The uneasy expats

Apr 26, 2012

More and more expats in Singapore are feeling the tightening immigration policy.

The following is an article posted in
from Mr. Richard Hartung, a consultant who has lived in Singapore since 1992.

A contact for a story said: "We need to talk this week." The reason, as it turned out, was that he had to leave town because his employment pass had not been renewed. And he is not the only one. Other employment pass holders have also been forced to leave and even some permanent residents' (PR) re-entry permits have not been renewed.

While there is plenty of discussion in Singapore about having too many foreigners here, the buzz in the expat community is about how uncertain it is whether they can continue to live here.

Whether the number of rejected applications is actually large or small isn't clear. Regardless of reality, word has gotten around about passes not being renewed and rumours about the reasons are flowing fast. As one blogger wrote: "It's pot luck … Doesn't seem to be any rhyme nor reason."

The issue affects talented people who are considering whether to move to Singapore too. While people who want to come here for more mundane jobs may have few options, talented individuals have a multitude of choices.

When they hear about employment pass renewal rejections and when they can have greater certainty about a long-term job if they move somewhere else, they may well decide to bypass the island and take their skills elsewhere.

Employers, too, are facing difficulties.

One well-placed industry observer told me that many major companies are concerned about their ability to maintain their skilled expat staff - especially when they have not been able to hire and retain local staff with similar skills. Companies in industries like hospitality, for example, have found that staff who have been here for many years are suddenly not being allowed to stay.

The buzz about rejections is compounded by a lack of clarity about which employment passes or PR permits will be renewed.

While salary requirements are online and the Ministry of Manpower even has an online Self-Assessment Tool, some people who seem to meet the criteria have still been turned down. Some people have successfully appealed against rejections, though many of them are not sure why their appeal succeeded.

Lacking clear information, the rumour mill has gone into higher gear.

For expats living here, a rejected application can mean uprooting the family and a loss of income. For companies, it may mean missed business opportunities or putting expansion plans on hold if they aren't sure whether key employees will be allowed to stay.


Along with the impact on expats' lives and on companies, the loss of talent creates a broader risk for Singapore.

A talent drain if people already here leave and a talent shortage if fewer people move here because of the uncertainty, could well have a negative impact on economic growth. Gaps caused by having fewer skilled staff could mean companies can't or won't undertake initiatives they need to grow faster.

The issue arises at a time when talented staff are most needed to combat a potential economic downturn. People who head elsewhere could help other countries compete against Singapore, instead of helping Singapore compete better in the world economy.

There are undoubtedly a multitude of factors that go into renewing or rejecting an application for a new employment pass or a renewal. Some people may no longer meet the criteria and others may not meet new requirements.

While it's preferable to leave the merits of individual cases, and even the question of whether there are too many foreigners here, to politicians and ministries, a key issue is how to resolve the negative economic impact that uncertainty about renewals may have.

One part of the solution could well be greater transparency about the criteria for passes and permits. Providing details about requirements as well as information about whether goalposts have changed, as other countries have done, could enable expats to assess their eligibility better.

Explanations of the reasons for rejections and information about how or whether to appeal could help reduce the uncertainty and rumours. Ministries could also hold information and feedback sessions, as they have done in the past, to explain the system and gather feedback.

While the solution isn't simple, changes could enable talented people to gain certainty in their lives and give Singapore a boost in the battle for talent, in a period of significant economic uncertainty.