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Leong Mun Wai

Protecting our Singaporean core

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Mr Leong Mun Wai (Non-Constituency Member): Mr Speaker, Sir, I thank the Ministers and Members for their participation until so late tonight. Rest assured, I am time-limited. So, I only have 40 minutes for my speech.

Justice is in the heart of the People

I come to this House to respond to a challenge by Minister Shanmugam to debate on CECA. He has been puzzling me because it was in reference to his remarks made on a racial incident, which has nothing to do with CECA. The very fact that he linked the incident to CECA was both disingenuous and troubling.

The Prime Minister also, in his National Day Rally speech, claimed that those who question CECA, wanting to put Singaporeans first, had a strong racial undertone. Minister Wong also reiterated many of those accusations throughout his two speeches today.

But when I asked Minister Shanmugam for instances where I have commented about CECA prior to accepting his challenge, he cannot reply me. He went on to ask me a few other questions but he did not reply to me. So, these are clearly attempts by this Government to put a label on those seeking more information disclosure and more objective discussion on CECA as racist and xenophobic. I think I will leave that issue as it is. We have done all our explanation that we are not racist or xenophobic. At the end of the day, justice is in the heart of the people. The people will decide.

Welcome Real Foreign Talent

Political labels are convenient to use to discredit someone but they are not helpful for an open and objective discussion. By the way, I will also have to object to Minister Tan See Leng’s words just now saying that PSP is attacking foreigners. Maybe it is a slip of his tongue, but I have to correct that.

All of us here today have one common objective and, that is, to improve the job prospects and livelihoods of Singaporeans. And I have stayed focused on that objective.

So, let me reiterate that we are neither racist nor xenophobic, and this debate is squarely about jobs and livelihoods of our PMETs, who are adversely affected by the foreign talent policy. The provisions on people movement in FTAs like CECA are only a small part of a much larger problem. To be clear, we need foreign talent. They play an important role in complementing, transferring skills and knowledge, as well as providing opportunities for cross-fertilisation of ideas. But those that are brought in and masked under the EP and SP schemes are not, by definition, really foreign talent. They are foreign professionals let in without quota, resulting in displacement of our own workforce. By drawing on Mr Goh Chok Tong’s definition of mediocrity, a foreign talent should be one who earns more than $500,000 a year, or $40,000 a month.

Not to forget the Singaporean Core

While we do need foreign talent, more importantly, we need to protect our Singaporean Core. And what is the Singaporean Core? It is simply our citizens, natural or new, who recite our Singapore Pledge, and whose interest the Government has the prime responsibility to look after.

The current policies have seriously hollowed out our core. In many key industries, our PMET core is no longer the dominant force that we can rely on for long-term growth. The very people that can ensure the future of our country are being displaced and hollowed out.

It has been a long debate and we have covered a lot of ground. However, as expected, the Government’s stance on the causes and the severity of the problem Singaporeans are facing is very different from ours. As a result, probably the new policies that the Government is going to come out with will not solve the problems thoroughly and Singaporean sufferings may have to go on. We might have to come back one year later again and debate on the same problem. Singaporeans would note that PSP has done our best to convince this Government.

The Government’s vs PSP’s position

Let me go through the differences between the Government’s position and PSP’s position.

First, the Government says displacement is due to a globalised and fast-changing world. PSP says that a large part is due to work pass holders.

Two, the displacement problem is not serious, the Government says. PSP says it is probably a lot more serious. Coming back to the 380,000 PME jobs that Manpower Minister had presented to us in the 6 July Ministerial Statement, we are trying to ask him if he is sure that this number represents a net job creation for Singaporeans. So, there were some exchanges just now with my colleague, Hazel Poa, as well. There was no conclusion.

But let me just share some numbers with you. Three hundred and eighty thousand PME jobs created for locals, and that is for both Singaporeans and PRs, from 2005 to 2020. But during the same period, 600,000 PRs had been awarded to work pass holders. So, the reclassification is likely to be a significant factor. But we do not know what is the number because we do not have the number from the Government.

On top of that, there were 400,000 University and Polytechnic graduates during that period. So, a million people seeking jobs versus 380,000 jobs created. I do not know how to reconcile the numbers, but maybe in other future forums, we can continue to discuss that.

Third, the Government says emphasis is on training and retraining Singaporeans; PSP says better prevent job displacement first. Let the foreigners do the skills transfer because once a person is displaced, it is difficult for him to find a new job. It is so easy to say “train again, take up the challenge” and all that. The examples you called, I am sure, is a small minority of those Singaporeans who can really change to a new industry and learn new skills.

