story | Terence Anthony Wang | Former Editor-in-Chief
photo | Terence Anthony Wang
On Mar. 3, 2020, Singapore’s Manpower Minister Josephine Teo announced that the government would be raising the minimum salary for foreigners to qualify for an Employment Pass (EP) from $3,600 to $3,900.
Across Yale-NUS College, hearts of already stressed international senior students collectively sank.
First, some context: all full-time students in Singaporean institutions of higher learning have the option of signing the Tuition Grant Scheme (TGS), which subsidizes roughly half of tuition fees (Singapore citizens are in fact automatically enrolled). For international students, this comes with several clauses, the most consequential among which being that they work at a Singapore-registered company for three years after graduation.
For many of our college’s international graduates, fulfilling this obligation involves getting an EP, which – while theoretically not limited by a quota – has each application stringently reviewed by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). It also has a rather high bar in terms of starting pay – a bar that just got quite a bit higher.
This is not the first time the Employment Pass requirements have changed, of course. MOM has been largely consistent on this front, upping the minimum pay sum $300 every three years – from $3,000 to $3,300 in 2014, and to the previous $3,600 in 2017.
However, there are two reasons why this year’s change has been received with particular dread in our community.
The first is that this year’s announcement is far more sudden: the 2017 change was announced as early as July the previous year, a full six months before its implementation and nearly a year before graduates would feel its impact, a staggering difference compared to the just under two months we have.
Second and perhaps more importantly, this change comes at a particularly bad time for graduating students. With the economic growth forecast downgraded just last month to be as low as -0.5% and the COVID-19 virus outbreak tightening hiring across industries, even local students with no visa requirements were bracing for a gloomy job search period – what more foreign students competing for limited work passes. Having the EP ‘price hike’ add to this load makes it an extremely bitter pill to swallow.
This is a trend that will continue. If EP hikes stay consistent (and we have no reason thus far to believe otherwise), there will certainly come other times where graduating Yale-NUS international students face the same issues that we now do. But this isn’t just an issue exclusive to international students – it stands to change our college as we know it, not for the better.
One of the big factors that makes Yale-NUS stand apart from most ‘elite’ higher-learning institutions and come close to fulfilling its promise to build a diverse community of learning is its generous and non-discriminatory financial aid schemes (the second half is key – some schools have strong financial aid schemes but are biased towards residents of their home country). Many students, myself included, could not have even considered applying here otherwise. This allows our community to draw in individuals from a vast range of socioeconomic backgrounds and nationalities, preventing the college from quickly becoming another old boys’ school filled with high net-worth individuals.
But all of this stands to be for naught if prospective international students begin to realize that there are only two paths for them in Singapore: 1) aim for high-paying industries that allow them to easily qualify for an EP, or 2) not sign up for the TGS at all.
Both stand to severely hurt our diversity. The first option means a coalescing of students towards majors and qualifications conventionally seen as better-paying, thus causing a loss of international voices in other fields – not to mention preventing international students from being able to contribute to industries like non-profit enterprises, arts, and social work.
The second option is equally worrisome. The only people who can consider forgoing the TGS are largely those who did not require financial aid to begin with, thus artificially limiting the College’s desirability to well-off internationals.
If the headline sounded like hyperbole, consider this: 40% of Yale-NUS students are internationals. That is to say, the issues described here stand to affect and change the composition of nearly half of our student body over time. That’s a massive potential loss of diversity.
There is, of course, the argument that one doesn’t need an EP to work. Technically, an international student could very much complete their TGS obligations by obtaining an S-Pass, which has a much lower salary requirement of $2,400.
While true, this is not a real solution. Unlike the EP, employers have to pay a monthly levy of at least $330 to the government for workers on the S-Pass, making fresh international graduates extremely unattractive to hire. More critically, though, it is the perception of difficulty that is enough to drive international students away, regardless of the actual technicalities behind getting hired. Why risk your fate in Singapore when you could stay in your own country or go to one without the TGS?
All of this is happening, unfortunately, because Singapore can’t seem to decide where it stands on immigration and inviting in the oft-derided “foreign talent”. The government’s vision for education and labor are simply not in alignment: on one hand, institutions like the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University (not to mention Yale-NUS!) continue to woo international students and faculty, desiring the image of truly global institutions and conscious of the increasing importance of diversity on higher education rankings.
But on the other hand, Singapore’s labor policies have become increasingly restrictive towards foreigners in the past decade, especially in the wake of the 2011 general election, where anti-foreign labor sentiment was a dominant issue and likely contributed to the ruling PAP’s worst result since independence. Despite a more resounding victory in 2015, foreign quotas remain tight; and if recent developments are any indication, the situation will likely remain unchanged for the foreseeable future.
This indecisiveness forces a paradox onto international students. Clearly, Singapore wants to attract as much foreign talent as it can find from across the world, and locks down their commitment through the TGS. Fair enough. Yet, to curry favor with the electorate, it has to make labor policies appear as favorable as possible to citizens, making jobs ever harder to come by for internationals, especially in this turbid global economy.
The numbers don’t add up. Singapore has to choose to either attract fewer international students, have less restrictive bonds, or implement looser hiring policies. In other words: it has to choose whether to retain its identity of openness, or to follow the worldwide trend of looking increasingly inward. It cannot have its cake and eat it too.
The views expressed here are the author’s own. The Octant welcomes all voices in the community. Email submissions to: firstname.lastname@example.org