Parliament: Motions on jobs and foreign talent

Key points of the debate

In a 10-hour debate yesterday, 23 MPs debated two motions put forward by Finance Minister Lawrence Wong and Progress Singapore Party's Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai.

What was the crux of the debate?

MPs from the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) stressed the need for Singapore to remain an open economy to bring benefits to its people.

Mr Wong's speech focused on the Government's position on Singaporeans' jobs and livelihoods, and pointed out that the data is clear that Singapore's economic policies have helped to raise living standards and create good jobs for Singaporeans.

At the same time, the Government is cognisant of the need to manage the downsides of an open economy, including managing the flow of work pass holders and helping those who are displaced from employment, he said.

Mr Wong and three other political office-holders also acknowledged Singaporeans' anxieties about job security and the need to help those facing difficulties.

Meanwhile, the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) called on the Government to take concrete action to address the "widespread anxiety among Singaporeans on jobs and livelihood" caused by the country's foreign talent policy and provisions in some free trade agreements (FTAs), citing the Singapore-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca) in particular.

Mr Leong 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.

What were some key points of contention?

Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam challenged Mr Leong on his specific concerns over the provisions in Ceca, and said that his public comments on Ceca have had racial undertones.

He charged that the words of Mr Leong's motion made it clear that the party was "race-baiting and nationality-baiting", adding that Mr Leong and the PSP were doing "one of the worst types of political opportunism - using race as a bait".

Mr Leong rejected this claim by Mr Shanmugam, stating that the reason for tabling the motion "has nothing to do with race or xenophobia".

Manpower Minister Tan See Leng, in response to PSP's citing of the number of foreign professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs), pointed out that competition for jobs between locals and foreigners is not a zero-sum game.

While Employment Pass and S Pass holders increased by 110,000 over the past decade, local PMETs also increased by 300,000 in the same period, Dr Tan said.

The adequacy of the Government's disclosures of data - such as on the costs and benefits of FTAs and underemployment among Singaporeans - was called into question by several MPs, including Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC).

Mr Singh added that the Government has to take some responsibility for the misinformation swirling about Ceca, noting that its refusal to release data and answer questions of national relevance earlier had allowed misunderstandings to fester, and falsehoods to proliferate.

Responding, Mr Wong said the Government puts out plenty of data, including labour market figures. Unlike the Workers' Party, however, the Government does not view releasing more data as "necessarily an unmitigated good".

What suggestions did the parties put forward?

Higher qualifying salaries for foreign professionals seeking work in Singapore as well as a "nationality cap" on companies' staff numbers were among measures put forth by the PSP.

Mr Leong reiterated an earlier call for a standard monthly levy of $1,200 to be imposed on each EP to reduce "unfair wage competition". He also called for greater protection for top leadership roles, as not enough Singaporeans are in such positions.

In his speech, Dr Tan noted that qualifying salaries for EPs and S Passes rise with age to maintain a level playing field for older PMETs.

On the PSP's call for a levy on each EP, he said that this would have the opposite effect from the Government's primary focus of regulating quality as it narrows the pool of EP candidates.

"We would also be sending contradictory signals if we say that we welcome high-calibre global professionals to Singapore on one hand, and impose a levy on them on the other," Dr Tan said, adding that the EP salary criteria set a high bar for pass holders to work in Singapore and raises their quality over time.

The minister stressed that the Government is aware of possible tensions when a foreign nationality dominates a workplace, and it has levers to address this, such as the Fair Consideration Framework watch list, which identifies firms with a high concentration of a single nationality.

Mr Singh put forward several recommendations to repair the local-foreigner divide, including a committee for overseeing the issue of jobs and foreign employment, and fixed-term EPs tied to skills transfers.

He noted that the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) had previously said that the Government was working closely with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to develop suitable methodologies to track underemployment, but no updates have been shared.

Responding to Mr Singh's suggestion of a time-limited EP, Dr Tan said that no work pass is issued indefinitely, and employers must meet the criteria at the point of renewal.

He added that the process of skills transfer is rarely linear and such a requirement is not straightforward to implement. It would also not make sense for MOM to be the judge to force employers to let go of experienced work pass holders once their fixed term is up.

The minister added that MOM is part of a working group led by the ILO to develop suitable methodologies to relate an individual's occupation to their skill and education level, and said the fact that there is a working group studying how this should be measured highlights that it is no simple matter.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2021, with the headline 'Key points of the debate'. Subscribe