Immigration to Singapore

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Immigration and immigrant workers in Singapore have been closely associated with the Singapore's economic development. After its expulsion from Malaysia in 1965, immigration laws were modified in 1966 to reinforce Singapore's identity as a sovereign state. However, the initial strict controls on immigrant workers were relaxed as demand for labour grew with increased industrialisation.

The Ministry of Manpower (MoM) has a semi flexible law for immigration that starts with procuring an employment pass (EP). In colonial times, British merchants and others moved to Singapore and helped develop the region. One of these British migrants, was Sir Stamford Raffles.


Singapore population size and growth by residential status[1]
Year Number (thousands) Growth
Total population Permanent Residents Non-residents Total population Permanent Residents Non-residents
1990 3,047.10 112.1 311.3 1.70% 2.30% 9.00%
2000 4,027.90 287.5 754.5 1.80% 9.90% 9.30%
2006 4,401.40 418 875.5 1.70% 8.10% 9.70%
2007 4,588.60 449.2 1,005.50 1.60% 7.50% 14.90%
2008 4,839.40 478.2 1,196.70 1.70% 6.50% 19.00%
2009 4,987.60 533.2 1,253.70 2.50% 11.50% 4.80%
2010 5,076.70 541 1,305.00 1.00% 1.50% 4.10%
2011 5,183.70 532 1,394.40 0.50% −1.70% 6.90%
2012 5,312.40 533.1 1,494.20 0.80% 0.20% 7.20%

Between 1970 and 1980, the size of the non-resident population in Singapore doubled. The trend continued in the 1980s and 1990s (Year 2007). Foreigners constituted about 29% of Singapore's total labour force in 2000, which is the highest proportion of foreign workers in Asia (Yeoh 2007). Over the last decade, Singapore's non-resident workforce increased 170%, from 248,000 in 1990 to 670,000 in 2006 (Yeoh 2007). By 2006, there were about 580,000 lower-skilled foreign workers in Singapore; another 90,000 foreign workers are skilled-employment pass holders (Yeoh 2007). As of June 2014, the total population of Singapore stands at 5.47 million: 0.53 million permanent residents, 3.87 million residents and 1.60 million non-residents with work passes and foreign students as well.[2]


In Singapore, the term immigrant workers is separated into foreign workers and foreign talents. Foreign workers refers to semi-skilled or unskilled workers who mainly work in the manufacturing, construction, and domestic services sectors. The majority of them come from places such as People's Republic of China [1], Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Thailand, as part of bilateral agreements between Singapore and these countries. Foreign talent refers to foreigners with professional qualifications or acceptable degrees working at the higher end of Singapore's economy. They come from India, Australia, the Philippines, People's Republic of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, Republic of Korea, Malaysia, Europe, New Zealand and United States.

The Singaporean government has constructed a system under which different types of employment passes (EP) are issued to immigrant workers according to their qualifications and monthly salaries. The "P, Q, R" employment pass system was put into practice in September 1998; a new "S" type employment pass was later introduced in July 2004. The government has also set different policies on recruiting foreign talents and foreign workers.

At present, the Singapore government issues the EP under three categories:

  • P1 Employment Pass for those individuals with monthly earnings of $8,000 and up
  • P2 Employment Pass for individuals with monthly earnings of $4,500 - $7,999
  • Q1 Employment Pass to individuals with at least monthly earnings of $3,000.[3]

The different policies towards 'Foreign workers' and 'Foreign talent' in Singapore have led some people to feel that their contributions toward Singapore's development are valued differently. However, the Singapore government has always stressed the importance of immigrant workers to Singapore's economy and development. Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, then Prime Minister, said in his 1997 National Day rally speech that the government's lack of restrictions on the recruitment of foreigners did not extend only to top-rung prestigious positions, but also to middle-level management, skilled worker and technician positions (Low 2002).