Fourth, the Government says discrimination is sporadic; PSP says probably it is structural, we have to look at it because the foreign work pass holders have been in Singapore in large numbers for the last 20 years and they are a very influential force in the job market. So, if you want to rectify the discriminative situation in the job market, legislation may be too slow.

Fifth, foreign talent creates jobs, says the Government; but PSP says the work pass holders we are attracting are all average work pass holders. Where do they have the ability to create jobs? So, they are just here to share our jobs. The jobs done by them, most of them can be done by Singaporeans as well. In that sense, Prof Hoon Hian Teck’s lump of labour fallacy may not apply.

Sixth, Member Mr Patrick Tay also mentioned this, that there is a lot of resistance from employers if you want to change the foreigners policy. Of course, that is expected because, after all, they are profit seekers. But PSP says: how long can we kick the can down the road? At some point, we have to change and this is a golden opportunity because now we can tell the employers to work harder, “We can give you the quota now, but make sure you promise to scale down your people in three years’ time.” This is the opportunity to convince the employers to work together and change the course of our economy. If not, our economy will continue to be stuck in a low value-add position.

Lastly, the Government says you send the wrong signal to foreigners; PSP says as long as we Singaporeans are united, Government and alternative parties all united and say we have to change course, I do not think foreigners can say much because that is the way we have chosen.

Opportunities to Singaporeans

And I do not think the foreigners are here just because we give them work passes. They are here, they have made a business decision and a strategy. There are many factors involved. Work passes are just one of the factors. In fact – afterwards I will elaborate on our policy recommendations – we are not saying that you do not allow the foreign companies to come in with the number of work passes they want initially. But it must be transitional. There must be localisation over time.

We cannot allow them to continue to keep the same number of foreigners from the very day they come in. So, as long as we are united, I think we can put the message nicely to the foreigners. After all, we can set up a fair consideration framework for foreigners. Why the fair consideration framework for Singaporeans? That is something, as a Singaporean, I feel very puzzled about.

An interesting point was brought up by Ms Janet Ang. I respect Janet as a senior executive in the private sector. She mentioned that Singaporeans did not have the relevant skills, work knowledge and global experience. But I would like to say that if Singaporeans continue to be uprooted from their jobs, where do we get the opportunity to accumulate the skills and know-how over time?

Like I said just now, you cannot expect the Singaporeans to pick up new skills all the time. Are you going to say that if foreigners come in and replace the Singaporeans because it is low-cost? The Singaporean has lost a job, and then he has to go and acquire a new skill again? No. Skills and know-how – that comes to the capabilities of our economy. The whole foreign talent policy, as far as we can see up to now, contributes little to our capability building, partly because our Singaporean Core are being affected. Our Singaporean Core are no longer learning over time in the same job. They have been displaced.

Another thing I want to point out to Ms Janet Ang is that we hope the top managers in Singapore would also understand that and support Singaporeans and not keep saying “Singaporeans don’t have this, don’t have that”, because they are now under a system that does not have the incentive to make them work hard, to make them work in the way we want them to take up the challenge and all that.

Those prospects existed in our generation, Ms Janet Ang. In this generation, it is more challenging. And, now, the leadership of the country has brought in an additional trouble for them and, that is, competition. Not that we want to avoid competition. But, as I have said before in my speech, the competition was not really fair, to start with.

So, other than the discriminative structure that we have talked about in the job market, actually, our economy now is also in a very different operating structure, thanks to the 20 years of foreign talent policy. It will not be easy to transform. We know that. Like a GLC senior manager, who is a very close friend, recently shared with me, “Ah, if you want me to overhaul my whole system now, it will be very high cost because it’s totally dependent on foreigners now.” But I think we still have to make the change. If, together, we have a consensus, we can rope in a lot of initiatives, a lot of resources. We can give each other time – employers, workers – but I think we need to make the change.

Next, what I want to comment about is from Mr Saktiandi Supaat who mentioned that Singaporeans are now very active in the global financial market. I like to hear that. But I would also like to remind him we Singaporeans have been in the forefront of the financial market since the 1980s. I started working in GIC in 1986. Before that, many of my seniors, not just in GIC, but seniors in the financial sector in Singapore were pioneers in financial innovations in New York. They go to New York and they make the innovation. Some of the innovations were interest rate swaps and all the equity and bond derivatives. I am not so capable. But I set up one of the first equity derivative desks in Tokyo in 1987.

