The Corporate Immigration Review: Singapore
Introduction to the immigration framework
There are very few formalities required to visit Singapore on business. The passports of most countries are accepted for entry to Singapore without a visa. A visit pass valid for 30 to 60 days for persons holding an APEC business travel card is normally issued upon arrival in Singapore, and covers visits for '(a) social, business or professional purposes, (b) as a tourist, or (c) for the purposes of seeking employment or being employed in Singapore'.
An exemption is available to engage in certain short-term activities in Singapore without a work pass. Otherwise, a work pass is required to engage in any employment, trade, vocation or profession. Applying for work passes in Singapore is a relatively smooth and uncomplicated process, taking about three weeks. The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) issues the following passes to live and work in Singapore:
- a work permit for low and semi-skilled workers, domestic workers, confinement nannies (restricted to Malaysian citizens), and performing artistes employed by eligible public entertainment outlets;
- an S pass for mid-level skilled technical workers;
- an employment pass for professionals, managers, executives and highly paid or highly skilled individuals, or individuals who are both highly paid and highly skilled;
- a personalised employment pass (PEP) for high-earning professionals, managers and executives (PMEs); and
- an EntrePass for entrepreneurs intending to start new businesses in Singapore that contribute to local employment.
Employment passes – the type of work pass that is most relevant for corporate immigration – are, as a matter of practice, issued for 12 to 24 months at a time in the first instance. They may be renewed – typically for 12, 24 or 36 months at the discretion of the issuing authority – as early as six months prior to expiry. Early renewal involves no loss or wastage of the validity period of the holder's current pass.
Investors and holders of employment passes, S passes and PEPs can apply to live in Singapore on a more settled basis as permanent residents. A person may include his or her spouse and children under 21 years in an application for permanent residence. Singapore permanent resident status is effectively granted for three or five years at a time, and may also
be renewed prior to expiry. Permanent residents do not require work passes to engage in employment or business.
Permanent residents may apply to become Singapore citizens by registration. If the application is granted, the person must renounce his or her foreign citizenship before becoming registered as a Singapore citizen.
i Legislation and policy
The primary immigration-related statutes are the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore, the Immigration Act, the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act and the Enlistment Act.
The Constitution contains the provisions governing citizenship by birth, descent, registration and naturalisation, renunciation of citizenship and deprivation of citizenship.
The Enlistment Act obliges Singapore permanent residents and citizens to perform both full-time and 'operationally ready' (i.e., reservist) national service in the armed forces.
The Immigration Act and the Immigration Regulations govern visas and visit passes for travel and entry to Singapore, and entry and re-entry permits for Singapore permanent residents.
The Employment of Foreign Manpower Act regulates work passes for the employment of persons who are not citizens or permanent residents of Singapore.
Other than the main immigration legislation, employers should also be aware of employment guidelines, such as the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices, which are used by the MOM to investigate complaints of unfair employment practices (e.g., unreasonably recruiting foreigners in preference to locals).
ii The immigration authorities
The MOM facilitates and regulates the employment of foreigners in Singapore. In particular, the Work Pass Division of the MOM administers the work passes under which non-permanent-resident foreigners are permitted to live and work in Singapore.
The Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) is the division of the Ministry of Home Affairs that performs immigration and registration functions, such as the issuing of travel documents and identity cards to Singapore citizens, and various immigration passes and permits to foreigners. For instance, foreigners who are granted permanent residence receive an entry permit to 'enter and reside in Singapore', a national registration identity card and a re-entry permit – generally valid for up to five years at a time – to re-enter Singapore as a permanent resident after travel abroad. The issuance is administered by the ICA. The ICA is also responsible for border security at the country's land, sea and air checkpoints.
The Standards, Productivity and Innovation Board (SPRING) is an agency of the Ministry of Trade and Industry responsible for small and medium-sized enterprise development. Together with the MOM, the Infocomm Media Development Agency (IMDA) and SGInnovate, it jointly assesses applications for EntrePasses to start businesses in Singapore.
The Economic Development Board (EDB) is Singapore's foreign direct investment agency. Together with the ICA, the EDB administers the global investor programme (GIP). This is the permanent residency programme for investors. In November 2020, EDB inaugurated the 'Tech.Pass', with 500 limited places upon launch, to attract founders, leaders and technical experts with experience in established or fast-growing tech companies.
