SINGAPORE - Clauses in the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca) on the movement of natural persons were not used as a bargaining chip in settling the free trade pact, said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat on Tuesday (July 6).
He was responding to Progress Singapore Party (PSP) Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai during a debate on ministerial statements that Health Minister Ong Ye Kung and Manpower Minister Tan See Leng had delivered on free trade agreements (FTAs) and foreign manpower policies.
As chief negotiator for Ceca, which was signed in 2005, Mr Heng recalled that his Indian counterparts were "very keen" on the chapter in question.
"They said, 'What do we get?' Well, I said no... you have a population that's over a billion; Singapore has a population of, at that time, probably about 3 odd million. And I said we will be easily swamped, so we must have very strict agreements on this," Mr Heng said.
"I never let go, and we got what we needed."
Chapter 9 in Ceca, on the movement of natural persons, pertains to temporary entry for individuals into both countries.
It has been highlighted as part of criticisms of Ceca paving the way for Indian professionals to take jobs from locals.
The Government has repeatedly clarified that nothing in Ceca interferes with its ability to regulate immigration and foreign manpower.
Mr Heng said that leading up to negotiations in 2005, he was occupying a supervisory role as Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Trade and Industry.
But his Indian counterparts had deemed the agreement important enough to involve a permanent secretary of their own.
That was how he ended up being the chief negotiator for Ceca, said the Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies.
"I can tell you the amount of homework I had to do to look at how we can come to an agreement. I went to different parts of India because there were objections from every part of India, from business groups to states," he added.
Mr Heng said he was "terribly troubled" by the PSP's approach to Ceca, and took issue with Mr Leong saying he hoped the Government had the people's interests at heart.
"Why do we negotiate free trade agreements and why do we do this public service if it's not with the interest of people at heart?" Mr Heng asked.
"And why do I spend three years of my life doing that agreement? So please be reasonable and don't mislead Singaporeans."
He also rebutted Mr Leong's suggestion that the education system had failed to produce enough local talent for the workforce, noting that the World Bank had ranked Singapore best in the world in educating its people; and that university cohort participation rates had increased from 20 per cent to 40 per cent.
"So please do not go around thinking that we have not put in enough effort," said Mr Heng.
"I think, Mr Leong, you will better serve Singaporeans if you help Singaporeans understand how changes are taking place so quickly, and you must help to encourage people to upgrade and learn new skills, and work to support our unions in forming company training committees and job security councils and the like, in order to raise the ability of Singaporeans to compete."
He stressed the importance of bringing in the best people to work with locals, to help Singaporeans excel in new tech, innovation and digital realms.
"Please do not get stuck in the old world and think that we can excel all on our own," Mr Heng added.
"Let us have an open attitude to work with countries around the world who are willing to cooperate and work with us."