E.g., 12/08/2023
E.g., 12/08/2023
Singapore: Hungry for Foreign Workers at All Skill Levels

Singapore: Hungry for Foreign Workers at All Skill Levels


Established as a British trading colony in 1819, the history and fortunes of Singapore, an island-state located between Malaysia and Indonesia, have been closely intertwined with migrants and migration.

Today, Singapore's population of almost 4.5 million includes citizens of Malaysian, Chinese, and Indian descent as well as thousands of foreign workers from across Southeast and South Asia. Not surprisingly, the country has four official languages: English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil.

Singapore, which became an independent nation in 1965, has few natural resources and limited space. Yet it has become a first-world country since the 1980s, due in large part to its transformation from a manufacturing to a service-driven economy. As a result, it has become even hungrier for foreign workers at all levels of the labor market.

Historical Background

A rapidly expanding economy, coupled with a liberal, open-door immigration policy, drew large numbers of immigrants to Singapore (then part of British Malaya) in the 19th century, most of them laborers from China, India, and the Malay archipelago. The population quickly grew from a few hundred to half a million by the 1931 census.

The period of free immigration, which lasted over a century, came to an end when the colonial government passed the 1928 Immigration Restriction Ordinance. In part a reaction to slumps in the rubber and tin industries, the law set a monthly quota for Chinese male immigrants. British colonial control increased in the early 1930s, and the monthly quota was extended in 1932 to include all immigrants who were not British or of a British-protected nationality.

Prior to World War II, most population growth was due to immigration. Natural increase was negative prior to 1921, partly because of high mortality rates as well as depressed birth rates as a result of the gross imbalance in Singapore's sex ratio in the 19th and early-20th centuries.

The overwhelming majority of Chinese migrants arriving in Singapore during this period were male, mainly because of restrictions on female migration imposed by China. The gender imbalance among immigrants arriving in Singapore only began to shift significantly between 1934 and 1938; restrictive quotas applied only to male immigrants and not to women and children. Large numbers of Chinese women flocked to British Malaya for the first time.

In 1938, a monthly quota of 500 women was imposed, but by then an increasingly balanced sex ratio was evident. The ratio climbed from 583 females to 1,000 males in 1931 to a ratio of 821 females to 1,000 males in 1947. This period marks Singapore's transformation from a transient to a settler society. A large proportion of Singapore's population today includes the descendants of these early immigrants.

Immigration flows temporarily stopped during the Japanese occupation of Singapore (1942 to 1945) during World War II, but new immigrants came during the postwar boom years. A new immigration ordinance came into force in 1953 that admitted only those who could contribute to the social and economic development of Singapore. In an attempt to ensure the availability of jobs and a certain standard of living among local residents, the inflow of manual workers was stemmed while priority was given to those who could contribute specialized services in scarce supply, such as professional and managerial expertise.

Until Singapore separated from Malaysia and achieved independence in 1965, people from the Federation of Malaya faced no entry restrictions; Singapore and Malaysia were part of the same political entity (i.e., part of British Malaya, and from September 1963, part of the Federation of Malaysia).

Between the end of World War II and independence in 1965, Singapore made a number of adjustments to its citizenship policy. The 1957 Singapore Citizenship Ordinance had conferred automatic citizenship on everyone born in Singapore. Those born in the Federation of Malaya or those who were citizens of the United Kingdom and its colonies could also become Singaporean citizens if they met the residence requirements. All other "aliens" — particularly those born in China — could naturalize once they met the requisite residence requirements.

Immigration Policy since Independence

After independence in 1965, immigration laws were modified in 1966 to reinforce Singapore's borders as the fledgling country worked to establish its identity as a sovereign state. In fact, this task had begun earlier with the prohibition of dual citizenship in 1960.

With naturalization and the automatic conferment of citizenship, the total share of the nonresident population (i.e., those who are not citizens or permanent residents but hold an employment pass or work permit) in Singapore had dwindled to 2.9 percent of a total population of over two million by 1970.

The first decade of the country's independence was devoted to buildings its economic foundations, raising living standards, maintaining ethnic harmony among its diverse population, and increasing economic competitiveness by welcoming foreign companies and investors.

Although strict controls initially were imposed on unskilled foreign workers, these were relaxed as the country became more industrialized, a process characterized by high export-led growth. Large numbers of unskilled laborers in the manufacturing, construction, and domestic services sectors came from "nontraditional" (meaning non-Malaysian) sources, such as India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Thailand, as part of bilateral agreements between Singapore and these countries.


