Singapore’s tough balancing act on immigration

Mariko Oi
BBC World

Overlooking Singapore’s central business district, construction workers are busy building a new high-end restaurant on the rooftop park of Marina Bay Sands hotel.

Located on the 57th floor, the SkyPark is the latest attraction that Singapore boasts.

Despite the ongoing construction, the hotels and the casino downstairs are already open to the public.

So visitors, whether or not they like it, get a glimpse at the driving force behind Singapore’s construction boom: foreign workers.

Jay Chiu, chief executive of Grandworks, employs 150 of them to work on projects across the city state.

“Our workers are from Malaysia, Bangladesh and China,” he says.

Others also come from India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bangladesh, Burma, the Philippines, Pakistan, Hong Kong, Macau, South Korea and Taiwan.

They are part of a huge army of 245,000 construction workers in Singapore.

“In our industry, all the work is very tough. Singaporeans are not willing to take up this kind of job,” Mr Chiu says.

“So we have no choice but to rely on foreign workers to help us in our industry.”

They are also much cheaper to hire than Singaporeans.

Immigration control

However, the industry is facing a big challenge.

The government has reduced the annual intake of immigrant workers from 150,000 to 100,000.

It has also raised levies on foreign workers to make it less attractive for companies to import labour.

This means higher costs or not enough workers for Mr Chiu.

“If we don’t have enough manpower, it will slow down our whole work progress,” he says.

“We might need to pay more in order to get more skilled workers to work for us.”

“If the government controls the entry of foreign workers, how can we complete projects on time?”

Foreign talent

Singapore has also been trying to attract more foreign professionals.

“Singapore’s future rests on growing a deep pool of highly talented and entrepreneurial people,” says the Economic Strategies Committee chaired by Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugratnam.

One of them, British project manager Duncan Craig, came to Singapore five years ago.

“I decided to come here because Asia’s economy was going off back then. Since then, Singapore in particular has been booming,” he says.

However, employment agent R. Narayanamohan says that the government is being increasingly selective of foreign professionals, too.

“They are taking a more qualitative approach,” he says.

“Over the past year, a few visa applications have been rejected and the government asked for more information. When we went back to them with extra documents, we got them approved.”

“I think they want to check the background of the applicants more thoroughly.”

Growing complaints

So why is the government restricting the entry of foreign workers?


The issue, it seems, is political.

Singapore’s citizens have been complaining about the soaring number of immigrants.

The country now has the highest proportion of them in Asia, as foreigners make up one third of the island’s workforce of 3 million. It is a sharp jump from a mere 3% in 1970.

“Without warning, the floodgates were opened to allow foreigners into the country indiscriminately,” says an opinion piece on the popular online forum Temasek Review.

“In the past, the foreigners [who were] given a permit to work in Singapore were either highly qualified or filled positions [which were] shunned by Singaporeans. They are now competing directly with them (Singaporeans) for limited jobs.”

The latest National Orientations of Singaporeans Survey, conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies, shows that more than six out of 10 Singaporeans believe that the government’s immigration policy was weakening national unity.


It is a dilemma that the government faces.

Singapore’s birth rate of 9.9 per 1,000 people in 2009 is one of the lowest in the world.

At the current rate, the population is expected to begin shrinking in 2020.

However, ahead of the next general election, which the government must call by February 2012, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is keen to ease concerns of its citizens.

He has addressed the issue on many occasions, including on the eve of Singapore’s 45th National Day.

“I understand Singaporeans’ concerns about taking in so many foreign workers and immigrants,” he says.

“We will control the inflow, to ensure that it is not too fast, and not too large.”

“We will only bring in people who can contribute to Singapore and work harder to integrate them into our society.”

It is a likely hot topic when he addresses the nation in his National Day Rally speech, equivalent of the State of the Union in America, on August 29.

But it’s a tough balancing act.

The government is well aware that it needs immigrant workers to continue its speculator economic growth.

“We will develop and invest in our people, but we also need to reinforce the Singapore team with talent and numbers from abroad,” Prime Minister Lee says.

“We must make up for the shortage of Singaporean workers in our economy and the shortfall of babies in our population.”

%d bloggers like this: