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The State of ImmigrationSingapore

A Free Market Approach to Immigration

Employer-friendly practices on approvals for high-skilled and lower-skilled visas and liberal rules on intracompany transfers, international students and (to a lesser extent) permanent residence make Singapore’s immigration policies “mostly favorable” to economic growth.

While the Fraser Institute, a Canadian research group, rated Hong Kong first in the world for economic freedom, Singapore finished just behind in second place.114 The nation’s free market policies — including those that relate to immigration — have made it one of the world’s most successful economies.

Singapore’s unemployment rate has not exceeded 2.2 percent since 2010, an economic record most governments would envy. After more than 140 years as a British colony, in 1963 Singapore became part of newly formed Malaysia and established its own sovereign nation two years later in 1965. The percentage of foreign born in Singapore is 39 percent. A small island nation, Singapore is only about 3.5 times the size of Washington, D.C., and it is multiethnic, with Chinese the dominant ethnicity, followed by Malay, Indian and European.115

In an effort to maintain ethnic and political harmony, the country’s leadership has established certain rules on immigration. For example, rather than enact a series of bureaucratic rules, Singapore established a foreign worker levy as a “pricing mechanism to regulate the number of foreign workers in Singapore.”116 The levy varies by sector.117 Also, approval for permanent residence is much more discretionary in the hands of Singaporean immigration officials when compared to other countries. However, businesses and attorneys find transferring employees from abroad a smooth process with few denials.

In 2014, Singapore started requiring employers to use a Jobs Bank, an online jobs posting site, in conjunction with hiring foreign nationals. Employers, particularly small employers and those hiring highly skilled individuals, were given a number of exemptions from using the Jobs Bank. “Companies are still likely to get the person they want,” said Mark Chowdhry, managing associate at Magrath Global in Singapore.118

The free market tenor of Singapore’s economic policies leads observers to expect immigration policies in the country to remain pro-growth. “Even after the changes,” said Christina Karl, managing director of Asia, of Berry Appleman & Leiden, “Singapore will remain the easiest place in Asia to hire and retain skilled foreign workers."119


114. James Gwartney, Robert Lawson and Joshua Hall (2014), Economic Freedom of the World, 2014 Annual Report, Fraser Institute.
115. Central Intelligence Agency (2014), Singapore in The World Factbook.
116. Ministry of Manpower, Singapore government.
117. Ibid. As noted in the body of the report, for example, if foreign workers represent 25 to 50 percent of a manufacturing company’s workforce, then it would pay a monthly fee of 470 Singapore dollars (about $375) for every unskilled foreign worker it employed.
118. Interview with Mark Chowdhry.
119. Interview with Christina Karl.

Score Breakdown: Singapore vs. United States

Attracting Foreign Entrepreneurs
Attracting Foreign Entrepreneurs
3.5 (vs. United States 1.5)

Entrepreneurs can obtain temporary visas, but obtaining a “general employment pass” to run a company is often easier.

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Hiring High-Skilled Foreign Nationals
Hiring High-Skilled Foreign Nationals
4.5 (vs. United States 2.0)

There is no quota, and cases are typically approved for high-skilled foreign nationals. Employers must pay a market wage. A Jobs Bank requirement was recently added, but exemptions exist. Singapore is highly rated for economic freedom.

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Hiring Lower-Skilled Workers
Hiring Lower-Skilled Workers
4.0 (vs. United States 1.5)

Singapore makes it possible for foreign nationals to hold a variety of lower-skilled jobs. In place of bureaucratic rules, the government has established a “foreign worker levy” as a “pricing mechanism to regulate the number of foreign workers in Singapore” and also maintains quotas, which are fairly generous, on the number of lower-skilled foreign workers companies can employ.

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Lawful Permanent Residence For High-Skilled Workers
Lawful Permanent Residence For High-Skilled Workers
3.0 (vs. United States 2.5)

There are no explicit quotas, but the standard is unclear; typically an individual’s permanent residence must be in the interest of the country.

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Retention of International Students Postgraduation
Retention of International Students Postgraduation
4.0 (vs. United States 3.0)

There are no special provisions, but international students typically can stay and work if they wish and their skills are sought.

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Transferring High-Skilled Employees Across Borders
Transferring High-Skilled Employees Across Borders
5.0 (vs. United States 3.0)

Approvals are expected, and the process is considered easy.

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About the Report

Business Roundtable selected the evaluated countries based on five criteria:

1. Worldwide university rankings;
2. Per-capita income;
3. Gross domestic product growth rate;
4. Net migration rate; and
5. Research and development investment.

After comparing each advanced economy relative to the five criteria, the top 10 countries (including the United States) were selected for the study: Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Switzerland and the United Kingdom (U.K.). Not coincidentally, these are the countries with which the United States competes most for foreign talent, particularly in science and technology fields.

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