Singapore’s success as a financial center has always been linked to its willingness to attract global talent. However, as the city-state struggles to emerge from its worst recession, a reaction in certain places against foreign labor has pushed its way back up the political agenda.
As the annual argument about Singapore’s dependence on foreign labor heats up, opposition lawmakers are increasing their scrutiny of positions taken up by foreigners. According to a poll conducted earlier this year by the Institute of Policy Studies, 70% of locals advocated for tight restrictions on the number of foreigners allowed into the nation, despite ministers’ recent efforts to emphasize the significance of recruiting talent. More parliamentary discussion is anticipated in the following months.
“We have four to five local institutions that generate a large number of graduates each year. Things aren’t the same as they were 60 years ago,” said Kian Peng, a freelance photographer. “Is the government certain that we still need so many foreign PMEs?” he said, using an acronym for white-collar employees such as professionals, managers, and executives.
Singapore’s low taxes and modern infrastructure make it one of the most appealing locations in Asia to conduct business for many international firms, especially while Hong Kong is caught in the crossfire of US-China tensions. However, Singapore’s growing apprehension about foreign workers, a topic that has sparked heated debate in the local press and on social media, is putting the government under pressure to explain its stance and may complicate hiring decisions at a time when the country is attempting to re-ignite post-pandemic growth.
In response to the criticism, two senior ministers made speeches in parliament this month defending the government’s balancing act of encouraging local employment while ensuring foreign talent can contribute to the economy’s growth.
“We must not unintentionally disturb the foundations that has allowed Singapore to succeed,” said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung, a veteran trade negotiator. “We cannot live, we cannot make a life unless we are linked to the world, unless we are friendly to the world.”
The governor of Singapore’s central bank has also chimed in on the issue. Ravi Menon, the managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, said Wednesday in a series of lectures that concluded this week that although net jobs for locals increased and there were plenty of openings during the first quarter, there are still many others who are jobless. While this contributes to employment worries, he also highlighted that the economy has benefitted from the contributions of foreign talent.
“We have a labor-short economy with severe skill shortages that we have had to depend on well-qualified immigrants to fill,” Menon, speaking in his own capacity, stated. “Let us also recognize that many foreigners who come here to work are highly qualified, enthusiastic about their jobs, and good people. They work hard, stay up late, provide quality goods and services, and contribute to our society.”
Nonetheless, the atmosphere has definitely changed.
Banks, investment managers, and consultancy firms are among the businesses under increased scrutiny as the government clamps down on alleged pre-selection of foreigners for employment or failure to give Singaporeans a fair opportunity.
The framework for issuing employment permits has been strengthened, with the minimum qualifying income for executive and mid-level positions increasing in the last year.
Unlike in the past, foreigners living as dependents now need a company-sponsored visa to work, in contrast to Hong Kong employment regulations, which ban dependents of permanent residents and foreign professionals from working. And, although the government established a two-year visa last year to entice global IT experts, the program is not accessible to mid-career individuals who might compete for employment with locals.