No unconditional jobs for Indians: Singapore Min

Nothing in CECA implies that Indians get jobs in Singapore unconditionally: Minister

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung made a ministerial statement in Parliament, aimed at dispelling “false allegations” surrounding CECA

This is not the first time that the government has come out to debunk misperceptions about CECA. Credit: iStock

There is "nothing" in the Singapore-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) which implies that the city-state must let in professionals from India unconditionally, a senior minister told Parliament on Tuesday, rejecting allegations by the Opposition that the pact paves the way for Indian nationals to take up jobs in this country.

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung made a ministerial statement in Parliament, aimed at dispelling “false allegations” surrounding CECA and laying out the importance of trade pacts for Singapore.

Contrary to claims made by the Opposition Progress Singapore Party (PSP), Singapore’s ability to impose requirements for immigration and work passes “has never been in question” in CECA or any other free trade agreements (FTAs) that the country has signed, he told the lawmakers.

“If immigration had not been carved out and if the National Treatment principle had been incorporated into the Chapter 9 of CECA, then indeed, Indian workers would have been treated like Singaporeans, and would have had free rein to come to live and work in Singapore,” he said, adding that “this is what the PSP claims.”

“Except that there is a strong immigration carve out and National Treatment is not found in Chapter 9 of CECA, nor any other corresponding chapter in the FTAs that Singapore has entered into.

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“Nothing in this agreement implies Singapore must unconditionally let in PMEs (professionals, managers and executives) from India,” he said.

Ong said that the chapter makes it clear that the government's ability to regulate immigration and foreign manpower is not affected by the trade pact.

This is not the first time that the government has come out to debunk misperceptions about CECA, a bilateral agreement with India signed in 2005.

The minister noted that even before last year’s general election, the PSP, as an opposition party, challenging the ruling People's Action Party (PAP), had made repeated allegations about how CECA allows professionals from India “a free hand” to come and work in Singapore.

This includes a recent social media post by Leong Mun Wai, a Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) from PSP, who said that “most important economic policies that have affected the jobs and livelihoods of Singaporeans relate to Foreign PMETs and Free Trade Agreements, in particular the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) with India”.

Leong is a nominated parliamentarian on the basis of having garnered the highest number of votes among losing candidates.

“These statements are false. They have been repeated for too long,” the Channel News Asia quoted Ong as saying in the House.

Pointing out that he was a former trade negotiator who worked on several of Singapore’s trade agreements, Ong said, “I owe a duty to correct the falsehoods.”

The government also “retains full rights to decide who can enter the country to live, to work or become permanent residents or citizens, he said, giving more details from the chapter.

Ong highlighted two aspects of Chapter 9 that “has been singled out for criticism”.

First, he said the PSP has pointed to a list of 127 categories of professionals under CECA and claimed that Indian nationals in these professions can come to work in Singapore freely for one year.

“This is false,” he said, given that all foreign PMEs have to meet existing work pass conditions.

Ong explained that the list shows the types of Indian professionals who may apply to work in Singapore and it “does not mean we must approve”.

“India, for its own reasons, requested for such a list, similar to what they have in their FTAs with (South) Korea and Japan. In fact, even if they had not listed the professions, their PMEs could still submit work pass applications to work here,” said Ong, adding that the point being made by PSP “is a red herring”.

“The list does not confer any free pass to any Indian nationals,” he said.

The second common criticism is that intra-corporate transferees from India are able to freely enter Singapore to work.

This is also untrue, said Ong, as they also have to meet existing work pass qualifying criteria.

He said that the total number of intra-corporate transferees from all over the world, not just India, that have come to Singapore to work is “very small”.

Last year, there were only about 500 intra-corporate transferees from India in Singapore, less than 0.3 per cent of all Employment Pass (EP) holders.

“So, Mr Speaker Sir, I hope we can put a stop to all this misinformation about our FTAs in general, and CECA in particular,” he said.

The minister said that in addition, the obligations relating to the chapter are “not broad principles with wide applications, but highly specific”, like all Free Trade Agreements (FTAs).

Ong raised the example of National Treatment as one broad principle which can be found in some chapters of FTAs, like Trade in Services or Investments. This means that one country cannot discriminate against foreign service providers and investors.

Many parties to FTAs also commit not to impose labour market tests - a “common clause” in Singapore’s FTAs including those with India, Australia, China and the United States.

“It means we do not insist that companies go through onerous processes and documentation to prove that no suitable locals will take a job before they can hire a foreigner. Companies in Singapore do not hire in this way.

“The common and best practice is to interview the suitable candidates, consider them all fairly, and make a judgement on the best person,” he said, noting that these are “market-friendly, widely adopted, reasonable obligations”.