Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh said yesterday that the Government has to take some responsibility for misinformation swirling about the Singapore-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca).
Long before the Progress Singapore Party accused the free trade pact of costing locals jobs, emotions had been simmering on the ground, added Mr Singh, who is Workers' Party (WP) chief.
The Government's refusal to release data earlier had allowed misunderstandings to fester and falsehoods to proliferate, he said.
"The Government needs to reflect on its own omissions and resistance when it comes to providing data and information," he said.
He said FTAs have created jobs and opportunities, and noted the Government's explanation that Ceca does not allow Indian nationals free rein to enter Singapore. He also said some have used Ceca as a dog whistle, masquerading racism for genuine economic concerns, adding that the WP abhors and denounces racism and xenophobia.
But he believed it was fair to ask if the Ministry of Manpower had regulated work passes in the best way possible, and said the WP does not take it as a given that Singapore's pro-trade policies will guarantee good jobs for all Singaporeans.
He pointed to the sandwiched class, workers who lack skills and lower-income Singaporeans who feel the playing field is uneven. "If Singaporeans have not for years been seeing foreigners occupying well-paying jobs while qualified Singaporeans are unemployed or underemployed, we would not be talking about this today," he said.
Mr Singh noted former prime minister Goh Chok Tong had said he was "surprised and annoyed" by the influx from the mid-2000s, and said in his biography that he had told Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong so.
Mr Singh said: "If a former prime minister whose job was not directly threatened or been taken away by a foreigner can say he was 'surprised and annoyed', how much more so for a Singaporean who has experienced such fear of, or even actual loss of their livelihood?" He warned that these feelings of insecurity and dislocation can shake Singapore's national cohesion.
Mr Singh said the Government would have to communicate more and much better on foreign employment than it has been doing.
He noted that WP MP Leon Perera (Aljunied GRC) had asked in 2016 about the number of intra-corporate transferees - foreign employees brought in from the overseas offices of multinational corporations - allowed in through Ceca. But the Government "refused to answer a question of national relevance for which data was readily available".
"Is this acceptable? Can Singaporeans be blamed for assuming that the numbers must have been so huge that the Government saw fit not to reveal them?", he said.
He added the release of the figure earlier this year, during a debate on FTAs and Ceca had achieved the opposite effect. The figure of 500 given was for last year, after the onset of Covid-19, and it begs the question of what the figures for the earlier years were, he said.
"The Government's release of information on such matters would likely continue to be reactive," he said, warning this could leave the door open for external parties to exploit the foreigner-local issue.
He also suggested tracking the extent of skills transfer from foreigners to locals, introducing fixed-term employment passes that can only be renewed if a company can prove Singaporean workers have benefited from skills upgrading, and setting up a permanent Parliamentary Standing Select Committee to scrutinise the issue of jobs and foreign employment.
Ms He Ting Ru (Sengkang GRC) urged the Government to rethink the way it manages the issue, saying: "The listening ear of the Government needs to be attuned to and prod at the genuine concerns behind why some of us feel the way we do so strongly."
Mr Perera said assumptions behind some policies should be relooked, citing the belief that Singaporeans will be better off if companies are attracted to set up shop here and allowed to bring in foreigners to fill the cutting-edge jobs, and whether Singaporeans truly do not want trades jobs as carpenters, plumbers and aircon technicians.
Mr Gerald Giam (Aljunied GRC) urged the Government to train ahead of demand for future information and communications technology jobs, while Associate Professor Jamus Lim (Sengkang GRC) said FTAs should be reviewed from time to time.