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In the 1980s, the economy transitioned from being based on production and manufacturing to the service and financial sectors, and finally toward technology-related areas. Between 1970 and 1980, the size of the nonresident population doubled, a trend that continued in the 1980s and 1990s (see Table 1).

Immigration Today

As revealed in the 2000 population census, the nonresident population increased to 18.8 percent of the total population due to international migration (Table 1). Between 1990 and 2000, the nonresident population grew much more rapidly (9.3 percent per year) than the resident population (1.8 percent per year).

Permanent residents (PRs), i.e., noncitizens who have been granted permanent residence in Singapore, are entitled to most of the rights and duties of citizens, including eligibility for government-sponsored housing and mandatory National Service (military service) for young adult males. However, PRs may not vote in general elections.

The latest mid-year estimates for 2005 reveal a nonresident population of 797,900 (out of a total population of 4,351,400). Among the resident population (3,263,209), about 8.9 percent are PRs, over three-quarters of them Chinese (see Table 2).

Between 1990 and 2000, the number of PRs grew much faster (10 percent per year) than the number of Singaporean citizens, which increased at a modest 1.3 percent per year. Despite the increasing share of PRs among the resident population, the ethnic composition of Singapore's resident population has remained relatively stable in the last decade (1990-2000).

About 18.3 percent (596,108) of the resident population base were born outside Singapore, mainly in Malaysia (306,998); China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan (163,503); South Asia (61,308); Indonesia (32,785); and other Asian countries (15,137).

Table 2. Resident Population by Ethnic Group and Residential Status, 2000
Singapore citizens
Permanent pesidents
Source: Department of Statistics, 2001

The increasing share of the nonresident/noncitizen population is a direct consequence of Singapore's policies to attract and rely on "foreign manpower" — at both the high and low ends of the spectrum — to overcome the limits of local resources. Indeed, foreigners constituted approximately 29 percent of Singapore's total labor force in 2000 (Table 3), the highest proportion of foreign workers in Asia.

The most rapid increase occurred over the last decade; Singapore's nonresident workforce increased 170 percent, from 248,000 in 1990 to 670,000 in 2006. About 580,000 foreign workers are lower-skilled workers. They are mainly concentrated in the construction industry; domestic maid services; and in service, manufacturing, and marine industries, while the remaining 90,000 are skilled-employment pass holders. The number of higher skilled and better-educated foreigners has increased rapidly as a result of intensive recruitment and liberalized eligibility criteria.

A third flow of increasing importance: international students. In 2005, 66,000 foreign students (amounting to about 10 percent of all students in the country) came to Singapore.

Access to citizenship is limited to foreigners who are at least 21 and 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. Nearly 13,000 people became citizens in 2005.

Table 3. Foreign Workers in Singapore, 1970 to 2000
YearTotal labor forceNo. of foreign workersPercent of total labor force
Sources: Compiled from Rahman, 1999:7 (for 1970 and 1980) and Singapore Department of Statistics, 2001:43 (for 1990 and 2000).

Policy toward Unskilled Foreign Workers

Since Singaporeans are reluctant to fill low-skilled jobs that pay low wages, Singapore turns to foreign workers to fill such positions. But because the government believes too much permanent, low-skilled migration is disruptive to society, its immigration policy since the 1970s ensures that unskilled and low-skilled migrants remain a transient workforce, subject to repatriation during periods of economic downturn.

These 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.

Work-permit holders are not allowed to bring their spouses and children with them (see Table 4). They are only allowed to work for the employer and in the occupation as reflected in the work permit and therefore cannot gain access to the local labor market. The termination of employment also results in the immediate termination of the work permit, and the worker must leave Singapore within seven days.

In addition, they may not marry Singaporeans or PRs, and they are subject to a regular medical examination that includes a general physical check-up, a chest x-ray, and a test for HIV/AIDS. Female work-permit holders (meaning foreign domestic workers) who, through the medical-screening process, are found to be pregnant are subject to repatriation without exception.

The number of work-permit holders that employers are allowed is also subject to a dependency ceiling, which is tied to the number of local workers the company employs. The percentage of foreign workers allowed per company varies according to sector and type of permit, and can range from 10 to 80 percent.

The other key measure, the monthly foreign-worker levy, can range from S$50 (US$32) to S$470 (US$298), varying according to economic sector, worker skill level, and periodic adjustments with shifts in economic performance.

