Singapore has long been a favoured destination for foreign expatriates seeking a smooth passage into Asia, with its reputation for cleanliness and efficiency being matched with generous salaries, low tax rates and a comfortable lifestyle.
But as the pandemic-fuelled recession begins to bite and unemployment rates soar, the lure of the city-state is fading as recruiters face increasing barriers to hiring and foreign employees expect to bear the brunt of job cuts. Some have become alarmed at a rise in hostile rhetoric and no longer feel at home.
Last week Gan Siow Huang, the minister of state for manpower, said employers should view Singaporeans favourably when hiring and retain citizens over foreigners if retrenchment cannot be avoided.
Despite growing interest in Singapore as an alternative global hub to troubled Hong Kong, the government last month raised the costs of employing foreigners by increasing the minimum wage requirement for an “Employment Pass” work visa.
Under domestic political pressure, the government also added 47 companies to a watch list for suspected discriminatory hiring practices between foreigners and locals. The list, mainly from the financial and professional services sectors, adds to hundreds of other firms already under scrutiny.
Yet adding to the sense of uncertainty, Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister, on Wednesday warned that turning inwards would be a blow for the country during a record recession.
Calvin Cheng, a Singaporean entrepreneur, said the country faced a “very delicate balance in the short term.”
He said: “You have to make sure that while looking after your own citizens that companies also have access to the best talent to survive the recession. This need is even more acute for Singapore given that we are the world’s most open economy.”
Philippe May, managing director of Arton Capital, a financial advisory firm, said the current social environment and rising unemployment rates made companies more reluctant to hire from abroad.
“The acceptability of foreigners, especially new arrivals may not be the same as it used to be before,” he said.
“The Singapore government is committed to keeping the country relevant internationally and a certain openness to immigration is needed for that but they are aware that the rainy day has come and that generally Singaporeans should come first so they’re walking a tightrope,” he said.
Andrew Zee, team lead for financial services at Selby Jennings, said the new minimum wage laws were more likely to impact junior level hires but that while the next months would be “challenging,” companies were still seeking top talent.
“We are seeing hiring interest coming back again, interviews are ongoing,” he said.
But the financial stress of the pandemic has caused underlying tensions between the local population and expat communities to surface.
One recent Singaporean graduate told the Telegraph that “many of my peers and I are completely disillusioned by the government…We see ourselves completely at odds with the foreign population. At every turn, citizens are disadvantaged. There really isn't any prominent country that has such high foreign population.”
Foreigners living in Singapore said that on top of worries about the shrinking job market, they also felt increasingly ill at ease. One suggested government phone alerts indicating new Covid-19 cases by visa category was driving anti-foreign vitriol.
“Since July the mood has dramatically shifted against foreign workers,” said another British woman who did not wish to be named. “My advice to anyone considering moving to Singapore on assignment would be – don’t do it, you have no rights here, they don’t want you.”