In his recent visit to Vietnam last week, PM Lee Hsien Loong averred that "Singapore is proceeding with the ratification."
Why does Singapore persist in pushing for trade agreements when Western appetite for such neoliberal-style globalisation has diminished? One answer is that the PAP has little choice, it doesn't know what else to do. It is a one-trick pony that hasn't learned to adapt to a changing environment.
To be certain, no one is arguing against trade. Our economy – indeed, the global economy – is highly dependent on trade without which commerce would grind to a disastrous halt. For a small country like ours, trade is what keeps our economic heart pumping.
But there is genuinely free trade and then there is trade that enriches a sliver of society – that is, the capital class – at the expense of workers. What took place over the past few decades is the kind of exploitative globalisation that led to the rich amassing evermore wealth while the rest of humanity fought for a shrinking economic pie.
The result is the massive blow-back against free trade deals that the world is seeing today.
The PAP, as one might guess, was in on this set-up from the get-go. Take, for instance, the free trade agreement that the US and Singapore signed in 2003. The architects of the deal had dreamed up a scheme called the Integrated Sourcing Initiative (ISI).
Under the ISI, certain goods manufactured in Indonesia could be deemed to have originated from Singapore and could, therefore, be exported to the US under the agreement even though Indonesia was not part of the pact.
Here's how the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of trade unions in the US, detailed the artfulness of the scheme:
"The [US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement or USSFTA] will create a sweatshop haven on two Indonesian islands through a program called the Integrated Sourcing Initiative (ISI). The initiative allows electronics components from these islands to count as Singaporean content under the FTA, even though the Indonesian islands are not subject to the labor and environmental provisions of the agreement.
The agreement requires no reciprocal market access for US goods in Indonesia, and the initiative can even be expanded to more products and regions in the future. The real purpose of the initiative seems to be facilitating offshore production for export into the US." (May 5, 2003)
The deal was the perfect example of how big businesses crafted trade deals to benefit themselves while paying scant regard to workers and wages. This led to jobs being hollowed out in the US, resulting in the present rise of anti-globalisation sentiment.
The tendency to exploit the working class is not, of course, confined to corporate America. The rich and powerful in Singapore – of which the PAP is an integral part – also saw the benefits of programmes like the ISI, that is, the Government-linked companies (GLCs) also stood to gain from the abundant supply of cheap labour in Indonesia while by-passing Singaporean workers.
The USSFTA also gave the PAP cover for the mass importation of foreign workers into our economy. At that time, the government sugar-coated the poison by promising to “carefully manage the inflow [of foreign workers]...and ensure that they complement rather than displace Singaporean workers.” (Economic Review Committee report, 2003)
But the rhetoric was soon laid bare. In 2015, the Ministry of Manpower reported that of the 32,300 nett jobs growth, 98 percent of these were taken up by foreigners with the remaining 2 percent going to residents (which include not just citizens but also permanent residents). At the same time, more than 60,000 Singaporeans remain unemployed as of June 2016.
This problem is not new. As early as 2003, a group pf NTU professors reported that three out of four jobs created went to foreigners. Ng Eng Hen, then Acting Manpower Minister, vehemently denied this.
But as an ancient wit once pointed out, you cannot wrap fire with paper. The problem of our over-reliance of foreign labour had become too big to ignore. In 2012, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam belatedly admitted that there was "no alternative but to slow down the growth of our foreign workforce" to avoid "an ever-increasing dependence on foreign labour".
Why is there the need to reduce our dependence on foreign workers if the PAP had kept its promise to “carefully manage" its flow in the first place?
Related article: The PAP's inability to transform our economy
All this has conspired to make ours a third-world economy where GDP growth is fueled by the reliance on cheap labour and mass immigration – an endeavour that is ultimately unsustainable as we are beginning to find out.
Like drugs, it gives our economy the kind of immediate gratification that masks long-term harm. But as the withdrawal symptoms begin to kick in, the government attempts to occupy the moral high ground, lecturing that our wages are too lofty and our workers too complacent. Downgrade expectations and upgrade skills, it warns. Don't be picky with jobs, there will be pain, the ride ahead will be bumpy. But most importantly, the ministers tell us, we must continue to place our trust in them.
The PAP's tactic to cover up its avarice and short-sighted opportunism by turning the tables on Singaporeans is clumsy at best. It must be called out.
More important, the guise of exploitative trade has been ripped off. The sooner Singaporeans realise that the type of trade deals that the PAP have been inking – and continues to push for – have been done on our backs, the faster we can embark on reform and make our economy work for us instead of the other way around.