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Rapid Growth in Singapore's Immigrant Population Brings Policy Challenges

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Rapid Growth in Singapore's Immigrant Population Brings Policy Challenges

A kiosk in Little India, a popular ethnoburb in multicultural Singapore.

The history and fortunes of Singapore, an island nation between Malaysia and Indonesia, have always been closely intertwined with migration. As a British trading colony established in 1819, most of the city's population growth until the World War II was due to immigration. Supported by a fledging colonial economy, Singapore drew in large numbers of laborers from China, India, and the Malay Archipelago. Consequently, its population quickly grew from a few hundred to half a million by the 1931 census.

Immigration temporarily ceased during the Japanese occupation of 1942 to 1945,and Singapore's road to self-governance in the 1950s and 1960s saw the passing of new ordinances that limited immigration to only those who could contribute to its socioeconomic development. Stricter citizenship and immigration laws were imposed following Singapore's independence from Malaysia in 1965, leading to the dwindling of the city-state's nonresident population (i.e., nonpermanent noncitizen residents) to 2.9 percent of the total population.

It was not until the 1980s, when Singapore became more industrialized, that the question of migration returned. The state's nonresident population started increasing again, beginning a trend that continues to this day. In the last decade in particular, large infusions of new immigrants — and correspondingly new cultures — have begun to chisel away at the nationalist foundations the country had earlier laid. Coupled with concurrent waves of emigration among Singaporeans, the city seems to be returning to its former role as a transit point of the world.

Immigration to Singapore

The population of Singapore can be divided into two categories of people according to the permanency of their stay: Citizens (including naturalized citizens) and permanent residents are referred to as “residents,” while immigrants who are in Singapore temporarily (such as students and certain workers) are considered “nonresidents.” Permanent residents (PRs), while typically immigrants as well, have been granted the right to reside permanently in Singapore and are entitled to most of the rights and duties of citizens, including eligibility for government-sponsored housing and mandatory military service for young adult males, though not the right to vote in general elections.

The nonresident population increased at an unprecedented pace in the first decade of the 21st century, according to the 2010 Singapore census. During this period, it accounted for 25.7 percent of the total population, up from 18.7 percent in the previous decade (Table 1). As of 2010, the nonresident population stood at 1,305,011 out of a total population of 5,076,732.

In 2008, annualized growth of the nonresident population peaked at some 19.0 percent, while that of the resident population steadied at just 1.7 percent. Population growth rates for both nonresidents and residents, however, have begun to ease since the 2008-09 Great Recession, with 4.1 percent growth among the former and 1.0 percent among the latter in 2010.

According to the 2010 census, about 14.3 percent of the 3,771,721 residents of Singapore are PRs. Between 2005 and 2009, the PR population grew an average of 8.4 percent per year — much faster than the comparatively modest 0.9 percent average growth observed for Singapore citizens. This trend seemed to come to a rather abrupt finish in 2010, however, when the annualized growth of PRs fell to 1.5 percent while that of Singapore citizens held steady at 0.9 percent.

Despite the increasing share of PRs among the resident population, which itself rose from 8.8 percent of the total population in 2000 to 14.3 percent in 2010, the ethnic composition of Singapore's residents has remained relatively stable since 1990. Albeit, the percentage of Chinese fell below 75 percent of the total resident population for the first time ever in 2010, while the share of Indians rose from 7.9 percent to 9.2 percent. These particular ethnic composition shifts are largely due to widening discrepancies between citizens' and PRs' ethnic profiles (Table 2).


Table 2: Resident Population by Ethnic Group and Status, 2010

  Total Chinese Malays Indians Others
3,771,721 2,793,980 74.1% 503,868 13.4% 348,119 9.2% 125,754 3.3%
Singapore citizens 3,230,719 2,461,852 76.2% 487,758 15.1% 237,473 7.3% 43,636 1.4%
Permanent residents 541,002 332,128 61.4% 16,110 3.0% 110,646 20.4% 82,118 15.2%

Source: Department of Statistics, 2011


In terms of the overall migrant stock, the proportion of Singapore's population born outside of the country increased from 18.1 percent in 2000 to 22.8 percent in 2010. The majority of immigrants were born in Malaysia (386,000); China, Hong Kong, and Macau (175,200); South Asia (123,500); Indonesia (54,400); and other Asian countries (90,100).

