Can Singaporeans help reduce foreign worker populations?

Andrew Loh said that it is “unacceptable nearly 40% of population is made up of foreigners“. You can verify this from SingStat. In 2011, Singapore’s population was 5.2 million. 3.3 million were citizens, or about 63%. Foreigners made up 1.4m and PRs made up 0.5m. You have to group PRs and foreigners together to achieve the 40% number.

Singaporeans can feel the effect of the population crunch everyday in our housing prices, in our public transport and in the abundance of foreign staff in our retail and F&B outlets. There are constant complaints about foreigners stealing jobs from locals and depressing wages. A simple question rings out loud: “Does Singapore really need 2 million foreigners?”

To reduce our foreigner population, we must first begin by reducing our foreign worker population. Without jobs for foreigners, there is little reason for foreigners and their family members to stay in Singapore. The usual trend is to tell the govt to reduce the number of foreign workers. But we should also ask ourselves – “Where is all the demand for foreign workers coming from?


What does 1.2 million foreign workers/talent mean?

Singapore has lots of 1.2 million foreign workers. Sounds like a lot of job-stealing foreigners, doesn’t it? This 1.2 million workers is broken down into:

Pass Type As at Dec 2011
Employment Pass (EP)  176,000
S Pass 113,000
Work Permit (Total)  908,000
 – Work Permit (Foreign Domestic Worker)  206,000
– Work Permit (Construction)  264,000
Total Foreign Workforce  Around 1.19 million

Here’s a pie chart to give you a better picture:

EP holders are generally degree holders that earn at least $3k/month. S-Pass workers are generally diploma holders that earn at least $2k/month. Work Permit holders are generally for the lesser educated and they earn less than S-pass holders.

These numbers do not include PRs. We have a newspaper cutting that cites the PR workforce at 335k. Since it is not easy to get a Singaporean PR, I will assume (due to a lack of accessible data) that they are 50% degree holders, 50% diploma holders.

This consequently means that there are about 1.8m working Singaporeans. (Resident Labour Force – estimated working PRs). It is thus possible to compare the population of locals, PR, and foreign workers:

Citizens PR Foreigners
Degree-equivalent 366,000* 167,500* 176,000
Diploma-equivalent 600,000* 167,500* 113,000
Secondary and Lower 834,000     908,000
*Estimated due to lack of PR education data


Lessons from the numbers

The numbers tell us a number of interesting lessons:

1. Degree holders face much competition

Everyday, TRE publishes articles about Singaporeans being out-competed for jobs. The population numbers certainly seem to back this up, with Singaporeans numbering the same as PRs and Foreigners combined.

But this also means that everytime you hear a Singaporean ranting at how there are too many foreigners applying for the same job that he is going for, you should remember that the numbers means that on average, the same number of citizens and foreigners are competing for a single job.

Should we chase out the foreign degree holders? It’s not so straightforward. I think most Singaporeans are willing to allow foreign talent into the country, as long as they don’t compete with them too hard for jobs. We don’t mind if really rich foreigners like Gong Li and Jet Li settle in our midst – the taxes that they pay would fund many activities on our behalf.

We should also bear in mind that chasing away these group of degree-holding foreigners  won’t reduce our housing and transport pressures by far. They are not a big group in the overall scheme of things. It is more efficient to focus our efforts on reducing our dependence on unskilled labour.

2. Singaporeans should embrace some neglected diploma-equivalent jobs. 

Singaporeans tend to shun certain jobs, mainly in the social services sector. For example, a large number of our nurses are foreigners.

Nurses are paid around $2.4k to $3k per month. I believe that solely raising the pay of nurses won’t help. Here’s a litmus test for you if you are someone who earns $4k+ per month: “If you were asked to become a nurse at the same pay that you are given today, will you want to do that job?” I did this straw poll and many said no. There’s a stigma attached to these kind of jobs.

If we want to reduce our dependence on skilled foreign workers, then we must change our mindsets and attitudes towards the neglected jobs.

3. The largest reductions in foreign worker numbers come by reducing unskilled or semi-skilled labor. This entails sacrifices by Singaporeans.

We have 206k maids and 1.1mil households. That means about 20% of homes have maids. Can Singaporeans live with less maids, when a growing number of families see them as necessities? 

A lot of work permit holders are also in the retail and F&B business. That’s why there are so many cooks, waiters and sales staff from China. Improving the productivity in these sectors will help. But so will reducing demand. Hence we must ask ourselves “Does every residential estate MRT station really need a shopping mall?” Yet it is also true that many Singaporeans living near MRT stations want a shopping mall for convenience and to increase their property values.

Higher productivity in construction is also needed, but given the number of new houses that we need, I doubt we will see materially less construction workers anytime soon.

The above analysis is not perfect. The data on citizen workers include newly-converted citizens. The foreign (and some local) degree holders could have gotten their qualifications from degree mills and are thus “not really talented”.

But despite the imperfect analysis, it is probably good to put some numbers around the issue of foreign workers, so that we have a better idea of what we are arguing about. It is possible that some of this demand is self-induced by us Singaporeans. Which could mean that we can play an (unexpected?) part in reducing the number of foreigners in Singapore.


About sgthinker

I'm a 40-year old Singaporean male, and this blog pens down my thoughts and feelings about Singapore's political happenings, government policies and society trends. I hope this blog will provide a moderate voice in the growing online debate about the state of Singapore's society. Some of the posts here won't be solely written by me, since there will be times when other writers are more eloquent at expressing their views, in which case I'll share their insights (along with my comments). The content on this blog is owned by me.If you wish to share or reproduce the content, please attribute it to this blog.
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10 Responses to Can Singaporeans help reduce foreign worker populations?

  1. sixfab says:

    Why is it all developed countries do not depend so heavily on foreign workers except our country? What is wrong with our system? What is the difference? Seems like the absence of First World Parliament.

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  9. wendy t says:

    did your ever think if there r no foreign workers,do we have houses to stay?

  10. Difficult says:

    It is not that difficult lah,Mr Ngiam,ex PS,had provided a solution many years ago.
    1.Those jobs that Singapore citizens do not want,it is up to government,if they think the country can take,take.
    2.Those jobs that Singapore citizen want,preference for citizens,as what many advanced countries are doing,employers must prove that they could not get citizens to do the jobs.
    3.To be a new citizen of Singapore,applicants must be better than the existing citizens,very subjective but up to government to enforce this.
    4.Final decisions all made by the government
    5.Is it really that difficult?

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