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Singapore unveils new work visas to lure talent in next-gen industries

"Singapore is still a global city," Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in an address last month, in which he vowed to bolster the national workforce's skills

Singapore | work visas | Lee Hsien Loong

Michelle Jamrisko | Bloomberg 

Lee Hsien Loong
Lee Hsien Loong

As embraces the post-Covid era, the city-state’s leaders are busy updating rules around hiring foreign workers while tearing down coronavirus restrictions, citing a hypercompetitive battle for global talent.

Five-year visas and the scrapping of a law against sex between men made headlines, but has unveiled a series of measures meant to help it vault past other financial hubs and lure talent in next-generation industries like computing, aeronautics and even the arts.

is still a global city,” Prime Minister said in an address last month, in which he vowed to bolster the national workforce’s skills. “We cannot survive in any other way.”

Here’s everything we know about how Singapore sees the battle for foreign workers playing out, and what it’s doing about it:

The Competition

Political stability, safety, efficient healthcare and public transport have long been part of Singapore’s pitch to the world. But city leaders say that’s not enough.

The competition is not just with Hong Kong: In his national day speech, Lee singled out Germany, which will allow some workers to enter the country before they even secure a job, and the UK, which is offering a special visa for graduates from the top 50 universities in the world -- two of which are in Singapore.

Then there’s Thailand, which just unveiled its own 10-year visa plan for foreign workers, and the United Arab Emirates, which will allow some expats to get without being sponsored by a company.


‘Compass’ System: Education, Skills, Pay

Starting in 2023, Singapore is instituting a points-based system for visa candidates -- evaluating things like education, skills, pay and how nationality contributes to diversity at their firm. The “Compass” system mimics similar programs in the UK and Canada.

In Singapore’s program, applicants need at least 40 points across six categories to be in contention, with the potential to score 0, 10, or 20 points in each. Have a Harvard degree? Twenty points for you.

Visa Duration

In its biggest shift, Singapore will offer a five-year work visa -- the Overseas Networks and Expertise (ONE) pass -- for those making at least S$30,000 ($21,300) per month, a jump from the two-year pass many foreign workers have.

The new visa also allows workers’ dependents to seek employment, and opens the door for exceptional candidates in sports, arts, science and academia who don’t meet the salary criteria.

Here’s how the ONE pass stacks up against some others that have gotten recent tweaks:

Hiring Local

Singapore’s Fair Consideration Framework is meant to ensure that local candidates get a fair shot even among firms that have hires in their sights.

The policies were tightened as unemployment jumped during the pandemic and the government focused on shoring up the domestic workforce. Some of those rules were eased last month.

Jobs must now be advertised for 14 days, down from 28 days during the pandemic’s peak. As of Sept. 1, 2023, roles with a monthly salary of at least S$22,500 will be exempt from the job advertising requirement. That salary threshold will be reviewed periodically. Companies with fewer than 10 employees are also exempt.

LGBTQ+ Community

In an effort to modernize the city-state’s social framework, Prime Minister Lee announced plans to repeal a colonial-era law that criminalizes sex between men, but said the government would also amend the Constitution to prevent the definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman from being challenged in court. The move means parliament will ultimately determine that debate.

Lee’s announcement -- meant to be a compromise between the majority of citizens who oppose changing the traditional definition of marriage and those pushing for a broadening of rights -- leaves businesses in a tough position when seeking to hire LGBTQ+ candidates from abroad.

Most at stake for hiring managers: visas and worker eligibility for spouses of LGBTQ+ talent whose marriages aren’t recognized in Singapore. Government officials have said they deal with these scenarios on a case-by-case basis.

Sector Favorites

Technology roles of all kinds have been highly favored as Singapore opens its doors further to applicants.

The “Tech.Pass” that Singapore introduced in 2020 is still attractive for technology leaders -- if their companies have amassed a valuation or market value of at least $500 million. That program may be reviewed after the ONE pass and other changes take effect, the Straits Times reported.

Singapore hasn’t been shy about wanting to bolster its appeal to those in green energy and green finance roles, intent on building on its reputation as the Garden City that its founding leader, Lee Kuan Yew, envisioned.

Interview with Singapore's Minister of Manpower Tan See Leng

Tan See Leng, Singapore's minister of manpower and deputy minister of trade and industry, speaks during an interview in Singapore, on Tuesday, July 13, 2021. Until around 2030 at least, there's little risk of a major drop-off in demand for oil products, Tan said. Meanwhile, the government is encouraging innovation in areas like carbon capture and moving toward more solar and tidal power, in its drive to be in the vanguard of the energy transition in the region.

Asked to be more sector-specific, Minister of Manpower Tan See Leng told Bloomberg that experts in fields like photovoltaic cells, energy storage systems, and mRNA technology would be especially appealing. But he said he didn’t want to be too detailed, because “everybody would then go after” the same people and a bidding war might ensue.

Low-Income Workers

Noticeably absent from Singapore’s latest approach toward expats are incentives for those at the lower end of the income ladder. While labor shortages were widespread during the pandemic, Minister Tan said he’s confident that the crunch in construction, marine processing and shipyard jobs will be alleviated in the coming months.

Similarly, lower-paying roles in leisure and hospitality and the food and beverage sector have seen especially tight labor markets. But authorities have for years been favoring digital and automation solutions -- beyond roles that might be filled by local hires -- rather than appealing for more low-income workers from abroad.

Cost of Living

Perhaps the biggest factor foreign workers have to weigh anywhere they move is the cost of living.

Singapore rental prices spiked the most in the first half of the year of 30 cities surveyed by Savills Plc., jumping 8.5%. Yet the city-state was just the 13th most expensive city in the world for expatriates, according to a March survey by ECA . topped the list, with London, New York, Tokyo and Seoul all ahead of Singapore.

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First Published: Thu, September 08 2022. 10:11 IST