On top of the levy, employers of work-permits holders are also required to post a S$5,000 (US$3,165) security bond for each (non-Malaysian) worker. Also, all employers of foreign domestic workers must take out personal accident insurance coverafe of at least S$10,000 (US$6,330) for each worker since foreign domestic workers are not entitled to claim workman's compensation.

Table 4: Different Eligibility Schemes for Employment-Pass Holders
Type of PassPassEligibilityEligible for Dependent's pass?3Eligible for Long-Term Social Visit pass?4
P1P1Foreigners whose basic monthly salary is more than S$7,000.YESYES
P2Foreigners whose basic monthly salary is more than S$3,500 and up to S$7,000.YESYES
QQ1Foreigners whose basic monthly salary is more than S$2,500 and who possess acceptable degrees, professional qualifications, or specialist skills.YESNO
SA new category of work pass which replaces the Q2 pass with effect from 1 July 2004.YES (if monthly basic salary is equal or more than S$2,500).NO
R2Work pass issued to a skilled* or an unskilled foreigner who earns a monthly basic salary of not more than SGD$1,800.NONO
Source: Adapted from Ministry of Manpower, date accessed 2 October 2005

1P passes are for foreigners who hold acceptable degrees, professional qualifications, or specialist skills and are seeking professional, administrative, executive, or managerial jobs.
2R pass-holders are subject to a security bond; a medical examination is required for current two-year work permit holders.
3Dependent's passes are issued to the children (under age 21) and spouses of Employment Pass holders, entitling them to come to live in Singapore with the Employment Pass holder.
4The Long-Term Social Visit pass accords long-term visit entitlements to parents, parents-in-law, step-children, spouses (common law), handicapped children, and unmarried daughters over age 21.
* A skilled foreign worker is one who possesses at least an SPM (Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia or the Malaysian Certificate of Education) qualification or its equivalent, or a NTC-3 (Practical) (National Technical Certificate Grade 3) trade certificate, also known as ITEs or Institute of Technical Education Skills Evaluation certificate (Level 1) from July 2002, that is relevant to his/her occupation.

Policy toward the Highly Skilled

The other burgeoning sector of foreign labor — professional and managerial workers — is usually referred to as "foreign talent" in both government and public discourse. Traditionally, most skilled professionals come from the United States, Britain, France, and Australia, as well as from Japan and South Korea.

In 2006, skilled workers and professionals accounted for 13.4 percent (about 90,000) of Singapore's total nonresident population. Apart from Malaysians, the majority were from China and India, thanks to policies instituted in the 1990s that were intended to target the highly skilled in nontraditional source countries.

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

To reach this goal, Singapore has liberalized immigration policies, including making it easier for skilled immigrants to gain permanent residency, and has launched various programs aimed at attracting talent, such as company grant schemes to ease costs of employing foreign skilled labor and recruitment missions by government agencies. Recent urban development policies aimed at branding Singapore as a culturally vibrant "Renaissance City" or a "Global City for the Arts" are at least partially driven by the goal of attracting and retaining foreign talent.

Unlike lower-skilled, lower-paid foreign workers, high-skilled workers hold employment passes (types P and Q) that allow them to bring their family members; they are also not subject to levies (see Table 4). Those with P passes generally hold university degrees and seek professional, administrative, executive, or managerial jobs, while those with Q passes earn smaller salaries and usually have evidence of "acceptable" degrees, professional qualifications, or specialist skills.

A new category introduced in 2004, the S pass, assesses applicants on a points system, taking into account multiple criteria including salary, education qualifications, skills, job type, and work experience. Although S pass-holders can bring over dependents, they are subject to a monthly levy of S$50 (US$32).

Only foreign P,Q, and S pass-holders may apply to become PRs or citizens — another privilege not accorded to the lower-skilled with work permits.

Recruiting Foreign Students

While Singapore has long attracted foreign students from Malaysia and Indonesia, only since 1997 has the country made specific efforts to develop Singapore into an international education hub for primary- to university- level students. Specifically, it has used the tagline "Singapore: The Global Schoolhouse," and the message that Singapore combines the best of East ("Asian school systems") and West ("Western-styled education practices").

The demand for international higher education alone is predicted to quadruple from around 1.8 million students in 2002 to 7.2 million by 2025. Singapore is focusing on its strengths, including its English-speaking environment and high educational standards as well as its reputation for public order and safety. The government has not released any evaluation of its education initiative; neither has there been clear public or academic evaluation of the global schoolhouse project as of yet.