At 18 years of age, male permanent residents and citizens of Singapore are required to enlist for two years' full-time military service in the Singapore armed forces. From the age of 13 years and until he completes his full-time national service, a Singapore citizen or permanent resident intending to travel and remain outside Singapore for three months or more requires an exit permit from the Ministry of Defence (Mindef), which administers and enforces the Enlistment Act. When he is posted to the reserves after his full-time national service and until the age of 40 or 50 (depending on rank), a citizen or permanent resident will also require an exit permit from Mindef to travel and remain outside Singapore for six months or more.
iii Exemptions and favoured industries
Work pass-exempt activities (for not more than 90 days in a calendar year) are permitted without taking out a work pass provided that the MOM receives notification beforehand. In principle, failure to notify the MOM that a person is carrying out a work pass-exempt activity in Singapore is subject to the same penalties as working (and employing the person) in Singapore without a pass.
The following are work pass-exempt activities:
- performing as an actor, a singer, a dancer or a musician (or involvement as a key support member of staff) in an event supported by the government or any statutory board, or in an event at a venue to which the public or any class of the public has access (free or paid), such as a theatre or a concert hall. It excludes performing at entertainment outlets certified with a public entertainment licence (such as bars, discotheques, lounges, nightclubs, pubs, hotels, private clubs and restaurants); in the latter case, a work permit (performing artists) is required;
- journalism activities (including media coverage for events or media tours) supported by the government, or any statutory board constituted by or under any written law for a public purpose;
- involvement by sportspeople, coaches, umpires, referees and key support members of staff in sports competitions, events or training supported by the government or any statutory board constituted by or under any written law for a public purpose (other than being engaged as a sportsperson of a Singapore sports organisation pursuant to a contract of service);
- activities of actors, models, directors, film crews or technical crews and photographers in location filming or fashion shows;
- organising or conducting speaking events, such as seminars, conferences, workshops, gatherings, or talks by speakers, moderators, facilitators and trainers, provided that the event:
- does not sell or promote any goods or services as its main purpose
- does not relate directly or indirectly to any religious belief or to religion generally;
- does not relate directly or indirectly to any race or community generally; and
- is not cause-related or directed toward a political end;
- commissioning or auditing new plant and equipment (including any audit to ensure regulatory compliance or compliance with one or more standards) by an expert or specialist;
- providing expertise relating to the installation, dismantling, transfer, repair or maintenance of equipment, processes or machines;
- providing expertise relating to the transfer of knowledge about the processes of new operations in Singapore;
- participating in exhibitions of trade fairs as an exhibitor or a trader (this does not include trade fairs that require a trade fair permit issued under Section 35 of the Environmental Public Health Act);
- acting as an arbitrator or mediator, provided that the case or matter:
- does not relate directly or indirectly to any religious belief or to religion generally;
- does not relate directly or indirectly to any race or community generally; and
- is not cause-related or directed toward a political end;
- organising, promoting or conducting an event in a casino by:
- event representatives employed by an event promoter whose principal place of business is situated outside Singapore; and
- self-employed event promoters whose principal place of business is situated outside Singapore or whose principal business activity is conducted outside Singapore (event representatives and promoters must hold valid event representative and promoter licences issued by the Casino Regulatory Authority); and
- facilitating tours by tour leaders or tour facilitators employed by companies whose principal places of business are situated outside Singapore or whose principal businesses are conducted outside Singapore.
International treaty obligations
Singapore is a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO). As such, it is a party to the WTO's General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). The normative requirement to advertise a job opening on the national Jobs Bank and consider local applicants for the job before applying for an employment pass is waived with respect to intra-corporate transferees (ICTs) as defined by the WTO GATS.
A comprehensive economic cooperation agreement (CECA) has existed between India and Singapore since 2005. Chapter 9 of the CECA pertains to the movement of natural persons, which allows for freer movement of labour between the two countries. Since 2011, Singapore has progressively raised the criteria for the employment of expatriates (see Section III). These measures have progressively impeded the ability of Indian companies (particularly IT outsourcing companies) operating in Singapore to employ Indian citizens in their Singapore operations essentially at will. Indian sources expressed views that the raised work pass criteria introduced since about 2012 were inconsistent with Singapore's obligations under the CECA. Some Indian parties felt that the CECA was intended to avoid salary benchmarking and labour market testing in particular. As such, the application of increasing salary thresholds for work pass applications and the fair consideration framework (FCF), respectively, were claimed by some Indian sources as violations of the CECA. The second review of the CECA was concluded on 1 June 2018 with no changes made to the chapter on the movement of people. After the second review of the CECA was completed, the information on the Singapore government's website relating to the employment of Indian nationals was updated and expanded to emphasise that the CECA takes nothing away from the qualifying criteria for work passes or the obligation on employers to try to recruit locally before seeking to fill a position with an expatriate even in relation to ICTs from India.
