The raised minimum salaries for hiring foreigners on work passes have caused sleepless nights for some foreign graduates of Singapore universities.
Those who had received subsidies from the Ministry of Education (MOE) under the Tuition Grant Scheme (TGS) are obligated to work in a Singapore-registered company for three years upon graduation.
But in this tough climate, where even local graduates are struggling to find jobs, these foreign graduates have it worse as companies are urged to maintain a workforce with a Singapore core.
Some worry about having to pay back their bonds of up to $100,000 if they remain jobless after a year, and staying in Singapore while unemployed creates further financial pressure.
Unlike government scholarships, the TGS does not guarantee its recipients a job in the civil service.
DIFFICULTIES FINDING A JOB
Six of the 10 international students The Sunday Times spoke to have not been able to land a job in the past four months.
An environmental studies graduate from India, who wanted to be known only by her initials N.G., has sent out more than 60 job applications since June this year, but was shortlisted for just two interviews.
The 23-year-old, who graduated from the National University of Singapore (NUS) in May, said a marketing company told her it wanted to hire her but could not afford to pay her the current Employment Pass (EP) minimum qualifying salary of $4,500.
"I told the company I might be able to get an EP on a lower salary, because exceptions have been made for TGS students before."
But the company did not get back to her on exploring this option, she added.
N.G. said she does not even get the chance to explain her situation to other prospective employers, and thinks she is being rejected "off the bat" for being a foreigner.
The baseline salary for newly hired EP holders was raised from Sept 1 from $3,900 to $4,500, while the qualifying salary for new S Pass holders will be increased from $2,400 to $2,500 from Oct 1.
This is to support employment opportunities for Singaporeans as the Covid-19 crisis weighs on the job market, said the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).
N.G. is currently staying in Singapore on a short-term visit pass which expires at the end of this month. She applied for a long-term visit pass 12 weeks ago, which would grant her up to a two-year stay, but it has not been approved yet.
"Going back to my home country will make job hunting (here) even more difficult, as employers (here) traditionally resist hiring employees not based in Singapore."
N.G.'s experience is not uncommon. An NUS science graduate, who identified herself as Ms Xi, said she has submitted up to 100 applications for a job in research.
The 22-year-old Australian received just one offer in April, only to have it retracted two weeks later because of a new "no more EPs" blanket rule the company rolled out.
She is now interning at a thinktank, where she hopes she will eventually be hired full time.
She said the implementation of the SGUnited Traineeships Programme in June - open only to Singaporeans and permanent residents - has made it more difficult for her to find employment after she graduated in May.
"Many entry-level jobs I was interested in have been replaced by traineeships. Moreover, the Government funds 80 per cent of a local trainee's monthly allowance, which gives employers no reason to hire a foreigner," she added.
Even those foreign graduates who found jobs told ST the process had not been easy.
A Vietnamese architecture graduate, who wanted to be known only as Ms Minh and declined to reveal her university, said it took her four months to find a job and another three months to get her EP approved, after the application was initially turned down.
"MOM did not say why my application was rejected, but my company submitted an appeal for me. I was praying very hard that they would not just give up and hire a Singaporean instead," she added.
Mr John Widjaja, a 25-year-old Indonesian information systems graduate from Singapore Management University (SMU), took five months to secure a job in June.
He said a letter informing employers that TGS recipients' EP applications will be "considered favourably" helped him get a job as a software quality assurance engineer, even though his pay was below the EP salary threshold of $3,900 at the time.
The letter is issued by the university, with the support of MOM, for TGS recipients to attach with their EP applications to expedite the approval process. It is valid for 12 months from the date of their graduation.
"But it does not guarantee that TGS holders will qualify for an EP and employers still have to advertise job vacancies on the national jobs bank and consider local applicants first," Mr Widjaja said.
Without a source of income, many of these international graduates are feeling the financial strain.
Ms Xi is digging into savings to make ends meet as her internship pay "barely covers the rent".
She tries to limit her monthly expenditure to $400 by eating out less.
Ms Germaine Lim, a 24-year-old Malaysian, has sent out around 40 job applications since May.
She said that while no MOE official has pressured her about employment, she is worried about having to pay damages if she does not have a full-time job by next year.
The political science graduate from NUS said: "The TGS covered about $92,000 in school fees for my four years in NUS. If I add in interest, it means I owe them more than $100,000 if I violate the terms of the bond."
Most of those interviewed declined to give their full name for fear of stoking anti-foreigner feelings or hurting their employment prospects.
Ms Lim said she understands the resentment some Singaporeans have against foreigners as livelihoods are at stake and the pandemic has made competition for jobs fiercer than ever.
"Some Singaporeans may think that foreigners have it easy, but people like me are actually struggling a lot. Raising the EP threshold to $4,500 is supposed to target the older, more experienced EP holders, but fresh graduates like myself still get hurt by it," she added.
Ms Minh has heard some of her Singaporean friends complain that their pay is too low and blame foreigners when they do not get their first choice of job.
"The reality is foreigners don't have the choice to be picky. I would literally have taken anything, as long as I could get started on my career," she said.