The Big Read in short: After an exodus, will foreigners return to Singapore?
Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we look at why many foreigners have left Singapore during the Covid-19 pandemic and what the implications are. This is a shortened version of the full feature.
Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we look at why many foreigners have left Singapore during the Covid-19 pandemic and what the implications are. This is a shortened version of the full feature, which can be found here.
- Foreign workers at all skill levels have been leaving Singapore in large numbers since the start of the pandemic
- For expatriates, some have left because they do not see new job opportunities here, while others find the Covid-19 restrictions too strict for their liking
- For mid- and lower-skilled foreign workers, many have returned to visit their families and some have faced trouble getting approval to return
- While this spells trouble for firms typically reliant on foreign hires, it has meant more opportunities for Singaporean workers
- Experts say that while Singaporeans can plug some of the manpower gaps, Singapore will need a fair share of foreigners in its workforce to maintain its global hub status
SINGAPORE — When Covid-19-induced travel restrictions temporarily eased early last year, Ms Shamalee, 42, decided to book a flight back to Sri Lanka in April last year to see her mother.
But her plans for a reunion came crashing down when the Delta variant began to spread like wildfire in South Asia, said Ms Shamalee, who had worked as analyst at an investment bank in Singapore since 2017.
“I tried everything possible to go home… (but) on April 30 there was an announcement that they were banning all returnees from Sri Lanka (who are not Singapore citizens or permanent residents) during the Delta variant outbreak,” said Ms Shamalee, who did not wish to give her full name.
The Singapore Government announced in April last year that all long-term pass holders and short-term visitors with recent travel history to Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka would not be allowed entry to, or to transit through, Singapore. The regulation also affected those who had previously obtained official approval to enter the country.
This meant that all pre-approved return flights were cancelled. Singapore citizens or permanent residents (PRs) on the other hand could return to Singapore upon serving quarantine here.
This left Ms Shamalee, an employment pass (EP) holder, distraught. Pre-pandemic, she would fly back to Sri Lanka once or twice a month to visit her mother, who is in her 70s. She had chosen to stay in Singapore partly because it’s just a four-hour flight from Sri Lanka.
As the Delta outbreak in Singapore worsened and the travel policy remained unchanged, Ms Shamalee, who did not have any immediate family here, became increasingly anxious.
“If I flew to Sri Lanka, I couldn’t come back to Singapore… it was crazy... I waited and waited… After a while, it was just too much,” she said.
In the end, Ms Shamalee decided to leave her job here and relocate to London, where there were fewer travel restrictions. She left Singapore in October last year and now has a job at the European office of the same investment bank.
Asked if she would return to Singapore, she said it would only be for leisure but not to live and work here.
Her experience reflects the problems that many foreigners working in Singapore face as border controls turn once-hassle-free entry and exit into a nightmare. In September 2020, TODAY also reported on the vitriol and job uncertainties faced by expats here, causing them to contemplate leaving Singapore.
For Ms Shamalee, the relatively tighter Covid-19 restrictions here also contributed to her decision to leave the island.
While in Singapore, Ms Shamalee said that she was constantly afraid of being caught for not wearing a mask. In contrast, life in London seems to have returned to normal with mass events and optional mask wearing.
Mr Jason Ong, 24, another former employment pass holder here, left Singapore for a different reason: He felt that career options here had become scarce due to the pandemic.
The Filipino was working at a non-governmental organisation here after graduating from a local university in 2018.
Last year, Mr Ong wanted to move to a different role as he felt that he was “stagnating” in his position.
He had already been applying for new jobs in Singapore before the pandemic, submitting five to 10 applications and receiving about one to two offers a month. However, in 2020, as the pandemic raged, he received only two offers — including one from overseas — for the whole year.
Mr Ong attributed the lack of job offers partly to the Singapore Government’s move to preserve jobs for locals amid the economic downturn.
“It was hard to find positions as a foreigner, a lot of the job listings were for Singaporeans and PRs only,” he said.
It is against this backdrop that stories of expats such as Ms Shamalee and Mr Ong leaving Singapore — whether or not by their own volition — have become increasingly common.
