10-hour debate in Parliament over foreign competition in job market ends past midnight

The number of local PMETs went up by 300,000 over the past decade, while the number of EP and S-Pass holders increased by 110,000. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - Singapore's answer to foreign competition in the local job market cannot be to shut its doors and turn away investors. Instead, the country has to - and will - invest in its people, working to mitigate the downsides of an open economy and striving for growth that will benefit all.

This was the gist of a 10-hour parliamentary debate that ended past midnight, during which four political office-holders rebutted the Progress Singapore Party's (PSP's) assertion that the Government's foreign talent policy has cost citizens jobs.

Finance Minister Lawrence Wong acknowledged that an open economy has its downsides, even though the vast majority benefit.

"In the end, the government has the responsibility to govern and to make policy decisions in the best interest of all Singaporeans," he said. "Some decisions will not be so popular, even though we are convinced they are necessary, and must proceed for the good of all."

They were debating the issue of jobs and foreign talent, which PSP Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai and Mr Wong had filed motions on. The minister said he asked to speak as Mr Leong's proposed topic falsely attributed the challenges Singapore faces to free trade agreements (FTAs) and foreigners.

This was why the Government had sought "to explain and reiterate our position on this important matter," he added. "It is important Singaporeans - and the world - understand where we stand."

The minister sharply criticised the racist and xenophobic undertones in the PSP's rhetoric on foreign talent - an allegation the opposition party has repeatedly denied. "Look - if it looks like a duck, if it walks like a duck, if it quacks like a duck, it is a duck," Mr Wong said, adding that such irresponsible politics will divide society and spell disaster for Singapore.

Mr Leong had urged the Government to take "urgent and concrete" action to restore balance in the job market - starting by raising qualifying salaries for work pass holders and imposing a monthly levy on Employment Pass (EP) holders.

A lengthy exchange ensued between Mr Leong and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam, who pressed Mr Leong for his position on various issues, including his support for FTAs such as the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca) with India.

He also sought to get Mr Leong to admit that other Singaporeans, like some PSP members, might see his views as racist.

Manpower Minister Tan See Leng also rose to reinforce the Government's position with statistics.

The PSP maintains that foreign PMETs have displaced local ones, he said. But in fact, the number of local PMETs went up by 300,000 over the past decade, while the number of EP and S-Pass holders increased by 110,000.

This trend held true even in sectors that typically hire more EP holders, such as finance, infocomm and professional services. The number of local PMETs in these sectors went up by nearly 155,000 in the past 10 years, compared to 40,000 more EP and S-Pass holders.

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Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and National Development Sim Ann reiterated that the Government has no "special affinity" for workers from any country - including India - and works to serve Singaporeans' interests.

A total of 18 other MPs spoke on the topic, including Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh, who set out the Workers' Party (WP) stance. Such agreements have created jobs and opportunities for both Singaporeans and foreigners, he said. But the party believes it is fair to ask if work passes have been regulated in the best way, and does not assume that good jobs are automatically created as a result of Singapore's pro-trade policies.

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Mr Singh added: "We abhor and denounce the racism and xenophobia that has become a part of the public narrative in some quarters. This can never be right, and must also be rejected and condemned."

Parliament voted to pass the ruling party's motion - with the WP registering its dissent - and unanimously rejected the PSP motion.

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