Foreign talent[edit]

Various policies and incentives are used to attract foreign talent to Singapore. CONTACT SINGAPORE was launched in 1997 by the International Talent Division of the Ministry of Manpower, beginning with six offices worldwide, to facilitate the inflow of international talent to Singapore.[4] The Singapore Talent Recruitment (STAR) Committee was formed in November 1998 with the aim of attracting foreign talents to Singapore. Other similar programmes include Manpower 21,[5] launched in 1999, and the International Manpower Program of the Economic Development Board.[6] The government has developed the Scheme for Housing of Foreign Talents with the aim of providing affordable yet comfortable accommodations for foreign talents, to attract them to work and stay in Singapore (Low 2002).

Foreign workers[edit]

On the other hand, stringent policies and regulations have been set on employing foreign workers. In 1981, the government even announced its intention to phase out all unskilled foreign workers by the end of 1991, except domestic maids and those employed in construction and shipyards. The policy stance was met with strong protests from employers facing labour shortages (Athukorala and Manning, 1999).

In April 1987, the Singapore government announced its immigration policy, which intended to control the foreign worker inflow. The two key elements in the policy were a monthly levy payable by the employer for each foreign worker employed, and a "dependency ceiling" that limits the proportion of foreign workers in the total workforce of any one employer. The government later introduced a two-tier levy system in October 1991 under which employers were required to pay a higher levy on workers whose employment would change the "dependent ceiling" value of the company(Athukorala and Manning 1999). The levy and the "dependency ceiling"[7] have remained the two instruments with which the government has regulated worker inflow in line with changes in domestic labour-market conditions (Athukorala and Manning 1999).

Non-residents working in Singapore will require a work visa. There are various types of Singapore work visas starting from work permits for the lower-skilled labourers, to P1 and P2 category Employment Passes to attract niche professionals with good credentials in both education and work experience.

From 1 September 2012 only foreign workers with earnings of at least SGD4,000 (USD3,150) per month can sponsor their spouses and children for their stay in Singapore and some of them are also not allowed to bring their parents and in-laws on long-term visit passes. The new regulation also impacts those who switch companies on/after the date, but foreign workers whose families are already in Singapore won't be affected. The increase from SGD2,800 to SGD4,000 was to ease public disquiet over the influx of workers from overseas.[8]

2013 Population White Paper[edit]

In early 2013, the Singapore parliament debated over the policies recommended by the Population White Paper entitled A Sustainable Population for a Dynamic Singapore. Citing that Singapore's 900,000 Baby Boomers would comprise a quarter of the citizen population by 2030 and that its workforce would shrink "from 2020 onwards", the White Paper projected that by 2030, Singapore's "total population could range between 6.5 and 6.9 million", with resident population between 4.2 and 4.4 million and citizen population between 3.6 and 3.8 million. The White Paper called for an increase in the number of foreign workers so as to provide balance between the number of skilled and less-skilled workers, as well as provide healthcare and domestic services. It also claimed that foreign workers help businesses thrive when the economy is good.[9] The motion was passed[10] albeit after amendments made to leave out "population policy" and add focus on infrastructure and transport development.

The White Paper was criticised by opposition parties.[11] Member of Parliament Low Thia Khiang of the Workers' Party of Singapore had criticised current measures of increasing the fertility rate, claiming that the high cost of living and lack of family and social support discouraged young couples from having babies. As for current immigration policies, he had noted that immigrants were a source of friction for Singaporeans and that an increased population would put more stress on the already strained urban infrastructure.[12] PAP MP Inderjit Singh had also spoken out on the issue, citing cohesion and social issues that would have been made worse with the proposed immigrant influx rate.On 16 February 2013, nearly 3,000 people rallied to protest the White Paper and raise concerns that the increased population would lead to the deterioration of public service and the increase of the cost of living in the future.[13]

Impact and criticism[edit]

Whilst the inflow of immigrants and foreign workers have helped to alleviate a labour crunch and help the economy, the influx of immigrants and foreign workers to Singapore has resulted in strong sentiment by the locals against both foreigners and the government and was a major issue in both the 2011 general and presidential elections.[14] Singaporeans have attributed to the government's open-door immigration policy the country's overcrowding and falling reliability of its public transportation system, increasing property prices for housing, suppressed wage level, increased competition for jobs and education, increasing income inequality and other social problems.[15][16][17][18][19] These issues came under close scrutiny by foreign media in the aftermath of the 2013 Little India riot.[20] Local NGOs have also raised issues of migrant welfare, especially those relating to work injury and living conditions.[21][22] Social pressures have been acknowledged by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong with various measures put in place in the last few years, such as the Fair Employment (Consideration) Framework and Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices and increasing support for migrant workers.[21][23]