The year in review
The covid-19 pandemic resulted in a reduction of 172,200 people (residents and non-residents) in employment in June 2020 compared to June 2019 (excluding foreign
domestic workers). Employment in sectors like wholesale trade and retail trade were adversely affected by covid-19, whereas employment actually went up in sectors such as information and communications, financial services and professional services during the pandemic.
Of particular relevance to corporate immigration is that, as at June 2020, there were 189,700 issued passes for professionals, managers, executives and business owners (compared with 183,700 at the same time the year before); and 188,800 for mid-level skilled technicians (compared with 200,000 last year). The decline can be attributed to an effective lockout from March to May 2020 during which pass holders who happened to be outside Singapore were largely denied travel approval to enter the country. In addition, applications for new work passes might receive in-principle approval but they were then also subject to the same added requirement to obtain separate approval to enter Singapore. During the first half of 2020, new applications for work passes were still being accepted and processed, but entry approvals to take up the roles were practically not forthcoming unless they were in essential services (such as healthcare and transport services).
i Travelling into Singapore
Singapore gradually eased its border policies by setting up reciprocal green lanes for business travel that today extend to Brunei Darussalam, mainland China (Chongqing, Guangdong, Jiangsu, Shanghai, Tianjin and Zhejiang), Germany, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia and South Korea. Of course, these green lanes are liable to be suspended at any time in response to reported new variants of the virus. So, for example, in March 2021, only travellers from Brunei Darussalam and mainland China could apply under this scheme due to suspension of the other listed countries for the time being.
Another initiative announced on 15 December 2020, the [email protected] initiative, is focused on the country's efforts to facilitate essential global business exchanges. A limited number of business, official and high-economic-value travellers from all countries are able to enter Singapore for short-term stays of up to 14 days in 'appointed facilities'. Applications to hold meetings with people in Singapore (or with other visitors travelling into Singapore for the purpose) in these appointed facilities are submitted through the facilities. The appointed facilities are responsible for ensuring that the meetings conducted on their premises comply with all health and safety measures to prevent infection. At this time, there is only one facility appointed under this programme.
An employer must obtain prior approval from the MOM for a work pass holder to enter or return to Singapore. Applications for entry approvals submitted by noon are processed the same day; applications submitted after noon are processed by the next working day. All entry approval requests are submitted online.
Entry approval requirements vary depending on where the pass holder is traveling from. As at 24 February 2021, the table below sets out the requirements for all visitors:
|Country ass holders spent the past four consecutive days in||Pre-departure covid-19 polymerase chain reaction test (covid-19 PCR test)||Quarantine||When they must take a covid-19 PCR test in Singapore|
TaiwanNot requiredNot applicable. Pass holders must remain isolated until they get a negative on-arrival test resultOn arrival
|Macao||Not required||seven-day quarantine at home||On arrival and before end of quarantine|
|Within 72 hours before departure||14-days quarantine at:|
(i) place of residence upon approval; or
(ii) dedicated facilities
|On arrival and before end of quarantine|
|All other countries and regions||Within 72 hours before departure||14-days quarantine at a dedicated facilities||On arrival and before end of quarantine|
Employers are also required to buy insurance with at least S$10,000 cover for medical expenses if the pass holder develops covid-19 symptoms or tests positive within 14 days of arrival in Singapore.
ii Changes in work pass application procedure
There is no quota for the number of foreign nationals a company can hire on employment passes for professionals, executives and skilled workers. S passes for mid-level technicians are subject to quotas. Generally, employers are obliged to consider hiring locals first. To that end, the MOM mandates that labour market testing, under the rubric of the FCF, is obligatory for employment passes and S passes except in the circumstances mentioned in the next paragraph.
From 1 October 2020, mandatory labour market testing must be posted for at least 28 days; this is twice as long as last year's requirement of 14 days. The exceptions, at present, are that labour market testing is not mandatory for an employer with fewer than 10 employees, a vacancy for a position with a fixed monthly salary of S$20,000 or above, or an intra-corporate transferee. That said, it is advisable that an employer demonstrate that its hiring policy is in line with the FCF's objectives and that it gives genuine consideration to local jobseekers even in situations where labour market testing is not obligatory.
