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Singapore's new policies: A tougher landscape for global talent

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  • Singapore's new points-based system for work visas aims to prioritize local employment but poses challenges for accessing global talent.
  • The changes have led to higher employment growth for residents and a contraction in non-resident employment.
  • The issue of foreign talent is politically significant, with the government balancing local job needs and maintaining an open economy.

Singapore, renowned for its open economy and vibrant business environment, is undergoing significant changes that are making life tougher for global talent. The city-state has introduced new regulations aimed at prioritizing local employment, which has sparked a mix of reactions from both local and international communities.

Starting from September, Singapore will implement a new points-based system for overseas employees on work visas. This system requires foreign workers to meet a minimum salary threshold and score points based on various criteria, including how their salary compares to local peers, their education and skills, and whether their nationality enhances the firm's diversity. This shift puts the onus on employers to justify the need for hiring foreign talent.

Hsien-Hsien Lei, CEO of the American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore, noted, "The new rules are more transparent, though they have made it harder for US firms to find suitable candidates. At times we do feel that the talent in Singapore may not be ready for senior-level jobs".

Impact on Local and Foreign Workforce

The new regulations have led to a noticeable shift in employment patterns. In the first quarter of 2024, employment growth for residents was higher than in previous quarters, while non-resident employment contracted for the first time since the third quarter of 2021. This contraction was primarily seen in the construction and manufacturing sectors.

For many locals, these changes are seen as a long-overdue adjustment. Some residents have felt like second-class citizens in their own country, often passed over for jobs they were capable of doing. The new guidelines are viewed as a way to address this discontent and the growing income disparity.

Challenges for Companies

While the new framework provides predictability, certainty, and transparency, it has also introduced increased uncertainty for companies regarding their ability to access the talent they need. Recruitment firms have expressed concerns that these regulations could impact decisions to set up regional headquarters in Singapore.

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has pointed out that there are still several work permits available for foreign staff, including the Overseas Networks and Expertise (ONE) Pass, designed for top talent. However, the focus on foreign talent is expected to diminish as the government prioritizes local employment.

Political and Social Implications

The issue of foreign talent has become a significant political topic in Singapore. In 2020, resentment over foreign workers led to the worst electoral performance for the ruling People’s Action Party since independence. With elections expected by the end of the year, the government is keen to address local employment concerns to maintain political support.

Karishma Vaswani, a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, remarked, "The bogeyman of overseas talent may well win votes, but in the longer term, it won’t fix fundamental issues within Singaporean society".

Balancing Act for the Government

Singapore faces a tricky balance: keeping the economy open to global talent while ensuring that the local workforce can achieve their career aspirations. The government’s efforts to cater to the local population’s job needs are crucial, but there is a risk that these measures could tarnish Singapore’s image as a global business hub.

Singapore’s new policies reflect a broader trend of nations prioritizing local employment amid global economic uncertainties. While these changes may address local discontent and income disparity, they also pose challenges for businesses and foreign talent. The city-state must navigate these complexities to maintain its status as a premier global business destination.

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