For Western expats seeking a quick entry into Asia , Singapore has long been the city of preference. It is often as a close competition with Hong Kong, safe, effective, with low tax rates, particularly with that city affected by unrest and street protests over China’s national security law.
But some recruiters claim the barriers to entry are mounting right as Singapore could be a destination for global talent. The city experiences the greatest crisis in its existence, prompting a rethink of growth and recruiting strategies for certain businesses. A increase in rhetoric towards immigrants, seen by some Singaporeans as stealing work from locals, has come alongside increasing unemployment.
An experienced Young Zealand nurse is learning how difficult it can be. She appeared, at least on paper, to be the perfect expat-landing just before Covid-19 with her boyfriend. She claims she’s on the brink of returning home, unwilling to land a job pass, but 11 months and over 200 rejected applications later.
Companies also informed her that they have a target and the quota is fulfilled, she added, requesting not to be named for fear of jeopardizing the job permit of her partner. She said she felt like she did not participate as offers to help at hospitals were equally refused.
Uncertain work opportunities, online feedback and stricter situations threaten rendering Singapore a less accommodating destination, just when international investment is most desired by the city-state. And the opportunities for expats who have long seen a stint in Asia as a significant and lucrative experience could be more reduced as employers crack down on recruiting.
Through taking measures to encourage local recruiting, the Singapore government has contributed to their fear, creating concern that it would come at the cost of expats. It placed 47 firms on a watch list for alleged unfair recruiting practices earlier this month. The list contains banks, asset managers and consultancy companies who may or may not have offered Singaporeans a reasonable chance to pre-select foreigners for work. This contributes to the 240 businesses under investigation now. They did not reveal the names of the businesses.
And in May, the system regulating working passes for foreigners was strengthened, increasing the minimum monthly pay to S$ 3,900 and further extending regulations forcing workers to first advertise job opportunities to locals. On Wednesday, the government said it aims to further increase the wage threshold.
“I would not be shocked if the amount of visas provided is decreased because the demand for foreigners is going to be smaller in the near term,” said Grant Torrens, Hays Singapore Regional Director, citing the sharp contraction as the key factor.
This year, the presence of international workers became a major political topic, with many opposition parties running on charges that local jobs are being taken up by foreign talent. A manifesto involving tightening job pass permits was issued, which clinched more seats than ever before.
“If the chance is there, the only reason we have foreigners here is to send our sails an extra wind,” Minister of Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan said in a July televised election debate. We are in a hurricane now, and we need to shed ballast. “In response to Bloomberg queries on the statement, Dr Balakrishnan ‘s office said that in a slowdown there would be a disproportionate effect on the international workforce.”
Employment passes for international employees-the type given to highly trained workers as opposed to work permits for blue-collar jobs-usually represent around 5% of the overall workforce. Yet, the ratio of foreigners may be far higher among top management and specialists in certain main industries. In August, the government said, non-Singaporeans accounted for 57 per cent of senior management positions in the financial services industry.
Andrew Zee, the Selby Jennings Financial Services Team Chief, said some of his career applications had recently been refused visas, a first for him in over four years, but they were subsequently accepted on appeal.
According to Amanda Jones, senior vice-president of sales and account management, Sirva Inc, which operates Allied Pickfords, said that inquiries from individuals wishing to switch to Singapore in the first seven months of the year were down 23 percent from the same timeframe in 2019. Ms Jones does not expect to see expat executives come to Singapore at best until 2022 at pre-Covid estimates, especially given travel curbs and the recession.
In the property industry, the change is beginning to be felt. Ella Sherman, an assistant executive sales director specializing in expat housing at Knight Frank in Singapore, says that this time of year she usually signs around four rental agreements a month. She’s fortunate enough to secure one now, and she knows about some customers going home.
Beyond the global problems and the pandemic, only 5.7 million residents in the world are uneasy about outsiders. In collective appeals, mostly on social media, for the recruiting of residents, this has arisen. “This month, when a Facebook post targeting US$ 215 billion investment giant Temasek Holdings targeting international executives went viral, Chief Executive Officer Ho Ching replied with a post identifying it as” a shameful act of hatred. LABOR CUTS
To explain their attempts to maintain Singaporean employment, businesses are taking pains. As Millennium Hotels and Resorts laid off 159 workers this month, it noted that its “heart” Singaporean workforce was boosted to 69 percent by the change. The Ministry of Manpower released a statement after casino operator Resorts World Sentosa (RWS) officially eliminated 2,000 positions last month, claiming the bulk of staff impacted were foreigners.
“RWS has a stronger Singaporean center since the retrenchment exercise,” the ministry stated.
The pinch is felt even by expats abroad. One staff when the pandemic hit was abroad and between employers. While he soon discovered a new role, he said his application for a work pass was denied many times without reason.
He is now stranded in Europe paying rent in Singapore for his empty house, unwilling to return before his visa is accepted. For fear of jeopardising his submission, he refused to be named. The rising discourse of anti-foreigners was equally worrisome, he added.
For others, after a few expats were found breaking government-imposed lockdowns by partying and mingling outside without masks in May, racial tensions were brought to the fore. The event triggered an ugly social media outcry and led a minister to warn local residents against “visceral reaction.” The suspects were punished and barred to operate in Singapore, as were 134 others in May and June.
Any leaders are, to be sure, encouraging calm. Singaporeans want guarantees that the government will continue to produce jobs and provide equal care, but the overwhelming majority “know that it is really necessary for Singapore to remain accessible and linked,” said Manpower Minister Josephine Teo on Wednesday.
In battling for local employment, Singapore isn’t alone. This month, US President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning government departments from substituting migrant employees for citizens or green card holders.
And the role of the city-state as a financial centre assures that it will still be a destination for international talent. The hedge fund operated by Ken Griffin billionaire, Citadel, confirmed the launch of a Singapore office this week, as did Sun Life Financial, the second-largest insurer in Canada.
“Singapore continues to be an enticing choice,” said Rahul Sen, Global Head of Private Wealth Management for executive search company Boyden. “Modern firms aiming to start up in Hong Kong to draw Greater China riches are planning to set up shop in Singapore.”
Even so, the pathways are shrinking for many. The nurse from New Zealand began calling out back home to healthcare professionals. They’re anxious to recruit her so she can go back.
“Singapore is an incredible place, and we hoped that things would improve if we lived long enough,” she said. Yet the time it takes, the more it feels further away.