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and various government agencies have spoken out against a rising anti-foreigner sentiment after Singaporeans expressed outrage at disparaging statements made by foreigners residing in Singapore.[24] In March 2012, Sun Xu, a scholar from China studying in the National University of Singapore, made a remark in his blog that "there are more dogs than humans in Singapore".[24][25] This was weeks after a revelation in parliament that SGD36 million worth of scholarships were awarded to 2,000 foreign students every year, something that is unheard of in other countries.[18] The government was accused of disadvantaging local students in places for education and affordability,[18] and in response it has made a policy change in primary education to give some priority to Singaporeans.[26] In January 2014, wealthy banker Anton Casey sparked another round of outrage from Singaporeans for commenting on the 'stench' of public transport, deriding its commuters as 'poor people', and labelling a taxi driver wearing gloves as a 'retard'.[19][27] Casey's comments made international news and attracted strong rebukes from ministers. He left for Perth, Australia after receiving death threats and had his employment terminated.[28][29] The incident fanned local sentiments against expatriates in Singapore at that time.[30][31] In January 2015, Filipino nurse Ed Mundsel Bello Ello caused another uproar after he posted on Facebook that he would 'kick out all Singaporeans and SG will be the new Filipino state' among other offensive comments.[32][33] He was subsequently sacked by Tan Tock Seng Hospital and was charged with two counts of sedition for making posts which "promoted feelings of ill-will and hostility between Singaporeans and Filipinos in Singapore".[32][34]

Whilst anti-foreigner sentiments are still prevalent online, fifteen foreigners who were interviewed by ChannelNewsAsia did not feel such anti-foreigner sentiments reflected what they encountered in the real world.[35] Local Singaporeans have also written in to the press to encourage fellow Singaporeans to have a mindset of being more accepting towards other cultures, reminding them that Singapore is also from immigrant stock.[36][37] Media reporting that foreign workers help out in distress situations have also helped improve locals' perception of foreign workers.[21]

