Expatriates in Singapore fear future after badly hit by COVID-19 crisis


Expatriates across Singapore are facing employment uncertainty, with some having already lost their jobs. This is unusual for a city whose resident expatriates are better known for being paid eye-watering sums.

Amid the pandemic, Singapore’s trade-reliant, bellwether economy could shrink by up to 7% – a level not seen since it gained independence – and economists forecast 200,000 people will be out of work in the city state by the end of the year, far more than the 40,000 who were made redundant at the height of the global financial crisis of 2008-09.

Expatriates are expected to bear the brunt of the lay-offs – accounting for about 60%, according to Maybank Kim Eng economist Lee JuYe – as Singapore’s government scrambles to save jobs for locals.

So far, the government has made four fiscal injections totalling almost S$100 billion, including a Job Support Scheme subsidising 25 to 75% of the first S$4,600 in wages for 10 months – but this plan is only open to citizens and permanent residents of the city state.

About 1.7 million foreigners live in Singapore, among its population of 5.7 million. Almost one million are migrant workers in low-paid jobs – who also account for more than 90% of the city state’s nearly 39,000 COVID-19 infections – while 400,000 hold one of two classes of work visa that require a minimum monthly income of either S$2,400 or S$3,900.

Ella Sherman, who works as a property agent at Knight Frank specialising in expats in addition to her day job in human resources, said she hears of two or three foreign families planning to leave Singapore every day – mostly because of redundancies.

Her clients have asked for help getting rent reductions or finding someone to take over their leases, she said. “There are also people wanting short leases of three or six months because they don’t know what their job situation is going to be. I am getting such enquiries about three times a week.”

A “surge in people moving home due to losing their jobs and not being able to stay” has also been noticed by Dan Mogg, a sales manager at relocation company Classic Moving, who said demand from individuals for its services was up by almost 20% – though corporate moves seem to have been put on hold amid widespread hiring freezes and restrictions on international travel.

Mogg has also been helping some of the “hundreds of people” he said became stuck outside Singapore after authorities introduced restrictions on travel amid the pandemic in March, such as a requirement for long-term pass holders to get pre-approval from the Manpower Ministry before entry.

More evidence of the pandemic’s effects on expat employment in Singapore can be seen on Facebook, where posts abound offering household goods for sale because of contracts being cut short, alongside tales of woe and tips for people who had left the country before travel restrictions were in place and are now stuck waiting for approval to return.

The uncertainty has international schools “working tirelessly” with the families of current and prospective students whose plans have now changed, said Tom Evans, director of marketing and communications at Tanglin Trust School.

He said that while he expects enrolment to remain at full capacity, “many students who originally planned to change schools have decided to stay while others who had planned to stay will be leaving Singapore”.

The city state has long experienced expatriates flowing in and out – even now, some are leaving of their own accord to be closer to family and friends – but Sherman, the property agent, said she has noticed more of an exodus of late.

“Normally, someone loses their job, they will find a new one or they might have a couple of months notice from their workplace to leave. But now, it just seems that rather than wait for the job market to pick up, expats are selling their furniture, finding replacement tenants and repatriating within a matter of weeks,” she said. (Source: SCMP)