THE Progress Singapore Party (PSP) has expressed support for free-trade agreements (FTAs) and is reassured that immigration has not been used as a "bargaining chip" in the negotiation of such trade deals.
However, Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai, a member of PSP, stopped short of supporting the Singapore-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) during Tuesday's sitting in Parliament, during which ministerial statements on the subject were delivered by Health Minister Ong Ye Kung and Manpower Minister Tan See Leng.
Mr Leong, referring to Chapter 9 of the FTA that sets out immigration matters, said after the statements: "We appreciate the point that we are not using the movement of people as a bargaining chip in the negotiation of the FTA.
"But as to whether CECA has contributed to the influx of PMETs into Singapore, in relation to our foreign talent policy, we have to explore that. And we don't agree that CECA is net beneficial to Singapore at this stage."
He said the party needed time to study the issue further, based on fresh data from Dr Tan on the proportion of Employment Pass holders from India, which doubled from 13 per cent in 2005 to 26 per cent last year.
Mr Ong expressed disappointment at the outcome of the debate, adding that he felt somewhat "sad" that the PSP did not withdraw their allegations about Indian nationals being given unfettered access to Singapore through the agreement.
Noting that the PSP is set to file a motion, Mr Ong posed two questions to the party, adding that he is hoping they could go into the debate with "some common ground".
One question is whether the PSP agrees that FTAs, including CECA, are fundamental to Singapore's economic survival. The other is whether the party agrees that CECA does not allow a free flow of Indian PMETs into Singapore, because to say that it does is a falsehood and gross misunderstanding of the agreement.
"It is regrettable because generations of FTA negotiators worked very hard to make sure our interests are all protected," said Mr Ong, who was the deputy chief negotiator for the US-Singapore FTA.
Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, who led negotiations for CECA, told the House that he spent three years on the deal, working through multiple objections from various business groups in India, while also having to fend off some "intriguing demands".
Indian negotiators were particularly keen on pushing for the movement of natural persons, he added.
"I said no because this is of great importance to Singapore. You have a population that's over a billion, Singapore has a population of - at that time - probably over three million. And I said 'We'll be easily swamped, so we must have very strict agreements on this'."
West Coast GRC Member of Parliament Patrick Tay said that Singaporean professionals, managers and executives (collectively labelled PMEs) are nonetheless concerned about the intense competition for jobs from the influx of foreign manpower, and that anecdotes have surfaced about unfair employment practices by employers who favour hiring foreigners.
Mr Tay, a labour MP who co-chairs a joint PME taskforce comprising representatives from the National Trades Union Council (NTUC) and the Singapore National Employers Federation, told the House that this was a concern that emerged from more than 15 focus-group sessions with more than 8,000 PMEs over the past six months.
He noted that discriminatory employers are in the minority, but that "the few black sheep" should not be allowed to weaken Singapore's working structure.
"I further submit that the Ministry of Manpower consider giving TAFEP (Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices) even more teeth and bite through expanded powers of investigation, enforcement and to even mete out punishment."
This point was echoed by Leader of the Opposition and Aljunied GRC MP Pritam Singh, who asked whether raising the enforcement arm of TAFEP was on the cards.
Manpower minister Dr Tan replied that the ministry is reviewing the existing frameworks.
Mr Singh also asked whether the government would consider providing information early so that issues can be nipped in the bud: "It does occur to me, whether a lot of the misunderstanding or reaction we see on CECA could have been addressed. So I hope the government understands that with more information, actually, we can hold the line better in terms of some of these discussions moving into xenophobia and so forth."
Mr Ong agreed with the sentiment, but added that the government is not always at liberty to disclose some data that has been classified confidential or secret.
"But what you say is true: Some information, it's better to come out early, and then we can move on."