Mr Saktiandi mentioned about my PR recommendation. I recommend to control the number, manage the number down. But he did not read my recommendation correctly. I actually said the recommendation is for work pass holders. So, I am in support of Singaporeans with foreign spouses and giving the PR to the foreign spouses. I am in support of that. But for this recommendation, I am referring to PR and citizenship to the work pass holders.

So, to reiterate PSP’s position: one, we think the foreign talent is not a silver bullet to solve all our problems; two, the foreign talent policy is the root cause of the influx of foreigners and that has caused a significant number of displacement of Singaporeans; three, unfair wage competition is the main economic driver of the displacement; four, decisive and concrete measures are now needed to rebalance our job market; five, and lastly, the FTAs and CECA are part of the equation when we consider immigration and employment policies. And unless the Government can provide new information to prove otherwise, unfortunately, as of today, we still cannot agree that CECA is net beneficial to Singapore.

PSP Policy Recommendations

Next, I would like to address the policy recommendations that I have made in reply to Minister Lawrence Wong and also Minister Tan See Leng.

First of all, PSP is for an open economy and society. So, our policy recommendations are not meant to make Singapore a closed society or economy and our policy recommendations are meant to make a point – a point that all of us agree upon that we change course. We have to change course. But after we have agreed to that, I would think that we can throw in or rope in a lot of other things and provide the leeway for us to implement those policies. They need not be cast in stone. And among the policies that I have recommended, only the price-related policies or what I call price-control policies, have got a timeframe.

For the quota policies, I have purposely made it no time constraint. I hope you have noticed that. Okay, in terms of the policy: firstly, I think you really need to eliminate the wage disadvantage against Singaporeans. Hence, the EP levy. I do not think Minister Tan See Leng’s two attempts to reply to my EP levy as a necessity to equalise the compensation package of the EPs and Singaporeans really answered the question, because the 17% employer’s CPF contribution is a direct differential. You cannot avoid that. And being an employer, that will go into his decision-making.

Second, in order to attract more foreign talent, the Government also agrees that the qualifying salaries should go up. So, it is just a matter of how fast. My policy may be a bit faster.

Third, I did not put any time limit to reduce the headcount of work pass holders although I would like actually today if we can come to some conclusion as to what is the number of displaced Singaporeans. So, that becomes a target that we can work on.

But since the Government claims there are very few displacements, then we will not discuss that anymore. But I did not put any time limit to reducing the headcount. I also did not put any time limit to reducing the single nationality number. But for all these, there is an aspirational or planning target, and maybe, we should put a 10% cap on the single nationality and that.

What I am trying to say is on the policies that PSP has recommend, actually, we are very mindful of the effect that the implementation has on the job market and also, indirectly, what kind of messages we are sending to foreigners.

Reflections on our Governance System

Next, we also have to reflect how the problems of the foreign talent policy has been allowed to fester, develop and exist for the last 20 years. It tells us a lot about the checks and balances in our governance system.

In particular, we have to question the freedom of information, the tripartite partnership and the conduct of our Government.

First, freedom of information. Throughout this long-running saga on the foreign talent policy, accurate data has been lacking, which has contributed to the large amount of fake news and speculation floating around. In my own experience of preparing for this debate, I cannot find the figures of intra-corporate transferees.

Of course, today, the Minister provided a few more years but the thing is: why just give it out piecemeal? You are the one who are generating the data. You should be putting the data in an organised format. Yes, we agree that some data may be sensitive but please, put it in an organised format for people to analyse. There are so many people in Singapore who will be able to analyse the data if the data is presented regularly and in an organised manner.

Today, Minister Tan See Leng provided, I would say, quite a lot of new data but the new data was not actually available for us to analyse without him telling us. So, the Government is doing what I call guerrilla data. Whenever they want to prove a point, they give you a little more data. Look at the chart that Minister Tan See Leng has given us. Below the chart, it is stated Labour Survey Report. That is available. After that, “administrative data from the Research Department of MOM”. Without the administrative data, we do not have the whole picture.

Dr Tan Cheng Bock has called for transparency, accountability and independence in matters of national governance. Singaporeans have the right to information in order to make informed opinions and judgement. We urge the Government to introduce the Freedom of Information Act as soon as possible, although we are not the first one to raise this. The Workers’ Party has always been talking about this and we thank them for that.

The Parliament also has a constitutional role to play in ensuring that sufficient information is provided and policies are thoroughly debated.

To this end, we recommend the setting up of a standing parliamentary select committee in every Ministry, with representatives from both the ruling and alternative parties to improve information flow to facilitate more substantial policy deliberation.

