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SINGAPORE — The government should communicate more on foreign employment – and much better than it has been doing – in order to repair the local and foreign divide in Singapore, said Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh in Parliament on Tuesday (14 September).
Joining the debate between the People's Action Party and Progress Singapore Party on foreign talent policy, the Workers' Party (WP) chief gave five suggestions to alleviate the concerns of Singaporeans and ensure that the local/foreign employment divide does not become a permanent fault-line.
"The government needs to communicate more, and much better than it has been doing till now, on foreign employment," he said. "And by this, I mean giving factual information so that public debate can be better informed. And this calls for a change of culture. The government should have started doing this years ago."
Pritam called for more data on foreign employment, with an implicit caveat that the government’s release of information on such matters would likely continue to be "reactive and when it suits the government", rather than proactive and when it suits the people.
"The Government must share detailed facts that matter to the people, and not just consolidated facts that broadly support the Government’s position," he added.
"For an issue as sensitive as this, the default position of the government should be to release more information and explain the situation... The government needs to reflect on its own omissions and resistance when it comes to providing data and information, and how it ought to take some responsibility for the groundswell of misinformation about CECA (Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement)."
Four more suggestions to address Singaporeans' concerns
Besides calling for better communication from the government, Pritam also gave four other suggestions to address the concerns of Singaporeans on local/foreign employment:
Promoting and tracking the transfer of skills to Singaporeans: He suggested that the extent of skills transfer from foreigners to locals be publicly tracked, monitored and reported as a Key Performance Indicator for each sector in the revised Industry Transformation Roadmaps. "As each industry is tracked, reasons should be given why skills can or cannot be transferred. It should be stated clearly how these gaps are being plugged," Pritam said.
Fixed Term Employment passes: This pass would be renewed only if the applicant company can prove that under the previous employment pass, Singaporean workers in the company or in the industry benefited from skills upgrading.
Track and solve under-employment: An accurate understanding of skills-based under-employment would have the knock-on effect of ensuring that selection criteria for work pass applicants would be more accurately scoped.
Parliamentary Standing Select Committee dedicated to issue of jobs and foreign employment: Such a committee would monitor the government’s efforts by tracking unemployment and jobs-related data, in addition to calling witnesses to give evidence. It would also minimise attempts at stoking xenophobia and unreasonable expectations of job protection regardless of competence.
No assumption good jobs are automatically created by FTAs
Pritam stated that WP accepts that Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) have encouraged investment and created jobs and opportunities for both Singaporeans as well as foreigners. It also notes the government’s explanation that CECA does not allow Indian nationals free rein to enter Singapore.
However, the party does not assume that good jobs are automatically being created for Singaporeans by virtue of Singapore’s pro-trade policies and strong network of FTAs, including CECA.
"We believe that for a few groups - such as the sandwiched class, workers who lack skills and lower income Singaporeans - the opposite may very well occur. These groups may see depressed wages and fewer good job opportunities," Pritam said.
"Our view is that the government needs to intervene aggressively through policy or legislation to ameliorate this, and ensure the availability of stronger safety nets for Singaporeans who cannot make the transition."
Pritam believes that ordinary Singaporeans do not delve into the intricacies of FTAs; instead, they look around and come to conclusions based on what they perceive and experience.
"If Singaporeans have not for years been seeing foreigners occupying well-paying jobs while qualified Singaporeans are unemployed or under-employed, we would not be talking about this today," he said.
WP denounces racism, xenophobia amid FTA/CECA debates
Pritam added that WP notes that there have been some elements in Singapore's society, or perhaps from abroad, that have used CECA as a dog-whistle, masquerading racism for genuine economic concerns.
He said that while his party accepts that genuine economic concerns exist and that it is fair to raise concerns about them, it abhors and denounces the racism and xenophobia that has become a part of the public narrative in some quarters.
"The foreigner/local issue is a fault-line that can be exploited by external parties to compromise and destroy Singapore’s psychological defences," he said.
"Pitting one racial community against another is an easy way to do this. It is in our nation’s interest that the government anticipate, change tack and drive an active, not passive, conversation informed by facts rather than misinformation on the jobs and employment situation in Singapore."
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