Singapore's approach of being open to the world through free trade agreements, in particular with India, "has not and will not change", a senior minister has said, as he underlined that the government will address the genuine concerns of some Singaporeans, including heightened competition for jobs from foreign manpower.
Noting that the issue relating to Singapore-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) was recently debated in Parliament, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said that the government is prepared to confront this and is confident that the majority of Singaporeans understand the need for the country to stay open.
Ong made a ministerial statement in Parliament last month aiming to dispel "false allegations" surrounding CECA and laying out the importance of trade pacts for Singapore.
There is "nothing" in the CECA which implies that the city-state must let in professionals from India unconditionally, he had said, rejecting allegations by the Opposition that the pact paves the way for Indian nationals to take up jobs in this country.
The government "will address the genuine concerns of some Singaporeans", including heightened competition for jobs from foreign manpower and the over-concentration of foreigners in certain sectors and companies, as well as unfair hiring practices by a small minority of employers.
By doing so, the country "will continue to maintain broad support for (its) open economic model," reported Channel News Asia, citing the Minister's speech delivered before a closed-door dialogue session with members from the European Chamber of Commerce in Singapore (EuroCham).
Ong stressed that Singapore's approach to running its economy, which is being open to the world, "has not and will not change".
With a good geographical location and a resourceful population as its two advantages, he said the COVID-19 pandemic has underlined "a fundamental reality" about Singapore.
"We are too small to survive on our own and we must tap into global markets," the Channel News Asia quoted Ong as saying.
"We will continue to welcome, facilitate and protect foreign investments. We will continue to complement locals with foreign talent. We will preserve, buttress and expand our network of free trade agreements," he added.
Singapore will also continue to value the technology and expertise that the world can offer, while persisting "in learning from everyone", he said.
In addition, the country will remain a hub for manufacturing, trading, maritime, aviation, financial services, information and communications technology (ICT), as well as research and development.
"Singapore will also continue to be the interchange between the East and West, Europe and Asia, China and India. (It) will continue to be your springboard to connect with the ASEAN region," said Ong.
The minister raised two reasons - one internal and the other external - why these "long-standing understandings of (Singapore's) reality" have been called into question recently.
In addition to CECA, the other is a domestic debate on whether foreign manpower and free trade harm the interest of Singaporeans, he said.
"The solutions we adopt to address these problems will not depart significantly from the measures that other developed countries have adopted," Ong said.
The second, and larger challenge, is the external threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused major upheavals in economies around the world.
He pointed out that the single biggest factor affecting Singapore's long-term attractiveness and competitiveness is the openness of its borders.
This is why even as the pandemic disrupted cross-border activities, the government tried various ways to keep Singapore open such as maintaining open supply lines and ensuring that operations at the local port and air cargo hub remain uninterrupted.
Even then, Singapore still faces the challenge of travel being disrupted.
"We are a hub and a key node in the world. If people from different parts of the world cannot come here to do business, exchange ideas, collaborate, create sparks and make things happen, we are diminished," he said.
"We cannot reverse this simply by . opening up our borders, ceasing to quarantine new visitors and let normal travel resume as if nothing happened. That would definitely lead to a massive outbreak of infections and deaths, and eventually, lockdown," he said.
So the government tried to revive travel "step-by-step", such as by having measures that allowed key personnel - senior executives and experts needed to maintain and install critical equipment - to travel in and out of the country with controlled itineraries and frequent testing in lieu of quarantine.
It also explored a first-of-its-kind air travel bubble with Hong Kong, although that did not pan out.
Recently, as the number of COVID-19 cases in Singapore came under control and with about 80 per cent of the population fully vaccinated, the country has re-activated its transition roadmap to living with COVID-19 as an endemic, said Ong.
Authorities on Thursday announced the launch of vaccinated travel lanes, starting with Germany and Brunei from next month. Under these travel lanes, fully-vaccinated travellers departing from these two countries will be able to enter Singapore without serving a stay-home notice. Instead, they will have to take four COVID-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests.
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