Keeping Singapore's doors open to global talent


Covid-19 and the economic downturn have brought about a locals-first emphasis, but accompanied by anti-foreigner sentiment online. Insight finds out if expatriates still feel welcome in Singapore and the region, and the challenges they face trying to better integrate.

Singapore's reputation for being open to talent at risk?

The Government said in August that non-Singaporeans made up 57 per cent of senior roles in the financial sector. PHOTO: ST FILE

When the Singapore Government announced in August another billion-dollar round of subsidies and incentives to promote local hiring, Australian Paul Schmeja was elated.

The 46-year-old, based here on an Employment Pass (EP), is chief executive of a company servicing corporate real estate. He says his aim is to employ a 90 per cent local workforce by tapping customer service talent recently displaced from the tourism and hospitality industries battered by Covid-19.

But a British shipping professional, who wants to be known only as Tom, and has worked in Singapore since 2010, took the news differently. He was disappointed when, later that same month, Minister of State for Manpower and Education Gan Siow Huang told Parliament that employers should give preference to Singaporean job seekers, and where retrenchment was necessary, to "retain the Singaporean over the foreigner".


More expats moving to heartland as packages shrink

The Stamford American International School in Woodleigh and the Singapore American School (above) in Woodlands. Some expatriates have relocated to live within walking distance of such institutions. PHOTO: ST FILE

More expatriates are moving away from Singapore's prime, central districts and towards suburban, heartland areas - while still opting for private housing within pre-existing expat communities, according to property agents and online portals that Insight spoke to.

They say the trend, anecdotally observed over the past decade, can be primarily attributed to reduced - if not entirely removed - expat benefits, the relocation of international schools and the impact of Covid-19.

Real estate consultancy Knight Frank associate executive sales director Ella Sherman recalls that big expat packages were the norm when she started out 14 years ago.


Integration: 'Takes both to tango'

A study by the Institute of Policy Studies and racial harmony advocacy group, which ran from 2018 to last year, found that 67 per cent of over 4,000 Singapore citizens and permanent residents polled felt that immigrants were not doing enough to integrate into Singapore. ST PHOTO: SHINTARO TAY

He has lived in Britain, France, Italy, Dubai and Singapore, but only one of these places "feels like home" to 45-year-old Francis (not his real name) every time he touches down at its airport.

"When we land in Changi, it just always feels good to be back. It's true," says the British expatriate who has been based in Singapore since 2012.

His experience appears in sync with Singapore's high rankings across global surveys of the best overall destinations for expats.


Amid downturn, is Asia losing its draw for talent?

The business district of Hong Kong. Many expatriates Insight spoke to chose to stay put in Asia, where the virus is largely under control. And they are likely to be rehired when the region recovers from the pandemic. PHOTO: AFP

When British teacher Kiran Coolican hurriedly left Chengdu at the onset of China's coronavirus outbreak in January to take on a new job in Spain, he did not expect that he would be quickly laid off and end up jobless for the next eight months.

The 30-year-old was teaching English on a one-year contract at a private school in Sichuan's capital Chengdu when he secured a new job to teach the subject at school camps in Spain from March to August.

"I took the painful decision to end my contract (with the school in Chengdu) at the end of January because I was deeply concerned that the situation in China would get out of control, and the Spanish company would refuse to allow me to work for them," Mr Coolican says.


Covid-19 not the only reason for Hong Kong departures

The number of visas Hong Kong's immigration department issued to professional jobs in the first half of this year has dropped by more than 60 per cent to 7,717, from 19,756 in the same period a year ago.

But it is not just Covid-19 that is causing expatriates to leave Hong Kong. Anti-government protests that started last June diminished the appeal of the financial hub.

Foreigners are increasingly wary of the new, wide-ranging national security law that China imposed on the city in June, which granted Beijing extensive powers to search without warrants, and penalise and freeze the assets of anyone deemed a security threat.


Hard-hit Gulf states lose their glitter

A wall with property rental advertisements in Manama, Bahrain, last Tuesday. The pandemic has sent millions of expatriates back to their home countries from the Gulf Cooperation Council, an economic and political union that comprises Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. PHOTO: REUTERS

Ms Sadaf Gull moved to Dubai from Pakistan permanently in 2005 after her husband, a development manager, took on a lucrative offer in the city. The tax-free salary, Islamic culture and secure environment were drawcards.

There, they settled down and brought up two children.

But the Covid-19 pandemic upended everything. In March, just two months after the first cases of coronavirus were reported, the number of infections shot up to 600, with five deaths.


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