The minimum fixed monthly salaries for employment passes and S passes have been increased. Since 1 September 2020, the minimum fixed monthly salary for an employment pass candidate is S$4,500, and since 1 October 2020, the minimum salary threshold for an S pass candidate is S$2,500. Salaries for more experienced candidates, in order for their applications to have a reasonable likelihood of approval, have also risen correspondingly. The MOM's guidance, for example, states that applicants with greater working experience must meet at least double the minimum threshold.
The MOM has also introduced a separate minimum salary requirement for the financial sector. Since 1 December 2020, the minimum salary is S$5,000 for a recent graduate with no experience. The changes have been introduced to especially encourage the employment, retention and promotion of locals in the financial sector.
There have also been changes in how people who obtain employment passes as ICTs are treated. ICTs are regarded as being allowed to work in Singapore temporarily to, for example, transfer their skills and expertise to the local labour force. They are granted entry for a period of up to two years in the first instance, with up to an additional three years upon renewal, whereas employment pass holders may generally renew their passes indefinitely. In addition, they generally cannot be accompanied by dependants, whereas employment pass holders who satisfy a remuneration threshold can be accompanied by dependants. That said, ICTs from some countries enjoy more favourable treatment than the usual standard under the terms of free trade agreements their countries have with Singapore; the CECA, in particular, comes to mind in this regard. After the expiry or termination of their work pass, ICTs are generally not eligible for future employment in Singapore or for permanent residency.
Holders of a dependant's pass – spouses, in effect – used to be eligible for letters of consent (LOCs) to work in Singapore. However, from 1 May 2021, they must apply for work passes on their own merits; they can no longer obtain consent to work on the basis that they are accompanying their spouses to Singapore. Holders of a dependant's pass who own and operate businesses in Singapore may continue their business on an LOC provided that they are the sole proprietor, partner or company director with at least a 30 per cent shareholding in the business; and the business hires at least one Singapore citizen or permanent resident who earns at least S$1,400 and receives CPF contributions for at least three months. Existing holders of a dependant's pass with LOCs may continue their employment on that basis until their LOC expires; however, before that happens, their employers must apply for and obtain a work pass to continue employing the existing pass holder. The work pass requirements and application processes for dependants are the same as for any other applicant.
The MOM pays attention to whether employers comply with the FCF in good faith or only go through the motions of compliance. Employers suspected of non-compliance with the FCF are put on a watch list for the scrutiny, audit and monitoring of their human resource practices. Generally, these are companies with disproportionately few local PMEs (compared with others in the same industry), or that are the subject of complaints of nationality-based discriminatory hiring practices. In such regard, the following are examined:
- their organisational charts for the nationalities of employees at each level
- recruitment processes;
- staff grievance handling procedures;
- employee progression frameworks; and
- plans or policies to develop local staff to take on higher level roles or to reduce reliance on foreigners on employment passes.
An enhanced portal called 'myMOM' for work pass applications was inaugurated on 15 June 2020; it features automated links to the MyCareersFuture job bank to check that employers have complied with their FCF obligations when making work pass applications.
In 2020, there were 90 employers on the MOM's watch list for falling short of the fair consideration guidelines. The Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices (TAFEP) provides guidance to companies on the MOM's watch list on improving their employment practices, and watch listing means that a company falls under the microscope over the course of six months. Being placed on the watch list at the minimum has negative repercussions for the success of new employment pass applications. Since 2016, companies have had 3,000 new employment pass applications withdrawn, rejected or withheld while they were on the watch list.
The MOM will deny a recalcitrant employer new employment passes as well as the renewal of existing employment passes for 12 to 24 months. The TAFEP investigated about 260 cases of such discriminatory hiring practice in the first half of 2020, 60 per cent more than the 160 cases in the same period last year, of which some 90 employers had their work pass privileges suspended due to discriminatory hiring practices. The new hiring policy places emphasis on whether a firm has continued to support local professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs); has responded to government efforts to help employers recruit and train more Singaporean PMETs; or has discriminated against qualified Singaporeans. The Minister for Manpower has said that responsible executives could be charged individually (not only companies) and, if they are foreigners themselves, lose their own employment passes.