The increasing share of the foreign born among Singapore's population is a direct consequence of policies to attract and rely on foreign manpower at both the high and low ends of the labor spectrum to overcome the limitations of local human capital. Indeed, the foreign born constituted approximately 34.7 percent of Singapore's labor force in 2010, up significantly from 28.1 percent in 2000. (Table 3)


Table 3: Foreign Workers in Singapore, 1970-2010

Year Total labor force No. of foreign workers Percent of total labor force
1970 650,892 20,828 3.2
1980 1,077,090 119,483 7.4
1990 1,537,000 248,200 16.1
2000 2,192,300 615,700 28.1
2010 3,135,900 1,088,600 34.7

Source: Compiled from Rahman, 1999:7 (for 1970 and 1980), Singapore Department of Statistics, 2001:43 (for 1990) and Singapore Department of Statistics, 2011:48 (for 2000 and 2010).


The most rapid (absolute) increase in the foreign-born proportion of the labor force occurred in the 2000s when, following decades of healthy growth, Singapore's nonresident workforce increased 76.8 percent from 615,700 in 2000 to nearly 1.09 million in 2010. (Figure 1)

About 870,000 of these new arrivals are low-skilled workers primarily in the construction, domestic labor, services, manufacturing, and marine industries. Since 2008, some foreign born have also been admitted as performers for work in bars, discotheques, lounges, night clubs, hotels, and restaurants. The remaining 240,000 are skilled and generally better-educated S-pass or employment pass holders, along with a small number of entrepreneurs. The size of this group has also increased rapidly due to intensive recruitment and liberalized immigration eligibility criteria.


Figure 1: Singapore's Total Resident and Nonresident Workforce, 1980-2010


A third immigration flow of increasing importance is that of international students. In 2010, 91,500 nonresidents came to study in Singapore on foreign-born student passes, comprising 13.1 percent of all students in the country. While this represents a slight decrease in enrollment from 96,900 in 2008, the government of Singapore has made the recruitment of foreign students a priority since 1997 (see section on Recruitment of Foreign Students, below).

With respect to citizenship, eligibility for the foreign born is limited to those who are at least 21 years of age and who have been PRs for at least two to six years immediately prior to the date of application. According to Singapore's Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA), citizenship applicants must also be "of good character," intend to reside permanently in Singapore, and be able to support themselves and their dependents financially.

According to media reports, 20,153 immigrants became citizens in 2008, continuing an upward trend from 17,334 in 2007; 13,200 in 2006; 12,900 in 2005; and 7,600 in 2004. In 2009 however, the number of new citizens fell slightly to 19,928. This slump was also mirrored in the annual uptake of permanent residency, which more than doubled from 36,900 in 2004 to 79,167 in 2008 but suffered a decrease to 59,460 in 2009. Sharper declines were recorded for both citizenship and permanent residency in 2010, ahead of the May 2011 general elections (Figure 2).


Figure 2: New Citizens and Permanent Residents in Singapore, 2002-2010


Low-Skilled Foreign Workers

Singaporeans are reluctant to take up low-skill jobs that pay low wages, so foreign-born workers often fill these positions. To guard against excessive permanent migration of those with less skills, however, government policy since the 1970s has ensured that unskilled and low-skilled migrants remain a transient workforce, subject to repatriation during periods of economic downturn.

Low-skilled foreign-born workers are managed through a series of measures, including the work-permit system, the dependency ceiling (which regulates the proportion of foreign to local workers), and the foreign-worker levy. These measures are expected to be tightened between July 2012 and July 2013 (see Table 4). Workers are only allowed to work for the employer and in the occupation indicated in their work permit, though a sponsored transfer of employment is permissible and subject to work pass validity. The termination of employment of a foreign-born worker results in the immediate termination of the work permit, in which case the immigrant must leave Singapore within seven days.

Work-permit holders are also subject to a regular medical examination that includes a general physical checkup, a chest x-ray, and a test for HIV/AIDS. They may not marry Singaporeans or PRs without the approval of the controller of work permits, and failure to get approval may result in repatriation. Female work-permit holders (typically domestic workers) who, through the compulsory medical screening process, are found to be pregnant are also subject to repatriation without exception.

On top of these controls, employers of work-permit holders are also required to post a S$5,000 (US$3,820) security bond for each (non-Malaysian) foreign-born worker. All employers of foreign-born domestic workers must also take out medical insurance (S$15,000, or US$11,450) and personal accident insurance (S$40,000, or U.S.$30,535) coverage for each such worker, since employees in this sector are not entitled to workman's compensation.


