Singapore: Singapore has long been the city of choice for Western expats wanting an easy entree into Asia. Clean, efficient, with low tax rates, it’s often seen as rivaling Hong Kong, especially with that city hit by street protests and unrest over China’s new national security law.
Yet just when Singapore should be a magnet for global talent, some recruiters say the barriers to entry are mounting. The city is facing the worst recession in its history, forcing a rethink for some firms on expansion and hiring plans. Alongside soaring unemployment has come a spike in rhetoric against foreigners, seen by some Singaporeans as taking jobs from locals.
An experienced nurse from New Zealand is finding out how tough it can be. She seemed, on paper at least, the ideal expat — arriving right before Covid-19. But 11 months and over 200 failed applications later, she says she’s on the verge of going home, unable to land a work pass.
She was told by companies that they have a quota and the quota is met, she said, asking not to be identified for fear of jeopardizing her partner’s work permit. When attempts to volunteer at hospitals were similarly rejected, she said she felt like she didn’t belong.
The uncertain job prospects, online commentary and stricter conditions risk making Singapore a less welcoming destination just as the city-state needs foreign investment the most. And as workplaces clamp down on hiring it could further limit the options for expats who have long seen a stint in Asia as an important and lucrative experience.
A jogger runs toward the Central Business District in Singapore on July 6.
The Singapore government has added to their angst by taking steps to promote local hiring, raising concern that it will come at the expense of expats. Earlier this month, it put 47 companies on a watch-list for suspected discriminatory hiring practices. The list includes banks, fund managers and consulting firms that may have pre-selected foreigners for jobs or not given Singaporeans a fair chance. This adds to the 240 companies already under scrutiny. The names of the firms weren’t disclosed.
And in May, it tightened the framework that governs employment passes for foreigners, increasing the minimum monthly salary to S$3,900 ($2,840) and further expanding rules requiring employers to advertise job openings to locals first. The government said Wednesday it plans to raise that salary threshold further.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a contraction in the number of visas issued because the demand for foreigners is going to be less” in the near term, said Hays Plc Regional Director for Singapore Grant Torrens, citing the sharp contraction as the main driver.
The role of foreign workers became a key election issue this year, with several opposition candidates campaigning on claims that overseas talent is taking local jobs. The Workers’ Party, which clinched more seats than ever, published a manifesto that included tightening employment pass approvals.
“The only reason we have foreigners here is to give an extra wind in our sails when the opportunity is there,” Minister of Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan said in a televised election debate in July. “Now we are in a storm, and we need to shed ballast.”
Balakrishnan’s office said in response to Bloomberg queries on the comment that there will be a disproportionate impact on the foreign workforce in a downturn.
Foreign workers on employment passes – the sort issued to highly skilled workers as opposed to work permits for blue-collar jobs — typically comprise around 5% of the total workforce. Yet among top managers and professionals in some key sectors, the ratio of foreigners can be much higher. Non-Singaporeans made up 57% of senior management roles across the financial services sector, the government said in August.
Andrew Zee, team lead for financial services at Selby Jennings, said some of his job candidates were recently denied permits — a first for him in more than four years — though they were later approved on appeal.
Sirva Inc., which owns Allied Pickfords, said inquiries from people wanting to move to Singapore in the first seven months of the year were down 23% from the same period in 2019, according to Amanda Jones, senior vice president of sales and account management. Jones doesn’t expect to see expat executives coming to Singapore at pre-Covid numbers until 2022 at best, especially given travel curbs and the recession.
The shift is starting to be felt in the real estate market. Ella Sherman, an associate executive sales director at Knight Frank in Singapore who specializes in expat housing, says she normally signs about four rental agreements a month this time of year. Now she’s lucky to secure one, and knows of several clients heading home.
Beyond the economic woes and the pandemic lies an unease over foreigners in the country of just 5.7 million people. This has surfaced in public calls, often on social media, for more hiring of locals. When a Facebook post targeting foreign executives at $215 billion investment giant Temasek Holdings Pte went viral this month, Chief Executive Officer Ho Ching responded with a post of her own describing it as “a cowardly act of hate.”
Companies are taking pains to describe their efforts to retain Singaporean jobs. When Millennium Hotels and Resorts laid off 159 employees this month, it noted that the move lifted its “core” Singaporean workforce to 69%. After casino operator Resorts World Sentosa reportedly cut 2,000 jobs last month, the Ministry of Manpower issued a statement saying the majority of affected workers were foreigners.
“After the retrenchment exercise, RWS has a stronger Singaporean Core,” the ministry said.
Even expats abroad are feeling the pinch. One worker was overseas and between jobs when the pandemic struck. Though he quickly found a new position, he said his employment pass submission has been rejected several times with no explanation.
