SINGAPORE: Finance Minister Lawrence Wong on Tuesday (Sept. 14) appealed to Singaporean Progress Party (PSP) lawmakers to refrain from “anti-foreigner” rhetoric as it could deepen the rift between locals and foreigners, and between Singaporeans of different races.
Addressing the House of Representatives on a parliamentary motion on securing Singaporeans’ jobs and livelihoods, Mr. Wong outlined the government’s economic and labor policies and rejected the PSP’s claim that the foreign talent policy had caused Singaporeans to worry about jobs and livelihoods.
Non-constituency MP Leung Moon Wai (PSP) is scheduled to speak later on a rival proposal on foreign talent policy.
This is the second debate in Parliament on Singapore’s foreign workforce policy, with the first debate started in July by PSP’s Mr Leung.
Mr. Wong said the government cannot accept the PSP’s proposal on foreign talent policy, which is why it has submitted a separate proposal on the same issue.
“Please consider how your speech could deepen fault lines – not only between locals and foreigners, but even between Singaporeans of different races,” said Mr. Wong.
“The strong racist and xenophobic undertones of the PSP’s campaign against CECA did not go unnoticed.”
Fears of entrepreneurs and job seekers
Mr. Wong said the business community has expressed concerns about anti-foreign rhetoric and free trade agreements.
“They are concerned that the PSP’s anti-foreigner stance will undermine their access to workers, and jeopardize their public operations here,” he said.
Singaporeans are also feeling the impact, Mr Wong said while sharing an email from an Indian Singaporean who was worried about not being shortlisted for jobs due to concerns about foreign workers from India.
“As Mr. Aung Yi Kung said in July, we are ready to contest the upcoming elections on this issue; we are ready to fight any party that chooses to follow the populist line and foment racism and xenophobia,” Mr. Wong said.
He invited Mr. Leong to share the PSP’s approach to the issue of job creation.
I have outlined the government’s strategy comprehensively. “We are open and connected to the world, to create more jobs and uplift all Singaporeans,” said Mr. Wong.
“We are taking concrete measures to deal with the downsides of an open economy – managing the flow of workers, tackling discrimination in the workplace, and caring for a displaced minority.”
He reiterated that Singapore cannot turn inland and as a small island, it needs to stay open and connected to survive.
“If we take a politically cowardly approach and impose too many strict conditions on the ability of (companies) to operate here, we will lose many good investments, and we will have fewer foreigners for sure,” he said.
But many Singaporeans will also be denied good jobs and employment opportunities. It’s like cutting one’s nose off to hate one’s face.”
Mr. Wong said the government’s strategies to grow the economy and create good jobs have worked and he cited data over the past decade to back this up.
From 2010 to 2019—until the occurrence of COVID-19—median income in real terms grew 3.2 percent annually for residents and household income rose.
He added that between 2010 and 2020, the employment of local professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMET) grew by about 300 thousand, nearly three times the increase in employment permit and S card holders during the same time period, by about 110 thousand.
Describing PSP’s thinking as “fatally flawed,” he said, “PSP wants to sweep these aside. They underestimate the functions, opportunities, and outcomes we’ve created, and heighten anxiety.”
“The PSP assumes that if we reduce the number of foreigners here; then all their jobs will automatically go to Singaporeans.”
Instead of that happening, Singapore is likely to lose its status as a business hub and its economy will plunge “into a meltdown”.
“We will end up with much worse problems, not the foreigners, but the Singaporeans who will pay the price in the end.”
Mr Wong said those who wish to see fewer foreign work permit holders may feel “a sense of nostalgia for the way things were”.
While there were fewer foreign PMETs in Singapore in the 1990s, overall living standards were also much lower at the time and average salaries were under S$2,000 compared to about S$4,500 today, he said.
“Is that what we want? A stagnation in the 1990s, while the rest of the world is advancing around us?” he asked.
The finance minister acknowledged that there are downsides to being an open economy but said the government is trying to take care of these aspects.
Mr. Wong said the government is updating its workforce policies and rules to manage the influx of work permit holders, putting in place legislation against workplace discrimination, and doing its “best effort” to help those who have lost their jobs.
He added: “After the crisis, we expect a permanent shift in support levels with more help for our workers, especially as we enter a period of greater volatility and turmoil.
“The Ministry of Finance is working through these details carefully to ensure that the changes we are making are financially sustainable.”
“Racist and xenophobic sentiments”
Mr Wong challenged Mr Leong in clarifying the position of the PSP, which raised two questions that Health Minister Ong Ye Kung put early to Mr Leong in Parliament.
In July, Mr Ong questioned whether the PSP had agreed that “free trade agreements, including CECA, are essential to Singapore’s economic survival and our ability to earn a living and we should not shake this fundamental principle for political purposes.”
He also asked Mr. Leong if he agreed that “CECA is not the cause of the challenges our SMEs face, nor does it allow the free flow of Indian SMEs into Singapore”.
Mr. Leung did not give this council a clear answer to these questions. The PSP had two months to think about their answers. So I hope that when Mister Leung rises next, he will speak clearly,” Mister Wong said.
Mr. Wong said that if Mr. Leung agreed to the above, the problem could be ended.
“But if he continues to evade or make misleading or false allegations, we can only conclude that the Economic and Actual Crimes Act is a cover for the PSP to stoke racist and xenophobic sentiments,” he said.