Singapore overhauls expat visas

Singapore is seeking to attract higher-calibre, professional expats under a new points-based visa system. The government recently tightened visa rules for professional workers, putting in more obstacles to a process that employers already complain is overly burdensome. The city-state has introduced a raft of dramatic changes to its work visa for highly skilled foreigners, raising the minimum salary requirements and introducing a points system. “What we are trying to do is to be able to differentiate the high talent, the really super skill sets talent that can come to our country to work to complement our existing workforce,” Manpower Minister Tan See Leng said in an interview. The overhauled scoring system is due to be rolled out from September next year for new applicants of an Employment Pass, holders of which currently make up about 14% of the financial and business hub’s foreign workforce. The reforms aim to face worries amongst residents about a perceived bias toward hiring foreigners, and comes two years after the ruling People’s Action Party lost the most number of parliamentary seats. Tan said that resentment against expats is not a major issue in the country. The new system, he says, has been championed by firms as it gives more transparency to the recruitment process. “Rather than open the door and let every single one in, what we are trying to say is that let’s have a little bit more differentiation,” said Tan. The endgame is one where “the ones that leave get replaced by higher-calibre EPs” over the next few years.


There has been a mixed reaction to the visa overhaul. One Bloomberg columnist wrote: “Will the city-state miss its golden opportunity to scoop up Hong Kong’s disgruntled elites? Hardly. It’s a different slice of the labour market that will feel the pinch from these stricter measures. In the most basic terms, there are two different types of expats: Those willing to get paid less than Singaporeans, thus undercutting the domestic workforce, and the handsomely compensated executives from abroad who make more. Employment-pass holders in the first group often do unglamorous but decently paid IT and back-office work in the financial sector. Expats in the second category are more likely to be the managing-director and wealth-adviser types coming in from Hong Kong. What will narrow is the pipeline of expats from the first category, who were getting paid right at the cut-off and below.” She concludes: “ The world’s smartest, richest expats will always be welcome in Singapore. Whether they can hire below them to their liking will be another matter entirely.”


The government has made efforts to sell the case for why Singapore remains open to foreign labour. Finance Minister Lawrence Wong addressed the issue earlier this week in parliament, saying: “We must never let anti-foreigner sentiments take root here or give the impression that we are becoming more inward looking. If global investors conclude that this is so, Singapore will become less attractive to them,” Wong said, and it will be ordinary Singaporeans who suffer the most. “Starting next year, new applicants will need to accumulate a certain score across a range of criteria that includes educational qualifications and skills, as well as salary relative to comparable locals (the higher the better). Companies willing to shell out big expat paychecks must have found truly exceptional talent, the thinking goes. Another important assessment is whether an applicant’s nationality contributes to company diversity,” reports Bloomberg.

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