Insight: Breaking down immigration in Singapore

As polling day rapidly approaches, one of the key issues that many voters will take to the ballot box is that of immigration. The future population size and composition of Singapore has been a contentious issue for most elections in recent memory, but plays a special role this cycle due to the role of migrant dormitories in the resurgence of COVID-19 cases in Singapore. The cramped, unsanitary living conditions of temporary workers provided the perfect environment for the virus to spread, and in dealing with aftermath many Singaporeans were exposed for the first time to the inner workings of the nation’s migration policy. These unforeseen and serious consequences beg the question: What role does immigration have to play in Singapore?

First and foremost, it is necessary to mention that immigration to Singapore takes a variety of forms. Broadly speaking, these fall into two camps, somewhat notoriously referred to as Foreign Workers and Foreign Talents. Foreign workers are those that constitute the groups residing in the migrant dormitories. These workers tend to be employed either in construction and manual labour roles, or as domestic staff in individual households. The main countries of origin for these workers are developing nations in Asia, such as Bangladesh or the Philippines, and they are the most numerous types of foreign-born population in Singapore. Foreign talents refer to those with significant qualifications doing high-skilled work in Singapore. The level of compensation and responsibility may vary among this group, as it includes both mid-level staff and also high-level executives. The Foreign Talents form the basis for Singapore’s large expatriate population, including their spouses and dependent children. A small third subgroup is the foreign students in Singapore, numbering at about 65,000, who are mainly pursuing their higher education at university. An extreme minority of these, only 2,000 or so, receive funding from the Singapore government for their education.

Given the variety of forms of immigration to Singapore, there is equally as complex a visa regime. Although there is some variation, these can be largely grouped into Employment Passes (EP), S Passes, and Work Permits. Employment passes are issued to high-level foreign talents, working as professionals and executives, while S Passes are for mid-level staff. Work Permits are issued to Foreign Workers in the domestic and construction sectors or other industries. The Ministry of Manpower summarises the numbers of each respective visa type as below:

Source: Ministry of Manpower

With the facts outlined, we can finally come to the question: Why do so many Singaporeans care so deeply about the issue of immigration? And what do the different parties propose to do about it? Unlike some Western nations, like the United States or Great Britain, immigration in Singapore has never been framed as a moral imperative. The broad consensus is that if immigration to Singapore is to occur, then its purpose should be to benefit the economy and the nation. Aside from the obvious worry about the resurgence of Coronavirus cases due to migrant dormitory conditions, a number of matters of deep concern arise from the migration of both foreign talents and foreign workers. The enduring perception among many members of the public is that continued migration increases cost of living and deprives Singaporeans of jobs or depreciates their wages. In past years, the PAP has taken these criticisms into account, and raised the criteria to qualify for various visa types, but also maintains the importance of immigration for Singapore’s growth. In the upcoming election they have pledged to improve conditions in worker dormitories to avoid future situations like the second COVID-19 wave. Multiple opposition parties, such as the Workers’ Party, Singapore Democratic Party, SDA, PV, etc. have stated explicitly in their manifestos a desire to significantly curb if not cap immigration and population growth. Some, including the SDP, have even accused the PAP of aiming for a population of 10 million, a claim that the PAP has taken care to refute. 

While these concerns over immigration are true to a certain extent, they do not represent the full picture. Cost of living in Singapore is driven primarily by housing, with many other goods as comparatively inexpensive. However, most Singaporeans live in public housing via HDBs which are strictly only eligible for purchase by citizens or permanent residents. The cost of private freehold properties is increased significantly by the existence of the expatriate foreign talent community or other speculative investors, but such properties would remain prohibitively expensive for all but a few Singaporeans even if that were not the case. Other aspects of cost of living, such as food and clothing, are largely independent of the size of the immigrant population. 

There is more merit to the claim that Singaporean wages and job opportunities have been limited by immigration. Unlike the USA or Europe, Singapore does not have a significantly sized unskilled population. Thus, it would be fair to describe construction or domestic service as inherently undesirable to Singaporeans. In the absence of a migrant population, supply and demand would dictate the wages for these jobs would rise. However, the social cost of assuming these jobs would likely outweigh the increased wages, especially in a hierarchical culture based on Asian values like Singapore. Rather, the job opportunities that many Singaporeans would like to pursue are those of the Foreign Talents.

Here, however, there is a divide. Many of the executive and professional roles filled by those with Employment Passes (EP) are not those that are organically created by the Singaporean economy. Instead, they are the result of multinational corporations partly choosing to headquarter their operations out of Singapore precisely because it offers a high quality of life for their executives. If Singapore were to adopt a more hostile immigration policy, they would likely base themselves out of nearby cities like Kuala Lumpur or Jakarta and take many other jobs with them. 

Thus, this logically leaves the only remaining jobs as those of the S passes. Here is where the wage and job criticism may hold valid. Singapore has a highly educated workforce, and many of the mid-level staff positions could arguably be held by locals, but for a variety of reasons, perhaps expediency or perhaps cost, companies choose to hire immigrants. Not all of these S pass holders could be validly replaced by a Singaporean local worker, but a good number possibly could. Further limiting the supply of S passes might lead to an increase in the wage of mid-level Singaporean employees, or better opportunities. 

There is one final note of concern that many Singaporeans may want to consider before choosing how they vote, that of the ageing and declining native population. Singapore’s fertility rate is alarmingly low, at 1.16 births per woman, well below replacement level. Without a stream of immigration, the population of Singapore, and therefore its economy, will almost inevitably shrink. However, it is also unfair to class the vast majority of foreigners in Singapore as immigrants in the true sense of the word. Virtually all Foreign Workers are only temporary migrants, working in construction or domestic services while young, but ultimately returning to their countries of origin. Similarly, many foreign talents do not choose to settle in Singapore, and most eventually move on to other countries. As of 2018, Singapore only had 0.5223 million permanent residents, a necessary precursor to citizenship, compared to 3.471 million citizens. Singaporeans may find that in the short-term limits to immigration may bring rewards, but in the long term, there may not be much of a Singapore left. 

— Rohan Sahu

Rohan is an undergraduate pursuing a joint degree in Computer Science and Economics from Columbia and Georgetown Universities in the United States.

Top Image: The Diplomat

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