SINGAPORE - Singapore's ability to regulate immigration and foreign manpower is not affected by the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca), said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung.
The Government retains full rights to decide who can enter the country to live, work or become permanent residents or citizens, he told the House on Tuesday (July 6).
Debunking falsehoods about the free trade pact, which has come under fire on social media and by the opposition, he stressed: "I emphasise and underline and highlight this: Nothing in the agreement implies Singapore must unconditionally let in professionals, managers, and executives (PMEs) from India.
"Contrary to the Progress Singapore Party's (PSP) claim, our ability to impose requirements for immigration and work passes has never been in question in Ceca or any other free trade agreement (FTA) that we have signed."
Mr Ong's ministerial statement came on the heels of Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam calling on the PSP to file a motion on FTAs and Ceca in Parliament at the previous sitting in May.
PSP Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai, in a Facebook post on June 22, wrote: "The most important economic policies that have affected the jobs and livelihoods of Singaporeans relate to Foreign PMETs and Free Trade Agreements, in particular the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca) with India."
Mr Ong, who was the deputy chief negotiator for the United States-Singapore FTA, pointed to Chapter 9 of Ceca on the movement of natural persons. He cited two clauses, including clause 9.1.2, which states: 'This Chapter shall not apply to measures pertaining to citizenship, permanent residence or employment on a permanent basis.'
The obligations relating to movement of natural persons in Ceca, as in all FTAs, are not broad principles with wide applications, but highly specific, he said.
Citing national treatment (NT) as one such broad principle, he explained that NT is found in some chapters of FTAs, such as Trade in Services or Investments, and means that one cannot discriminate against foreign service providers and investors.
Regulations and benefits that apply to local firms must apply evenly to foreign-owned ones.
"If immigration had not been carved out, and if the NT principle had been incorporated into the Chapter 9 of Ceca, then indeed, Indian workers would have been treated like Singaporeans, and would have had free rein to come to live and work in Singapore," said Mr Ong.
But, contrary to what the PSP claims, "there is a strong immigration carve-out, and NT is not found in this chapter of Ceca, nor any other corresponding chapter in the FTAs that Singapore has entered into", he added. Countries that wish to protect certain sectors, negotiate exceptions or sector "carve-outs" in FTAs.
Instead, Chapter 9 obliges both countries to process applications for temporary entry with some expedition and a certain degree of transparency, such as informing applicants of outcomes, he said.
Permits issued by Singapore also have to be valid for a certain duration, subject to prevailing work pass conditions being met. This is not unique to Ceca, he observed, because similar commitments exist in other FTAs and are found in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Agreement signed by 164 Parties, including Singapore.
He added that many parties to FTAs also commit not to impose onerous processes and documentation on companies to prove no suitable locals will take a job, before they can hire a foreigner.
This is a common clause in Singapore's FTAs, including with India, Australia, China and the US.
"Companies in Singapore, or any other place, do not hire in this way. The common and best practice is to interview the suitable candidates, consider them fairly, and make a judgment on the best person. These are all market-friendly, widely adopted, reasonable obligations," Mr Ong said.
He also rebutted two points of criticism.
First, the PSP's claim that Indian nationals whose professions are among the 127 listed under Annex 9A can freely come to work here for one year, is a "red herring".
The list does not confer any free pass to any Indian nationals, he said.
"All foreign PMEs have to meet our work pass conditions in order to work here. The listing shows the types of Indian professionals who may apply to work in Singapore. It does not mean we must approve them."
India, for its own reasons, requested for such a list, similar to what it has in FTAs with South Korea and Japan, he added.
"In fact, even if they had not listed the professions, their PMEs could still submit work pass applications to work here.
"This is in fact how other FTAs work: With or without listing of professions, nationals from our FTA partners are not precluded from submitting work pass applications, which will be evaluated based on our prevailing criteria."
Second, there have been claims that intra-corporate transferees (ICTs) from India can also freely enter Singapore to work.
This is again not true, said Mr Ong, as ICTs also have to meet Singapore's work pass qualifying criteria.
He noted that the total number of ICTs, from all over the world and not just India, who have come to Singapore to work is very small.
Last year, there were only about 500 ICTs from India in Singapore - less than 0.3 per cent of all employment pass holders.'
Mr Ong reiterated every country holds the view that there cannot be unfettered movement of people across borders, as that would create social unrest and public uproar.
"Governments must retain the ability to impose immigration and border controls, and FTAs cannot undermine that. Hence, in all FTAs and WTO agreements, you will find that immigration powers are strongly and prominently preserved and protected."
Such standard clauses can be found in the WTO Agreement, as well as all of Singapore's FTAs, including Ceca, he said.
"I hope we can put a stop to all this misinformation about our FTAs in general, and Ceca in particular."