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Does Singapore Want Foreign Workers?

With economic pressures increased by the pandemic, and a higher-than-normal unemployment rate, there is growing anger amongst some Singaporeans towards the high number of workers from overseas. Traditionally, Singapore has relied on foreign workers who live and work in the country. Some, however, feel they have been deprived better job prospects by foreign, high-earning professionals. Others are annoyed by cultural differences, such as the high-profile incident involving a group of foreigners who had their work permits revoked after defying lockdown rules and the British man who refused to wear a mask on public transport, who was deported.

The country’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighted these issues during his National Day speech on August 9th.  He said: “We must not turn our backs on them, and give the impression that Singapore is becoming xenophobic and hostile to foreigners, it would gravely damage our reputation as an international hub. It would cost us investments, jobs and opportunities.”

With foreign-worker quotas for certain industries changed in recent years,

companies have come under pressure to hire more locals. Prime Minister Lee stated that “this will continue, meaning Singapore will tighten the criteria for foreign working visas to tackle companies overseas that sometimes hire based on “familiar links and old boys’ networks, rather than on merit.”

The effects of this policy may already be influencing the number of foreign workers in Singapore. Annual figures from the country’s Ministry of Manpower shows the total number of workers from overseas declined by almost 14% in the year to December 2020. But even after that decline, there are still over 1.2m overseas workers.

The country’s Finance Minister Lawrence Wong told the BBC just days before the Prime Minister’s speech that: “Countries everywhere face the same concerns about whether foreigners are taking over jobs and opportunities for locals, whether you might result in higher income and wealth inequalities, whether there will be unfair hiring practices, these are not unique to Singapore, but these concerns have always been there, accelerated, amplified by the pandemic.”

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