Policy deliberation is about an integrated deliberation. It is not just a legal interpretation. It is more social economic analysis but on top of that, philosophy, history, how human beings have behaved over history, those are important things for policymaking.

The second point I want to make is tripartitism. Tripartitism has been practised since Independence. However, in my opinion, the weak NTUC link in the tripartite partnership has become obvious during the foreign talent policy saga.

I believe Mr Patrick Tay and all the NTUC leadership and the NTUC staff are working very hard. But if the overall policy is pointing at a different direction, the results that come out of their hard work speak for itself: lowly paid workers constantly needing governmental financial support to get by despite working full-time; PMETs in their 40s and 50s finding themselves extremely vulnerable to discrimination; and now, underemployment.

So, NTUC needs a lot of soul searching if it still wants to be relevant in representing the interests of the Singaporean worker.

We also urge Singaporean employers to stand up against discrimination. They will have the most to lose in the long run if the current situation leads to a radical change of our business culture and mode of operation without a robust Singaporean Core. We urge employers to take the lead in rooting out discrimination in the job market so that we can build a competitive yet fair, multicultural and multinational workforce with Singaporeans at the core.

Lastly, the conduct of the Government. The Government needs to show more empathy rather than pay lip service in order to understand the psyche and the real experiences of the working citizen. Many of them are struggling.

Even if one Singaporean is being discriminated against, we should take action. Let us not argue about majority, widespread or not widespread. To every Singaporean, we have a duty to make sure he is not discriminated against in the job market.

Over the years, while Singaporeans have constantly provided feedback on their predicament, the Government has insisted that all attempts in trying to curb immigration and foreign workforce growth in order to safeguard Singaporeans will end up hurting the Singaporeans themselves.

I quote Dr Amy Khor from her speech at the White Paper debate in February 2013, “To curb immigration or foreign workforce growth in order to safeguard Singaporeans could in an ironic twist hurt the very people this reversal is intended to help.”

I wonder what Dr Amy Khor has to say now. Before the ironic twist has happened, the silver bullet unleashed by the foreign talent policy has actually shot down many Singaporeans’ livelihoods and may hit Singapore soon.

Well, time is a powerful witness. When Singaporeans’ anxiety has persisted for the last 10 to 20 years, I think it is difficult to justify that the current policy is not flawed.

Government of the People, by the People, for the People

Hon Members of this House, contrary to the original promises presented in the Population White Paper, the foreign talent policy has created in Singapore an imbalanced population with a diluted national identity, an economy with inadequate technological innovation and significant displacement of Singaporean workers.

This has been a debate that many Singaporeans are concerned with and anxiously waiting for. This is not just a debate about a particular section of CECA, nor has it anything to do with racism and xenophobia.

It is a debate about alleviating the plight of our PMETs adversely affected by the foreign talent policy. It is a debate about the need to safeguard the Singaporean Core, which is a pillar of our economy and our future. It is a debate about developing our very own talent by looking into new ideas to create opportunities for them.

The PSP position is clear. We recognise the need to stay open as an economy. We are pro-trade but not “free for all” trade. We recognise the need for real foreign talent to complement our Singaporean Core, transferring skills as well as sharing experiences but we want a healthy balance of foreign and local workforce achieved through sound immigration and employment policies.

We want these policies to be designed and executed fairly, with Singaporean interest first. We call for urgent and concrete steps to be taken to alleviate the current problem and we have given suggestions on what needs to be done.

The Prime Minister has said in his National Day message that he recognises the anxieties about jobs and that his Government will make changes over time. But time is of essence. The changes must start now before this dire situation gets to a point of no return.

Many of us have heard or read about the story of Mr Philip Wang, whom I happen to know. He was a senior vice president of a bank but now has to drive Grab for a living. Please do not be mistaken. There is nothing wrong with driving for Grab as it is an honourable job. But this is a good illustration of underemployment, which many of our PMETs are facing. Their skillsets could have been much better utilised. Yet, they are forced into a no-win situation.

There are many more sad stories, as we discovered through our survey of 750 PMET respondents. It pains us to know that we have our own talent that are not treasured and the very Government that is supposed to look after their interests has the priority elsewhere, maybe on economic growth.

Mr Speaker, Sir, let me close by reminding that democracy is famously described as government of the people, by the people, for the people. So, let us not forget that it is the interest of the people that the Members of this House and this Government are elected to serve. There is nothing wrong in voicing out for them and championing for them.

Singaporeans deserve better. The many Philip Wens out there deserve better. For country, for people. Sir, I beg to move the Motion.

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