Fifteen years after it was signed, the Singapore- India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca) is once again in focus in the Southeast Asian island nation, as locals fretting about job losses because of the coronavirus epidemic have voiced concern about foreigners, especially Indians, depriving them of livelihoods.

These concerns prompted Singapore’s Ministry for Trade and Industry to issue a clarification this week that there is no provision under Ceca for Indian nationals to become Singapore permanent residents and citizens or for Singapore authorities to automatically grant employment passes to professionals, managers and executives (PMEs) from India.

The issue of Indian professionals has become a hot potato and a demand to review terms of the agreement between the two countries was even raised during the campaign for Singapore’s general election last month. Two other developments this week highlight just how seriously Singapore’s traditionally paternalistic government is taking the undercurrents of local resentment at losing jobs to foreigners, especially Indians.

This week, it raised the minimum monthly salary payable to foreign professionals seeking employment passes to S$4,500 (Rs 2.42 lakh) and for more experienced professionals to about twice that figure. This change will come into effect from 1 September.

From 1 December, the minimum salary for foreigners employed in the financial sector has been raised to S$5,000, the first time a sector-specific threshold has been set. In the other development, President Halimah Yacob in her traditional opening address to Parliament devoted considerable time to assuaging fears about competition for jobs from foreigners.

Acknowledging that the issue can be polarising, she said: “This has become a major source of anxiety, especially among mid-career Singaporeans. We understand these concerns. They not only touch on matters of livelihood, but also on our sense of identity and belonging. They will be addressed.”

Even before the pandemic, there had been concerns among Singaporeans that after the comprehensive agreement was signed in 2005, the country had been flooded by Indians, who are especially visible because of their presence in high-profile managerial and executive positions. The agreement has been reviewed twice, the last time in 2018.

But it has raised contentious issues from time to time, as in 2016 when claims surfaced that Singapore had backtracked on its commitments by blocking visas for Indian IT professionals.

This week, Singapore’s government was compelled to clarify, first, that it was misleading to attribute the number of Indians in managerial and executive positions to Ceca, and second, that the category of employees who were in Singapore because of intra-corporate transfers made up less than 5 per cent of the workforce, of whom only a small segment were Indians.

But the writing on the wall is clear. As people around the world face job losses and wage cuts, the Indian diaspora must prepare for the backlash. So too must India; money sent home by overseas Indians makes up a chunk of inward remittances.