Indeed, the number of foreign PMETs (professionals, managers, executives and technicians) has fallen since the pandemic started. According to Ministry of Manpower (MOM) figures, the number of EP holders here fell nearly 14 per cent from 193,700 in December 2019 to 166,900 in June 2021.
The numbers of mid- and lower-skilled foreign workers have also fallen significantly: The number of S Pass holders, those who earn at least S$2,500 a month, fell by more than 18 per cent from over 200,000 in December 2019 to 164,200 in June 2021. The number of work permit holders fell by 16 per cent, from 999,000 in December 2019 to 834,000 in June 2021.
Amid an unprecedented pandemic which has turned the world upside down, Singapore has lost its shine as an expat haven, said some HR experts who work closely with firms who hire expatriates.
Ms Angela Kuek, director of employment agency The Meyer Consulting Group, said that this is due to the fact that many foreign PMETs previously saw Singapore as a hub to other tropical destinations in the region such as Thailand and Bali, where they can go for quick trips to unwind.
Ms Marie Tay from The Resolute Hunter added that due to the Government’s tightening of foreign manpower policies, there has also been additional anxieties for foreign PMETs.
“While expats in general have more options when it comes to relocating for work, mid- and lower-skilled foreign workers interviewed by TODAY — some of whom left Singapore out of necessity, such as to settle family matters — are keen to return.”
AGONISING WAIT FOR THOSE WHO WANT TO RETURN
While expats in general have more options when it comes to relocating for work, this may not be the case for mid- and lower-skilled foreign workers.
For the latter group interviewed by TODAY, some of them left Singapore out of necessity, such as to settle family matters, and are keen to return. But for migrant workers from countries such as India and Bangladesh, this is not a simple task, as their firms have to apply for MOM’s approval first, before their workers are able to return.
This has left some wondering whether they can continue working in Singapore.
Indian construction worker Sathy Arputharaj came to Singapore in June 2019, six months before his wife gave birth to their daughter.
He had planned to return to India to see his newborn, but Covid-19 put paid to his plans.
When the situation still had not improved by July last year, Mr Arputharaj decided to resign from his job to return his hometown in Tamil Nadu.
“My father and mother are also very old and sick, and my wife cannot take care of the baby on her own,” the 34-year-old said. “But now that I am here with my family, everybody is happy.”
However, he soon discovered that he could not return to Singapore and resume his work here, despite his employer applying “many times” for approval. The first few applications were rejected, and he felt that the emergence of the Omicron variant has also led to further delays.
Mr Arputharaj, who has been waiting for the green light for the past five months, is now living off his savings in India.
For Malaysian workers, many of whom come to Singapore on S Passes or work permits, their reason for leaving was largely similar — many missed their family members and were tired of waiting for border restrictions to ease.
This was the case for 54-year-old Julijam Jumaat, who was a work permit holder. He had been working as a maintenance worker at several malls around Jurong since 2017.
Before the pandemic, he lived in Johor Bahru and would travel via the Tuas checkpoint to work in Singapore. Since border controls were imposed by Malaysia in March 2020, he had been unable to return to his family, with his firm sponsoring his accommodation here.
However, the long time spent away from his four children — three daughters in their 20s and a 10-year-old son — soon took a toll on him, and led him to submit his resignation in August last year.
“My younger daughter is going to graduate, and my younger son misses me,” he said.
But now that the two countries have the vaccinated travel lane (VTL) scheme, Mr Julijam is open to returning to Singapore to work.
“If any company in Singapore wants to employ me, I will still want to work.”
For another group of workers, mainly from China, they have chosen to leave because they felt the Covid-19 situation in their home country is relatively safer than in Singapore.
Chinese workers and their employers told TODAY that many of these workers had returned at the behest of their families in China, which is pursuing a “Covid-zero” strategy with the aim of eradicating the virus.
EMPLOYERS GRAPPLE WITH THE BIG CRUNCH
In the past two years, most employers of foreign workers have been facing manpower constraints in one form or another due to their workers’ permanent departures.
