Singapore Changes Visa Regulations

By Katie Nadworny October 6, 2020
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modern building in Singapore with fountain in the foreground

​Mehmet Gul has lived in Singapore for a decade and owns a few businesses there, including a restaurant. The pandemic and the resulting economic downturn have affected his business, but he has managed to adapt, bringing in quick-delivery service and finding ways for his employees to work from home. Now he has to make another adjustment: With the recently introduced changes to the S Pass and Employment Pass visas in Singapore, companies and business owners like Gul must make sure their hiring practices comply. 

"The aim is to get Singaporeans to have the job," Gul said. "If you want to bring another [foreign] employee, it will be more difficult."

Visa Changes

As of Sept. 1, changes to the S Pass and Employment Pass visas for foreign workers went into effect. The minimum salary requirements have been raised for both passes. The S Pass, which serves midlevel-skilled staff, has seen its minimum salary threshold raised by $100 Singapore dollars (approximately $73 USD) a month, beginning Oct. 1. For Employment Passes, which are generally issued to foreign professionals, managers and executives, the minimum salary threshold has been raised by $600 Singapore dollars (approximately $440 USD), to $4,500 Singapore dollars (approximately $3,300 USD) a month.

The financial sector has been singled out for additional increases in the minimum payment threshold. "What is quite interesting is that this is actually the first time the Singapore government has set qualifying salary requirements for a specific sector," said Thomas Choo, an attorney with Clyde & Co. in Singapore and Hong Kong. This focus and all the changes are designed to encourage the hiring of Singapore nationals. 

"Our pride is talent," Choo said, "and one of Singapore's strongest business sectors would be the financial services sector. Because of that, there's actually very strong interest and availability of local workers to actually take up jobs in this sector." 

There are new advertising and labor market testing requirements, as well. "The government really tracks all open vacancies for foreign employees to make sure that all applicants—Singaporean, permanent residents and foreign—have equal opportunity and fair consideration for those roles," said Sarah Malaske, an immigration manager with Berry Appleman & Leiden in Houston.

Before the changes were made, positions that would require an Employment Pass needed to be advertised locally for 14 days before they could be filled by a foreign worker. Now positions must be advertised for 28 days. S Pass positions, which previously had no advertising requirement, must also be advertised for 28 days.

"There's a greater administrative demand on HR professionals and recruitment groups to be sure that the position is advertised for a longer period, so potentially [there are] more applications to work through," Malaske said. In addition, the Ministry of Manpower may ask for proof that the declared number of Singaporeans who applied for the role were considered. 

"We are seeing instances where they are requesting copies of the resumes of all applicants who applied so that the Ministry of Manpower can give it a perusal and compare it against the vacancy announcement to make sure that all candidates are truly being considered fairly," Malaske said. "It is a greater administrative demand on HR professionals to definitely keep track of all of the resumes received, keep track of interview schedules, make sure that documentation is available if it's requested," she noted.

Pandemic Brought About the Changes

The COVID-19 pandemic is behind these changes. "The most recent change is actually because of the pandemic, the economic fallout, and it's targeted to help businesses retain local employment," Choo said. Recent elections in Singapore focused heavily on employment and the economy, so there was a political incentive to focus on local hiring, as well.

"The Singapore government has done a fantastic job during the course of this year in coming up with a number of measures to retain local employment," Choo said, "and one of these was the visa regulation changes that we're talking about."

Malaske said, "During hard economic times, there's always a pressure to look out for your local population. So Singaporeans are concerned that they may be overlooked for roles in foreign companies in Singapore."

Changes to the Employment Pass might not make a significant difference for companies that have hired foreigners. Because the salary changes address minimum salaries, many of the foreign workers under the Employment Pass are already earning well above the minimum due to the nature of their jobs and the high cost of living in Singapore. 

Enforcement

Companies that are caught circumventing the new visa regulations could be put on the fair consideration framework watch list.

"The main purpose of it is to proactively identify employers with suspected discriminatory hiring practices," Choo said. The government can look at the overall workforce profile of companies to try to see if there are issues. "If a company tends to have an exceptionally high concentration of foreign employees rather than local employees compared to industry norm, or a higher concentration of foreign employees from single nationalities, these will actually be flagged as potential discriminatory hiring."

Whether the ongoing pandemic and economic situation will continue to change the visa rules and regulations further remains to be seen. For small-business owners like Gul, the economic uncertainty makes it hard to see too far ahead, even as he adjusts to the new visa regulations. "I don't plan any more like [I did]," Gul said, "because we don't know what's going on."

Katie Nadworny is a freelance writer in Istanbul. 

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