There are also concerns that immigrants were using Singapore as a springboard for immigration to other developed countries.[38] Every year, 300 naturalised citizens renounce their Singapore citizenship.[38] Many foreigners remain hesitant to take up Permanent Residency (PR) or Singapore citizenship because of the two years of mandatory military service for male citizens and second-generation PRs.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Population Trends 2012 Department of Statistics, Singapore.
  2. ^ "Total population of Singapore as on June 2014" (PDF). National Population and Talent Division NPTD. Retrieved 22 February 2015. 
  3. ^ "How to migrate to Singapore". 3E Accounting Private Limited. Retrieved 22 February 2015. 
  4. ^ Nathan, Dominic (31 July 1997). "New global drive starts, to attract foreign talent.". Straits Times. 
  5. ^ "Singapore seeks foreign workers". International Business Asia. Factiva. 13 September 1999. 
  6. ^ Ristelhueber, Robert (1 March 1998). "HQ Singapore". Electronic Business (3 (Vol 24)). Gale Group. 
  7. ^ "Changes To Foreign Workers Levy 2015". Aesperon - Changes to Foreign Workers Levy and Quota in 2015. Retrieved 1 May 2015. 
  8. ^ "Singapore Tightens Rules for Foreign Workers' Families". 10 July 2012. 
  9. ^ A Sustainable Population for a Dynamic Singapore.
  10. ^ Amended motion on white paper adopted; 6.9 million is not a target. The Straits Times. 9 February 2013.
  11. ^ The Workers’ Party’s Population Policy Paper: "A Dynamic Population for a Sustainable Singapore" The Workers' Party.
  12. ^ A Sustainable Singapore with a Dynamic Singaporean majority – MP Low Thia Khiang The Workers' Party.
  13. ^ "Rare Singapore protest against population plan". 17 February 2013. 
  14. ^ Hyslop, Leah (5 May 2011). "Singapore opposition stirs up anti-foreigner sentiment". The Telegraph (UK). Retrieved 10 April 2012. 
  15. ^ "Singapore tightens rules for hiring foreigners". The China Post. 17 August 2011. Retrieved 10 April 2012. 
  16. ^ Boh, Samantha (19 April 2012). "Job bias against Singaporeans the top complaint". my paper. Retrieved 20 April 2012. 
  17. ^ "Singapore to further curb foreign worker inflow". AFP. 17 February 2012. Retrieved 10 April 2012. 
  18. ^ a b c Seah, Chiang Nee (24 March 2012). "Talent buy becomes sore point". The Star (Malaysia). Retrieved 10 April 2012. 
  19. ^ a b Shaffer, Leslie (23 January 2014). "British banker stirs up storm by mocking Singapore's 'poor'". CNBC. Retrieved 28 January 2014. 
  20. ^ Sharon Chen and Weiyi Lim (10 December 2013). "Singapore to Charge Rioters After Little India Violence". Bloomberg. Retrieved 28 January 2014. 
  21. ^ a b c Toh, Ee Ming (12 December 2015). "Making Singapore a better place for workers who come from afar". Channel NewsAsia. Retrieved 4 February 2016. 
  22. ^ Malay, Michael (21 April 2014). "Singapore needs to address its treatment of migrant workers". Guardian. Retrieved 4 February 2016. 
  23. ^ "'I owe Singaporeans a responsibility' to get foreign worker balance right: PM Lee". Channel NewsAsia. Retrieved 2016-01-26. 
  24. ^ a b "PM Lee worried about growing divide in Singapore". AsiaOne. 5 April 2012. Retrieved 10 April 2012. 
  25. ^ Jennani, Durai (26 March 2012). "Final semester scholarship benefits revoked for China NUS student". The Straits Times. Retrieved 10 April 2012. 
  26. ^ "P1 priority for citizens". The Star (Malaysia). 27 March 2012. Retrieved 10 April 2012. 
  27. ^ Leonal, Brian (23 January 2014). "Porsche-owning UK expat infuriates Singapore with "poor people" gaffes". Reuters. Retrieved 28 January 2014. 
  28. ^ Tadeo, Maria (27 January 2014). "Anton Casey fired and flees Singapore in economy class over "poor people" comments". Independent (UK). Retrieved 28 January 2014. 
  29. ^ Keating, Fiona (26 January 2014). "Anton Casey Backlash Continues as Angry Singaporeans Take to Online Abuse". International Business Times. Retrieved 28 January 2014. 
  30. ^ Mortlock, Simon (24 January 2016). "How Anton Casey is making life tough for arrogant expat bankers in Singapore". Yahoo! News/Singapore Business Review. Retrieved 4 February 2016. 
  31. ^ Ortiga, Yasmin Y (7 September 2014). "Multiculturalism on Its Head: Unexpected Boundaries and New Migration in Singapore". Journal of International Migration and Integration. 16 (4): 953–954. 
  32. ^ a b Chong, Elena (7 April 2015). "Former Filipino nurse charged with sedition, giving false info to police". Straits Times. Retrieved 7 April 2015. 
  33. ^ "Filipino male arrested, faces 2 charges under Sedition Act". Channel NewsAsia. 7 April 2015. Retrieved 7 April 2015. 
  34. ^ Diola, Camille (12 January 2015). "Filipino nurse sacked for anti-Singapore comments". Philippine Star. Retrieved 7 April 2015. 
  35. ^ "Are Singaporeans anti-foreigner? Not in the real world". Channel NewsAsia. Retrieved 2016-01-26. 
  36. ^ hermesauto. "Greater cultural integration needed". The Straits Times. Retrieved 2016-01-26. 
  37. ^ hermes. "Let's be a cultural melting pot, not bowl of salad". The Straits Times. Retrieved 2016-01-26. 
  38. ^ a b Tan, Amanda (2 March 2012). "300 new citizens give up their status each year" (PDF). The Straits Times. Retrieved 10 April 2012. 

External links[edit]