Highly Skilled Foreign Labor

The other burgeoning sector of foreign labor — skilled workers — is usually referred to as "foreign talent" in both government and public discourse. Currently, skilled workers and professionals account for 22.0 percent (about 240,000) of Singapore's total nonresident workforce, eclipsing the 14.6 percent recorded for 2006.

Traditionally, most skilled professionals have come from the United States, Britain, France, and Australia, as well as Japan and South Korea. Due to policies instituted in the 1990s to recruit the highly skilled in nontraditional source countries, however, the majority of skilled workers (apart from Malaysians) are now from China and India.

Given Singapore's aspirations to become a major player in the globalized world, the nation's main economic strategy is based on being home to a highly skilled workforce. In addition to investing heavily in information technology and human capital to meet global competition, the government has focused on developing Singapore into the "talent capital" of the global economy.

To reach this goal, Singapore has liberalized some of its immigration policies (while tightening others related to low-skilled immigration) and made it easier for skilled migrants to gain permanent residency and citizenship. Various state programs have been launched to facilitate the inflow of talent to Singapore, including company grant schemes to ease the costs of employing skilled foreigners, a housing scheme to aid in the short-term accommodation needs of skilled foreign-born, various recruitment missions abroad, and regular networking and information sessions held in major cities worldwide. Recent urban development policies aimed at branding Singapore as a culturally vibrant "Renaissance City" or "A Great Place to Live, Work, and Play!" are also partly driven by this goal.

Unlike lower-skilled, lower-paid foreign workers, highly skilled workers hold P, Q, or S employment passes (i.e., not work permits) that are much less restrictive and confer greater benefits (see Table 4). For example, dependents who accompany many employment pass holders can also seek employment at all work levels by obtaining a letter of consent (dependents of S pass-holders must apply for a separate work pass). Additionally, P, Q, and S employment pass holders may apply to become PRs or citizens — a privilege not accorded to the lower-skilled with work permits.

To introduce more flexibility, a new subcategory of visas was introduced in 2007. The Personalized Employment Pass (PEP) is open to all current employment pass holders who have worked in Singapore for at least two to five years and who draw a minimum annual salary of S$34,000 (U.S. $27,032). Overseas professionals who wish to immigrate to Singapore and whose last drawn monthly salary overseas was at least S$8,000 (U.S. $6,107) are also eligible. PEP holders can take on employment in any sector of the economy, may be accompanied by their family members, and are permitted to stay in Singapore for up to six months if unemployed between jobs.

Around the time of the May 2011 general elections, the government of Singapore was facing widespread public disapproval of its liberal immigration policies for the highly skilled. This, coupled with difficult global economic conditions since the Great Recession, brought about a slight reversal of Singapore's policy stance towards skilled labor in the second half of 2011.

In two rounds of policy tightening with regards to employment pass and S-pass eligibility criteria between July 2011 and January 2012, it was decided that skilled foreigners must command 11 percent to 20 percent higher salaries before being granted the right to work in Singapore. And in December 2011, a provision allowing certain foreign-born professionals (those who possess or had possessed selected university degrees and/or skilled migrant visas for other countries) to apply for an employment pass eligibility certificate so that they could remain Singapore for up to a year to look for employment was also scrapped. As a result, foreign-born students in Singapore now have three months after graduation to land a job before having to return to their countries of origin. Additional measures to tighten the demand for S-pass workers are also expected to be phased in between July 2012 and July 2013.

Recruitment of Foreign Students

The global demand for international higher education has been projected to rise from around 2.2 million students in 2005 to 3.7 million by 2025, and the government of Singapore has taken steps to increase the number of foreign students who come to the city-state for study.

Singapore has long attracted students from Malaysia and Indonesia, but has been making specific efforts to develop the country into an international education hub for primary- through university-level students since 1997. Singapore is focusing on its strengths — including its English-speaking environment, high educational standards, and reputation for public order and safety — in the recruitment of foreign-born students from China, India, Southeast Asia, and other areas. Specifically, it has used the tagline "Singapore: The Global Schoolhouse," and the message that Singapore combines the best of Asian and Western education systems.

A government economic review panel recommended a target of 150,000 foreign-born students by 2012 — more than double the 2005 figure of 66,000 — estimating that this would create 22,000 jobs and raise the education sector's contribution to the gross domestic product from the current 1.9 percent (S$3 billion or U.S. $2.29 billion) to somewhere between 3 and 5 percent.

