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Politics

Singapore's foreign population dips 10.7% on COVID restrictions

Government wants to open doors while managing locals' anxieties about immigrants

Office workers are seen in a largely empty central business district of Singapore on Sept. 27, as much of the city returns to working from home to combat COVID-19.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE -- Singapore's population of foreign nationals was down 10.7% in June compared with a year earlier, no thanks to travel restrictions and a weak economy brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over the year, the nonresident population fell from 1.64 million to 1.47 million, largely due to a reduction in foreign employment in Singapore, according to the government's annual "Population in Brief" report released on Tuesday.

This decrease was seen in all categories of work passes, which foreigners need for employment in Singapore. The construction, shipyard and processing sectors, which were hit hard by the pandemic, saw the largest declines in work permit holders.

Before the pandemic, Singapore was employing more foreigners on a year-on-year basis. Work pass holders rose by 24,000 from mid-2018 to mid-2019. The number then fell by 47,000 from mid-2019 to mid-2020, as the pandemic started to bite, and that decline has since more than tripled this year.

The nonresident population excludes migrant workers serving as domestic helpers in Singapore households. With a fall in nonresident numbers two years in a row, the city-state's total population stood at 5.45 million as of June, down from 5.69 million a year ago.

The number of citizens fell as well, by 0.7% to 3.5 million. "This was mainly because more citizens and PRs (permanent residents) remained overseas continuously for 12 months or more due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, and were therefore not counted as part of our population," the report said.

Foreign labor has long been a hot-button issue in Singapore, and uncertainties due to the pandemic have increased employment worries among locals as the city-state strives for a recovery from last year's record recession.

Opposition political parties have pressed the ruling People's Action Party, led by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, on the government's stance on nonresident workers, driven by an undercurrent of fear among locals that foreign competition posed a threat to their livelihoods.

The issue was a point of contention during last year's general elections, as opposition groups mounted a challenge to Lee's PAP, which has controlled the city-state since its independence in 1965.

Recently, politicians once again debated the topic for hours in parliament, prompted by the question of whether Singapore's free trade agreements with other countries might have opened the city-state to foreigners at the expense of locals.

The latest numbers released by the government, at least, show that immigration is shrinking for now, as the country continues to grapple with the COVID crisis, unable to open up as daily new cases continue to number over 1,000.

Lee has signaled that Singapore must stay open to preserve its status as a global business hub, even as the country attempts a balancing act in managing its foreign-worker policies while addressing the anxieties felt locally.

"We must make it crystal clear to the world that Singapore is determined to stay open, in order to earn a living for ourselves," he said in a speech in August, emphasizing how the country must not give the impression that it is becoming xenophobic and hostile to foreigners.

"It would gravely damage our reputation as an international hub," Lee said then. "It would cost us investments, jobs and opportunities. It would be disastrous for us."

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