He’s now stuck in Europe paying rent for his empty home in Singapore, unable to return until his visa gets approved. He declined to be identified for fear of jeopardizing his application. He said the rising anti-foreigner rhetoric was equally worrisome.
For some, the social tensions were brought to the fore when a few expats were caught breaching government-imposed lockdowns by drinking and mingling outdoors without masks in May. The incident sparked an ugly debate on social media and prompted a minister to caution against the “visceral reaction” by locals. The offenders were fined and banned from working in Singapore, as were 134 others over May and June.
To be sure, some politicians are urging calm. Singaporeans want assurances that the government will continue to create opportunities and provide fair treatment, but a vast majority “understand that staying open and connected is very important to Singapore,” Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said Wednesday.
Singapore isn’t alone in fighting for local jobs. U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order this month barring federal agencies from replacing citizens or green card holders with foreign workers.
And the city state’s status as a finance hub ensures it will always be magnet for foreign talent. Citadel, the hedge fund run by billionaire Ken Griffin, announced this week it’s opening a Singapore office, as did Sun Life Financial Inc., Canada’s second-biggest insurer.
“Singapore remains an attractive destination,” said Rahul Sen, the global head of private wealth management at Boyden, an executive search firm. “New businesses that were thinking of setting up in Hong Kong to attract greater China wealth are thinking of setting up shop in Singapore.”
Even so, the avenues for many are narrowing. The nurse from New Zealand has started reaching out to health-care providers back home. They’re eager to hire so she may head back.
“Singapore is an amazing city, and we hoped that if we stayed long enough, things would change,” she said. “But the longer it takes, the further away it seems.”
–With assistance from Michelle Jamrisko. –Bloomberg
Also read: Singapore Chinese upset as they can’t go home without testing & can’t test without symptoms
the anti-expat feeling is so much visible in the posts above. Just adding my two bits to the conversation given that I have spent 3 years in SG. Investments and hiring go hand in hand. At no point of time, I have seen organizations reserving jobs only for expats. Think rationally, what does SG have which others in region dont have and if you keep the economy closed, then there are other geographies that are willing to jump and lay down the carpet. Malaysia is getting back in game and quite a number of MNCs have good base in there. India is snapping too with red carpets and good educated population. If the economy is open, it will anyway ensure more jobs and more prospects for local through use of city state resources. I think Singapore needs world more than world needs Singapore. Lee Kwan (bless his soul) was right when he opened the economy. Having said so, yes there has to be balance in approach. Think about how many SG locals were in senior positions 10 years back and what’s the status now. There is awesome improvement in those numbers. It is due to the fact that locals have got trained, gained experienced and risen up the ranks through hard work. I have friends in SG that work equally hard and have really doing well in their career in SG or abroad. You cannot follow any other country that is doing similar steps as their scale is different from yours. One bad year has led to contraction of economy by 40% and GDP de-growth by 7% officially. God knows what is it unofficially. The organizations should be asked to ensure that they have a set percentage of local hires. Advertising locally before hiring is a good move but nothing is foolproof. SG’s core foundation is built on expat population and that should continue for the city state to grow and function as a progressive economy to challenge HK and other upcoming geographies in the region.
This isn’t a journalistic piece. It’s an empathetic cry for foreign expats who for too long enjoyed the luxuries & lifestyles afforded to them. How does the need for ‘foreign investment’ in the economy equate to needing more ‘foreign talent’. The logic is flawed and the argument is weak.
Nobody I know believes that all jobs must be denied from expats. The sentiment is that due process must be in place to give locals the opportunities that somehow are traditionally reserved only for foreigners just based on the roles and NOT the qualifications.
Cry me a fuckin river.
Doh. This has been going on for decades. Even when the going was good Singaporeans felt Whites were more qualified. Same in Dubai.
I am from Singapore. I just read your article on Singapore expats jobs. Did you notice that virtually ALL the people you interviewed were expats? Its not objective nor balanced. Now you understand why Singaporeans are concerned with this influx of foreigners.
A global pandemic is under way and a country with 100,000 (+/-) of it’s own professionals unemployed is taking measures to prioritise employing those people. What’s wrong with that?!
A Kiwi nurse lands up here just before Covid and feels she “doesn’t belong”?!
Seriously?! Might that have something to do with the fact that she “belongs” in New Zealand not Singapore?!
What are we, some global dumping ground for the world’s unemployed professionals looking for tax breaks and warm weather?!
Get real please. The sentiment here is to completely stop issuing work permits to foreigners till our unemployed are first placed.
Foreigners will come, they have to, they need Singapore more than Singapore needs them!
What are their other options in Asia? Hong Kong? Dubai? Exactly, nobody offers what we do with or without permitting foreigners taking local jobs.
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