As part of this effort, state agencies have designated an "arts and learning hub" in the central area of Singapore city; encouraged the creation of private schools; wooed reputable universities, like INSEAD and New York University's Tisch School of Arts, to set up branch campuses or programs in partnership with local universities; and set up the Singapore Education Services Center as a one-stop information and service center (equivalent to the British Council) for foreigners wishing to study in Singapore.

Emigration from Singapore

In the same way that immigration has gathered pace, more and more Singaporeans are packing up their bags and moving abroad. Temporary emigration or circular migration — for education, training, business, and work experience — has not only encouraged since the 1990s as a way through which the city-state can become more globally oriented and competitive, but is also associated with prestige and elitism.

One of the reasons why an overseas experience has been so valued is the pervasive way in which mobility has been celebrated in Singapore. A large proportion of civil servants and political leaders received their education in top universities abroad, and globalization has reinforced the view that mobile citizens, as bridge-builders, are indispensable to Singapore's economic development. Closely related, there is also the perception that foreign-born expatriates in Singapore are more valuable than local workers because of their exposure to foreign markets, thus allowing them to command higher salaries.

As of June 2011, an estimated 192,300 Singaporeans live overseas. The top destinations for Singaporean expatriates include Australia (50,000), Great Britain (40,000), the United States (20,000), and China (20,000). Many Singaporeans migrate as highly skilled workers and are employed in specialist sectors such as banking, information technology, medicine, engineering, and science and technology. Additionally, a generous proportion of them are students pursuing their first and/or postgraduate degrees. Some Singaporean students abroad have been sponsored by government scholarships and are obligated to return upon finishing their studies.

In the last decade, however, the trend for Singaporeans to emigrate permanently without necessarily contributing or returning to Singapore emerged and has government officials worried. With an average of about 1,200 highly educated Singaporeans (including 300 naturalized citizens) giving up their citizenship each year in favor of others, it is feared that, due to a lack of dual citizenship provisions, the country could be facing a brain-drain crisis rather than reaping the benefits of circular migration. In fact, it was reported in 2010 that about 1,000 Singaporeans a month were applying for a “Certificate of No Criminal Conviction” — a prerequisite to getting permanent residence overseas. In some social surveys among Singaporean youth, more than half of those surveyed would leave the country to build their careers if given the chance.

In response to this problem, the Singapore government has implemented a number of measures to reconnect with overseas Singaporeans in the hope that some will return in due course. Initiatives include linking up overseas Singaporeans with prospective employers in Singapore; updating them on the latest national developments; and setting up recreational clubs and social events (e.g., Singapore Day) for them in foreign cities. These tactics aim to keep overseas Singaporeans tied to Singapore, whether practically or emotionally.

Ongoing Issues, Challenges, and Social Change

Having greatly liberalized its borders in the past few years, it is not surprising that Singapore's migration reality has become more complex. The influx of large numbers of new immigrants into the city-state seems set to continue, even as emigration accelerates and fertility rates fall to a new low (1.15 children per female in 2010, down from 1.60 in 2000). In this context, attracting skilled foreigners to live, work, and settle — while keeping low-skilled workers under thumb — will likely remain a priority for the foreseeable future.

With the prospect that increased immigration could bring new challenges to Singapore socially, the government is working hard to maintain a state of harmony within what is already a multicultural nation. In several high-profile ministerial speeches in 2011, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's National Day rally speech as well as former-Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew's recent reminders about the nation's reliance on immigrants for growth, Singaporeans were encouraged to take a long-term view; continue to welcome talent; and, at least for a while, to “accept the discomfort” of having more foreigners around. While not expected to relinquish their cultures and languages, immigrants have been urged to participate in local events so that they can learn more about the traditions of their adoptive communities.

In 2009, Singapore's National Integration Council was established to promote interaction and national solidarity between locals and newcomers. Notably, a S$10-million (U.S. $7.95-million) Community Integration Fund was created to sponsor activities that foster bonds between Singaporeans and immigrants. Additionally, 2011 saw the launch of the Singapore Citizenship Journey, an enhanced orientation program for new citizens comprised of online elements, field trips to heritage sites, and community sharing. The People's Association, which appoints “Integration and Naturalization Champions,” further engages new citizens through home visits, grassroots activities, and community work.

