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A tough time for expats too

  • Expats are worried about growing job insecurity and prospects as companies look inward amid the push for local hires

  • A spike in anti-foreigner sentiments online has added to their anxiety in recent months

  • Expats and recruitment firms said many companies are only hiring Singaporeans or PRs at this time

  • Govt leaders have reminded S’poreans of the need to draw talent from around the world, even as they acknowledged their concerns about foreign competition over jobs

  • If the expats were to leave Singapore in large numbers, country may not be better off, said experts



SINGAPORE — A Taiwanese expat thought she had left behind a xenophobic environment in Tokyo, where she had worked for close to two years, when she moved to multiracial Singapore five years ago.


But for the past two months, the 36-year-old, who wanted to be known only as Ms Tang, is feeling rather unwelcome in a city-state which has been known for its embrace of global talent, but is now reeling from a Covid-19-induced recession.


Her worst fears were confirmed in July when she lost her job.


She said she is almost resigned to the fact that she may not find new employment in Singapore, after 10 of 17 firms that granted her a job interview told her that they could not sponsor her visa application although they were keen to hire her.


Five of them told her frankly that she can only be hired if she is Singaporean or permanent resident (PR).


Ms Tang said: “The economy would return to normal again. If Singapore puts itself in this kind of position, who is going to work here again? It will be pretty much like Japan.”


Japan, she noted, had earned a bad reputation in expat circles as being dismissive of foreigners’ contributions to its economy. The country is still struggling to change its foreigner-unfriendly image and now finds itself having to dangle more attractive packages to woo expats to prop up its rapidly ageing workforce.


With the Republic grappling with its worst downturn since independence as Covid-19 continues to wreak economic and health havoc around the world, anti-foreign sentiments have once again come to the fore.


As unemployment and retrenchments among Singaporeans rise, foreign PMETs (professionals, managers, executives and technicians) such as Ms Tang are seen as competing with locals in an ever-shrinking job pool.


The hot-button issue took centre stage during the first three days of debate following Parliament’s reopening, with some Members of Parliament calling for limits on the issuance of Employment Passes (EPs) for higher-end foreign professionals by introducing levies or quotas to put Singaporeans first when hiring.


It came on the heels of disquiet over the perception that many of the top managerial posts at Singapore-based corporations, including state investment firm Temasek Holdings, are occupied by foreigners. Such a perception has been magnified on social media, and in one case, some Indian nationals hired by Temasek and two banks became victims of doxxing.


Amid the national spotlight on the issue, expatriates in Singapore have been privately sharing among themselves their burgeoning discomfort at being treated as “outsiders”.


TODAY spoke to almost 20 of them during these trying times for the expat community, as companies are encouraged to hire locals in order to benefit from the Government’s wage subsidies for Singaporeans and PRs, among other measures.


Most of those interviewed requested anonymity, citing concerns over ongoing applications for work passes or job positions as well as online vitriol against them or their families.


They said the spike in anti-foreigner sentiments online and hearsay of the predicaments of other expats who got the axe have added to their anxiety in recent months.


‘FIRST QUESTION WAS WHETHER I'M S'POREAN OR PR’


One Indian EP holder has been on an exasperating job hunt since April, when he was retrenched from a logistics firm.


The 30-year-old with a Master’s degree sent out between 100 and 120 job applications but was unable to land a job.


“I did receive a couple of calls, but the first question they asked was if I am a Singaporean or PR. I am not even considered for an interview. It stops there,” said the man who declined to be named.


While it is “100-per-cent understandable” that companies would give preference to locals for jobs during these tough times, he added that it would be fairer if the issue of whether the applicant is a local or not is the last point of consideration.


“If it really comes to the point where we have two people with equal talent, I have no hard feelings if the job goes to the Singaporean,” he said.


He expects a rough ride in his job search, for at least the next three to four months, given that similar protectionist tendencies have been growing all over the world.


Even international students with a contractual obligation to serve a three-year bond working in Singapore upon graduation are not spared.


A National University of Singapore (NUS) graduate said she had submitted about 75 applications for a job in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) industry, and received just one offer — only to have the company rescind it three weeks later.


The 22-year-old was told that the firm had “suddenly” rolled out a blanket rule prohibiting new EP applicants.


LIVING IN LIMBO


For Amelia, a 37-year-old who did not want to give her real name or nationality, anxiety over her family’s future here has taken a mental toll on them.


The stay-at-home mother of two told TODAY that she and her 47-year-old husband, a European, had multiple emotional meltdowns, complete with episodes of shouting and crying, due to the long wait for his new EP application to be approved.


Her husband is willing to take a 20-per-cent pay cut to join a new company, but the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) is taking unusually long — one and a half months so far — to process his new EP application, she said.