A government economic review panel recommended a target of 150,000 foreign students by 2012 — more than double the 2005 figure of 66,000 — estimating that this would not only create 22,000 jobs but also raise the education sector's contribution to the gross domestic product from the current 1.9 percent (S$3 billion or US$1.9 billion) to 5 percent.

State agencies already have designated an "arts and learning hub" in the central area of Singapore city; encouraged the setting up of private schools; wooed reputable universities 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.

Since Asian students are expected to dominate the increasing global demand for international higher education, the main targeted markets include China and India, as well as neighboring Southeast Asian countries.

Current Debates and Issues on the Horizon

Migration issues have been the subject of ongoing public debates for some time now, and have hogged newspaper headlines ever since Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong gave them a central position in his National Day Rally speech in August 2006. The prime minister made clear that promoting immigration of the skilled and talented is a necessary strategy crucial to Singapore's long-term growth and prosperity.

Most notably, the need to boost population numbers has taken on greater urgency; fertility rates hit an all-time low of 1.24 children per woman in 2005 and continue to decline. Policies introduced in 2004 to boost fertility — including longer maternity leave and infant-care subsidies — have yielded no apparent results. Singapore needs 14,000 more babies each year if the population size of four million is to be maintained.

In addition to encouraging citizens to bear more children and wooing overseas Singaporeans with incentives to return home, attracting foreigners who can contribute to Singapore to work, live, and permanently settle has become a top priority. A new category of flexible, "personalized" employment passes tied to the person rather than the employer is about to be introduced, allowing the foreigner flexibility to change jobs or remain in Singapore after leaving a firm.

The government is also planning to introduce an online, self-assessment system for foreigners to check eligibility for permanent residency or citizenship, as well as campaigns and outreach efforts to profile Singapore as an attractive home and to persuade foreigners already in Singapore to become PRs or citizens. Citizenship rates have already doubled: In 2005, there were 12,900 new citizens compared to the annual figure of 6,000 to 7,000 in the previous four years. These are significant figures considering that about 800 Singaporeans give up their citizenship each year.

While the government has pushed for more immigration and asked Singaporeans to take a "big-hearted approach" to foreigners, many Singaporeans believe the country depends too heavily on foreign talent. They also fear that competition for jobs, space, and limited resources will intensify to the detriment of citizens, and that foreigners will not integrate well or be loyal to their adopted country.

Given Singapore's multiracial complexion, the government and the public are concerned about maintaining racial balance; the CMIO model (Chinese, Malay, Indian, and "Others") has been long accepted as important for racial harmony. Recently, worries have surfaced about the proportion of Malays in the population (about 14 percent), mainly because birth rates among the Malay have fallen below replacement level, from 2.1 in 2004 to 2.07 in 2005.

An issue that has been raised in public debates in newspapers and Internet forums relates to whether Singapore should allow dual citizenship, given the realities of mobility in the 21st century. Members of the public have argued that connections to more than one country are valuable for broadening opportunities available to the individual, and multiple commitments to two or more homelands are now possible to negotiate.

Another set of migration issues that garners less political attention but is of equal importance: the human rights and welfare of unskilled foreign workers in Singapore, specifically domestic workers. Live-in domestic workers — mainly women from the Philippines, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka— currently number about 160,000, translating into about one domestic worker for every seven households.

Concerns about "maid abuse" and the working conditions to which these women are subjected have led to civil society action and the formation of nongovernmental organizations that offer services as well as promote the rights of foreign domestic workers. In December 2005, Human Rights Watch issued a report on migrant domestic workers in Singapore arguing that while recent government initiatives, such as an increased commitment to prosecuting cases of unpaid wages and physical abuse, were important steps forward, the government needs to institute more legal reforms and enforce existing laws.

The demand in Singapore for foreign domestic workers is unlikely to abate in the near future. In this context, and given the increasingly visible work of both local and international organizations on this issue, debates about the role of foreign domestic workers in Singaporean households and society in general are likely to loom larger.

As Singapore competes with Western countries and continues to globalize, migration is and will remain a crucial issue for individuals, the state, and society. As demonstrated, debates about migration and migrants have taken center stage not only in relation to economic growth and labor market needs, but they have also shaped Singapore's policies regarding population growth and its vision of its demographic future.


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