is a racist.

He remarked that PSP is an "open party" which allows its members to express their views, and there can be a minority of members who have different opinions.

"We have told them that they cannot make your views that public, but some of them chose to do that. We won't stop, we can't stop them because we are a liberal party. We are not a party who will prevent all our members from having their own opinions," he said.

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MPs from both sides of the House spoke during a debate on two motions pertaining to jobs and foreign talent policies on Tuesday (Sept14).

4. On the legal provisions in Ceca

Mr Shanmugam asked Mr Leong on several occasions to clarify his stance on the provisions of Ceca, probing him for an agreement that there is nothing in the free trade agreement (FTA) that provides for free movement of Indians into Singapore.

Replying, the PSP NCMP said that his motion referred to the economic effects of the provisions of Ceca, to which Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin asked him to clarify his views on the provisions.

Said Mr Tan: "The legal documents dictate how these interactions take place with the other countries, so unless you're doubting the validity of the agreement and you're doubting the way in which it's implemented, I think we are seeking a view on that. If you could enlighten us, please?"

Asked further if he agreed with Mr Shanmugam on the terms of the FTA between Singapore and India, Mr Leong said: "No, as I said, I'm not arguing about a legal document, I'm arguing about there's a legal document, but the way you implement the legal document and the economic effect can be different…"

After some further back-and-forth on the Ceca provisions, Mr Tan suggested that the discussion move on: "I don't think we're going to get any further clarity in this. We just have to agree to disagree. We've registered both points."

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5. On stoking xenophobia

Mr Shanmugam brought up how Mr Leong, in his maiden speech in Parliament last year, had professed his "deep disappointment" that DBS Bank was still without a home-grown chief executive, and asked if the PSP NCMP still believes that naturalised Singapore citizens should not hold top positions.

To this, Mr Leong said he has always had the stance of not differentiating between naturalised and home-grown Singaporeans.

He rejected Mr Shanmugam's point that the natural interpretation of his statement last year was that he was disappointed that DBS's CEO was Mr Piyush Gupta, a naturalised Singaporean, rather than a home-grown Singaporean.

The minister said it was "quite clear" that what Mr Leong and the PSP were doing in making that statement: "It's race baiting and nationality baiting, without beating about the bush. And that's what the words of this motion suggest."

Mr Leong strongly objected to this point on PSP's position on race, saying: "The reason why we raised this motion has nothing to do with race or xenophobia."

6. Call for time-limited work passes, tracking of underemployment

Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) made several suggestions to repair the local-foreigner divide, including fixed-term employment passes tied to skills transfers.

Restating a proposal raised by Workers' Party (WP) MP Leon Perera (Aljunied GRC) in March, Mr Singh said that a fixed-term employment pass would be one that would be renewed only if the applicant company can prove that under the previous EP, Singaporean workers in the company or in the industry benefited from skills upgrading.

The WP chief also called for the Government to track and solve underemployment, noting how fellow WP MP Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) had spoken about the issue in Parliament previously.

The result of the Government's work with the International Labour Organisation to develop suitable methodologies on tracking underemployment has yet to be heard by the House, Mr Singh said, adding that the WP suggests there is an urgent need to publicly track underemployment among Singaporeans and to publish such findings.

He also suggested the creation of a permanent Parliament Standing Select Committee dedicated to the issue of jobs and foreign employment, which would provide a high level of accountability on the policymakers' part.

7. Proactive approach to disclosure, enable conversations on the ground

Mr Singh suggested amendments to Mr Wong's motion, which would reinforce the importance of correcting course and adapting policies to address Singaporeans' anxieties.

At the same time, he urged the Government to proactively release information on jobs and employment prospects of Singaporeans, as well as the costs and benefits of FTAs, with a view to formulate better policies to ensure Singaporeans secure good jobs in Singapore and are not disadvantaged when seeking employment.

"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," Mr Singh said.

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WP MP He Ting Ru (Sengkang GRC) proposed to amend the motion filed by PSP MPs, pointing out that immigration and foreign manpower have been heated issues in Singapore for many years and that "Ceca and FTAs are but the latest iterations of the debate".

"We must say no to a continued top-down approach to immigration where we are told what is good for us," she said, pointing out the danger is that over time, resentment continues to build.

"I hope the Government will take this as an opportunity to re-think the way these topics have been managed and discussed so far, and instead lean more into enabling conversations on the ground to change hearts and minds, rather than continue to decide what is best for Singaporeans and dictate our story for us," Ms He said.

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