But time is of the essence as her son could not start his Primary One class at an international school, which began earlier this week, because her husband must first obtain an in-principle work pass approval from MOM.


She added that even though her husband was an EP holder up till his retrenchment in May, MOM required him to get a third-party agency to verify his diploma degree, which lengthened the processing time.


An emotional Amelia told TODAY: “At this point, I feel that nobody really gives a s*** about your situation. They don’t care about your whole family. They don’t care that your kids are going to suffer… On the whole, I feel the society has turned suddenly against foreigners, waiting to kick you out.”


For example, she felt that online comments on some incidents — such as the one at Robertson Quay where seven foreigners were caught flouting social-distancing rules — had gone overboard and made her feel that expats could be bashed on any matter.


“Before Covid-19, people were nice. Now, I feel that deep down, nobody welcomes us here,” said Amelia, adding that she has become extra wary over how others may perceive her actions, lest she ends up being featured on some viral social media posts.


Like some Singaporeans, expats also feel the pain of pay cuts amid the pandemic, but may not immediately get the help they are seeking due to a perception that they are rich.


Ms Martha Liv, 36, a Venezuelan mother of one, said her husband, an Italian assistant director of a travel tech company and earning under S$8,000 a month, had to take a 20-per-cent pay cut earlier this year.


This has put a strain on her finances even though she already shops at wet markets and avoids calling for deliveries. Luckily, after some convincing, Ms Liv was able to get her landlord to reduce her three-bedroom apartment’s S$2,700 monthly rent by 10 per cent.


‘EXCLUSION’ APPROACH NOT THE SOLUTION 


If the expats were indeed to leave Singapore in large numbers in the near future, would the country be better off, as some quarters have suggested?


Don’t bank on it — since an exodus could lead to other types of unemployment and undermines Singapore’s reputation as an international hub, which has fuelled its growth all these years, said experts.


Indeed, the effect on jobs has already been felt at a centrally located international school which had seen enrollment fall by 30 to 40 per cent, with some families not even informing the school that their kids were dropping out because they were leaving Singapore.


As a result, the school had to abruptly dismiss 16 of its 80 to 90 staff, and a vast majority of those being laid off were locals, according to a teacher who spoke on condition of anonymity.


Reiterating why foreign talents are an indispensable part of Singapore's workforce, former Nominated MP and economist Walter Theseira said cities succeed because they concentrate talent and capital.


“The argument is often made that to solve our talent needs, all we need to do is to develop world class training programs, and train up Singaporeans to take jobs in the high skill growth areas,” added the associate professor at the Singapore University of Social Sciences.


But such an argument is problematic, he pointed out.  


“First, training is always slower than hiring workers who already have the right skills and experience set, putting any industry here that relies heavily on training locals (would put it) behind the curve compared to global competitors,” he said.


Also, the more specialised and difficult the training is, the greater the risk of creating skill mismatches, “where some of your highly trained workers cannot get suitable jobs, especially if you aim to fill a high proportion of the vacancies with Singaporeans”. 


“Finally, many high skill jobs require not just some training but also talent and capabilities, which are not evenly distributed in the population. Even if Singapore punches well above our weight in being able to generate talent, we are doing so from a population base that's tiny compared to the world,” he said. 


Mr Christopher Quek, a venture capitalist who invests in Singapore-based technology start-ups, stressed that it is important to attract talents in the information and communications technology (ICT) field, as Singapore produced only about 48,500 graduates this year — not a sufficient stock of trained technical talents to embark on forefront technological developments.


“If we persist in excessive raising of costs to hire these foreign talents, ICT companies will look to basing their tech innovation operations elsewhere, and Singapore loses as a whole in terms of jobs and possible innovation,” he said.


Dr Deep Kisor Datta-Ray, 41, an academic who has lived in Singapore on and off for the last 30 years, cautions Singaporeans that anti-foreigner remarks usually herald the start of divisive politics that will do the nation no favours. 


He added: “When you start basing your politics on exclusion, you keep on making yourself smaller, whereas the Singaporean approach is not exclusion but inclusive, and Singapore may be, today, the only country in the world that is not trying to diminish itself.”  


Nevertheless, some experts believe that this is a temporary phase and Singapore will remain an attractive place for expats when the economy regains its footing. 


Dr Kelvin Seah, a senior economics lecturer at NUS, noted that in the near term, companies are “likely to have less incentives to hire expats because they are afraid that this might put them under public scrutiny”. 


“But in the longer term, once the economy recovers, my view is that Singapore will remain an attractive place for expats, because relative to other countries, it is still easy for expats to find work here and personal income tax rates are one of the lowest in the world,” he said. 


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Originally Published: https://www.todayonline.com

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