Social integration is, however, far from smooth on the ground. To some locals, newcomers — particularly the ubiquitous Mainland Chinese — are commonly seen as uncouth and prone to objectionable behaviors like littering, eating on public transit, and talking loudly on the phone. Similarly, South Asian construction workers and Filipino domestic workers have also been singled out as targets of public backlash. With criminal activity rising, including several high-profile murders in mid-2011, foreigners have also been blamed for the deterioration of public safety in Singapore.

Immigrants have responded with their own set of rejoinders. A spate of online disputes in 2011 involving Mainland Chinese immigrants ridiculing Singaporeans as “ungracious,” “disgusting,” and “inferior” reveals the extent of social discord despite the state's efforts toward immigrant integration. In August 2011, an immigrant family from China went so far as to lodge a complaint against their Singaporean-Indian neighbors for the smell of curry emanating from their cooking. In response, a Facebook page urging Singaporeans to prepare curry on a designated Sunday drew over 57,600 supporters. Ironically, Singaporeans of different ethnicities have become more united in this time of discord with immigrants.

Another point of contention relates to the belief that immigrants compete with Singaporeans for jobs. While the state insists that only jobs unfilled by citizens are assumed by foreigners, the government is still frequently criticized for not curtailing the uptake of managerial and professional positions by non-Singaporeans. Suspicions that the labor market is giving preferential treatment to the foreign born — described as “cheaper” and “harder-driving and harder-striving” than Singaporeans — are not helped by certain official statements. In particular, unemployment figures are routinely published as an aggregate comprising citizens and PRs, which obfuscates the actual unemployment rate among Singaporeans.

Paradoxically, a more tolerant side of Singapore emerges when it comes to the rights of unskilled and low-skilled foreign workers. Civil-society action has sought to address the adverse working conditions of foreign-born domestic workers — about 200,000 in Singapore today, mostly women and mainly from the Philippines, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka — since the early 2000s. Many have benefited from the social and advocacy support offered by nongovernmental organizations like Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics and Transient Workers Count Too. Not only have these groups raised public awareness about the plight of foreign domestic workers, state agencies are now more inclined to attend to cases of abuse.

Similar help has also been extended to the other 670,000 work-permit holders. Some issues being addressed include workplace safety, wage and foreign-levy policy, accommodation standards, and the regulation of unsafe truck transport for migrant workers.

While their efforts are comprehensive in scope, the success of civil society in Singapore remains tied to the will of a strong state. Foreign-born domestic workers, for instance, have long been deprived of regular days off as part of their employment. This particular aspect of domestic work will change beginning January 2013, when a new law mandating days off will take effect. But such extended, hard-fought battles highlight the difficulty that advocacy groups face in lobbying within a depoliticized space. They also hint at how citizens' distrust towards immigrants can further rigidify officially sanctioned surveillance curbs on foreign workers.

On the policy front, the question of increasing numbers of Singaporeans taking flight and the corresponding need to recognize dual citizenship remains an outstanding issue. Slippages between immigration policy goals and reality exert another constant strain. The various categories of work permits, as well as alternative passes that allow foreigners to enter as dependents, job seekers, entertainers, and private-school students before switching to worker status, suggest that Singapore's immigration policies go beyond mere talent-scouting or the filling in of unpopular job sectors, as often touted by officials.

In contrast to this openness, the emerging trend of working-class men who are disadvantaged in the local marriage market turning to foreign brides from nearby countries faces greater institutional hurdles. While the state has been anxious to stop the decline of marriage and fertility, marriage migrants from less-developed countries are not automatically granted residency or citizenship papers and may have to confront a long and uncertain pathway to citizenship. For couples with at least one Singaporean child however, the foreign spouse may be eligible to apply for a three-year Long Term Visit Pass-Plus, a new immigrant pass that will be available beginning April 2012. These policies reflect the clinical approach that Singapore adopts, whereby migration policies are frequently made based on particular economic criteria and rationale, rather than on strictly humanitarian or family-reunification grounds.

In sum, as Singapore comes of age in its development, new opportunities and problems have once again opened up the former colonial city to mobilities. While Singapore has long depended on external resources to satisfy its needs — for its workforce, jobs, education, talent, and even marriage — the country's goal to augment its population today presents much more complex risks, uncertainties, and challenges, often exacerbated by inconsistent policy outcomes. Indeed, the streams flowing through the highly globalized city have become decidedly more turbulent in recent years. With wisdom, perhaps the nation's political leaders can weather the storm that is now brewing.


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