Employers at construction and engineering firms said that it is especially frustrating for them when their foreign workers are unable to return to Singapore after going home.
Ms Lei Lei, general manager at mechanical and electrical systems firm Sunbeam M&E, said she had over 30 migrant workers in her firm before the pandemic, but the number is now down to about 20. As a result, her maintenance projects have been pushed back by about six months to a year.
She said that unlike the service, and food and beverage industries which can still hire Singaporeans to fill up roles commonly held by foreigners, the construction industry finds it almost impossible to do so due to the low pay and negative perceptions of the jobs offered.
“Even if we pay higher, no Singaporean wants to be a construction worker,” said Ms Lei.
Meanwhile, for employers of Malaysian workers, they said that the opening of the VTL has helped ease their anxieties as there is now an assurance that they can re-enter Singapore should they return home.
For firms which hire workers from China, many have seen over half of these employees leaving.
At Straits Construction, Chinese workers made up about 20 per cent of the firm’s headcount before the pandemic, said the firm's executive director and chief operating officer Kenneth Loo. They comprise only 10 per cent now.
LOCAL TALENT POOL MAY BE INSUFFICIENT
While replacing the roles filled by foreign PMETs with Singaporeans may seem ideal, experts noted that there may not be sufficient talent within the local workforce to fill these roles.
OCBC chief economist Selena Ling said that Singapore has always been looking to train its local workforce to take up jobs “higher up the value chain” and Covid-19 has accelerated this process.
“Given that we have a very limited workforce and an ageing population, it is inevitable that the policymakers continually try to push the Singaporean core up the value chain, to ensure that the local talent is good to attract the foreign talent,” she said.
Nevertheless, Ms Kuek from The Meyer Consulting Group said that for nascent industries such as IT and tech, the Singapore population is “too small” to drive meaningful growth in the sector.
As for the roles filled by mid- and lower-skilled foreign workers, the issue is not that Singaporeans are not skilled enough to fill these positions but that most are not willing to do so.
WILL NORMAL SERVICE RESUME?
While it is anyone's guess whether foreign manpower will ever return to pre-Covid levels or how long it could take, the signs are that supply is on the uptick.
Indeed, MOM said on Friday (Jan 28) in its labour market advance report that there was a "considerable increase" of employment of non-residents in the construction sector over the fourth quarter last year. The actual figures will be provided in the full report in March.
The increase was due to the resumption of entry approvals for fully vaccinated workers in the construction, marine shipyard and process sector to enter the country from early November, MOM said.
Ms Kuek noted that among the firms that her employment agency works with, some foreign PMETs have started to return, making up about five to 10 per cent of some firms’ headcount.
Meanwhile, given that Singaporeans had previously been fretting about having too many foreigners in their midst in recent years, will the fall in numbers present the island with an opportunity to wean itself off its heavy dependence on foreign labour?
“It’s not a zero-sum game. If the economy continues to grow and remain vibrant, there’s something for everyone — more opportunities for both local and global talentsDBS senior economist Irvin Seah”
Ms Kuek said: “These two years have benefitted locals and PRs in getting employed, but we still need to continually open up and return to a sense of normalcy."
She added: “Singapore, being an international hub for Asia, we cannot lose that advantage, I think we should continue to go back to where we were before… it has to be on that path.”
DBS senior economist Irvin Seah believes that the situation is temporary, and the higher reliance on a local workforce for now is “part and parcel of the Covid situation here”, rather than Singapore losing its appeal to foreign workers.
“In the interim, there will be a manpower crunch in some sectors,” he said. “Wages will rise, and in turn prompt companies to look to technology to reduce their reliance on manpower.”
He added that once borders reopen, a “reversal of the flows” — with more foreign manpower entering Singapore again — can be expected.
He also stressed that with a healthy economic growth, the trade-off need not be between foreign and local job placements.
“It’s not a zero-sum game. If the economy continues to grow and remain vibrant, there’s something for everyone — more opportunities for both local and global talents,” he said.