While there is no quota as such on employment passes for professionals, managers, executives and business owners, the hiring of mid-level skilled workers (i.e., S pass holders) is strictly governed by arithmetic. Presently, the S pass quota ceilings are 10 or 18 per cent of the payroll, depending on industry sector. The 10 per cent quota ceiling on foreign mid-level skilled workers in the services sector and the 18 per cent quota ceiling in the construction, 'marine shipyard and process sectors will remain the same. At the same time, from 1 January 2023, these sectors will have a further cut from 18 to 15% per cent.
On the other hand, in February 2020, 28 companies joined the list of 550 companies identified as having employment practices 'over and above what is fair and legal'. These employers have been inducted by the MOM into its human capital partnership programme, one of whose benefits is speedier processing of employment pass applications.
Most work passes require employer sponsorship. The work pass framework largely only caters for persons who already have firm offers of jobs in Singapore. Work passes are not granted to jobseekers. A work pass is also specific to an employment and must be surrendered for cancellation when a person leaves his or her employer. The exceptions are the PEP, which, as the name suggests, is personal to the holder so that he or she can use it from one job to another for the duration of the pass; and the EntrePass, which is granted to qualifying self-employed individuals.
The sponsor company is normally expected to be a well-established, Singapore-registered company. It is expected to furnish the respective numbers of its local (i.e., citizen and permanent resident) and foreign employees, and its business turnover for the past three years, as part of the work pass application. In the case of a newly incorporated subsidiary, it is possible to get around the lack of a business record in Singapore and to establish one's bona fides by capitalising the subsidiary with a respectable level of paid-up share capital or by disclosing the financials of the parent company.
A Singapore company can be wholly foreign-owned; there is no local shareholding requirement. However, a company must have at least one director who is ordinarily resident in Singapore. The resident director need not be a Singapore citizen or permanent resident. A person holding a work pass can qualify as a resident director.
The sponsor is required to certify, confirm and ensure that:
- the work pass application is made for the purpose as stated by the foreign employee;
- the information set out in the application is true and correct; and
- the foreign employee fully understands the declarations made in his or her application.
It is necessary to keep copies of the foreign employee's educational certificates as declared in the application form for the duration of the foreigner's employment.
i Work permits
The relevant work passes for professionals, executives, business owners and mid-level to highly skilled workers are the employment pass and the S pass.
From October 2020, the basic requirements to be considered for an employment pass are a fixed monthly salary of S$4,500 for young graduates, rising with age and experience and also acceptable qualifications (as defined below). Applicants, aged 40 and above may be expected to have double the minimum salary threshold as a competitive edge against the labour market.
Fixed monthly salary
For the purposes of evaluating an employment pass application, fixed monthly salary means basic salary and fixed allowances; that is, remuneration and allowances that do not vary from month to month regardless, for example, of employee or company performance. It excludes:
- variable allowances;
- overtime payments, bonuses, commissions or annual wage supplements;
- in-kind payments;
- productivity incentive payments;
- contributions by the employer to any pension or provident fund (including contributions made on the employee's behalf); or
- any gratuity payable on discharge, retrenchment or retirement.
Acceptable qualifications include:
- good degrees (see below);
- professional qualifications;
- specialised skills; or
- a proven track record and exceptional skill set.
Degree-awarding institutions are recognised according to their global and country rankings by independent accreditation boards (such as QS World University Rankings and the Academic Ranking of World Universities), the employment outcomes of their graduates and their enrolment standards. Previously, the MOM has been known to reject applications where the qualifications do not come from a listed institution. Candidates awarded from a non-listed institution may submit their qualification together with a verification proof from an MOM-approved global verification agency.
Most employment pass applications are submitted online. An employer must first apply for a CorpPass account for access to online government services and then specifically register for the online employment pass application system. Setting up the CorpPass and EP Online accounts (both one-time procedures) takes about a week. Then the MOM takes about three weeks to decide an employment pass application. Longer processing times are to be expected for applications sponsored by newly incorporated companies.
Hardcopy applications have been phased out.
It is possible to request an employment pass for up to 60 months. In practice, employment passes are mostly granted for 12 or 24 months at a time. However, they are renewable indefinitely, subject to:
- checks by the MOM with the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore on the taxpaying record of the individual;the business performance of the employer continuing to justify the person's employment; and
- the employment pass policy and criteria prevailing at the time of renewal.
An employment pass does not require the holder to be physically present in Singapore for any minimum number of days in a year.
A PEP is intended for the highest-earning PMEs, . Unlike sponsored work passes, a PEP is specific to the holder and will not be cancelled when the PEP holder leaves his or her employment; the MOM merely has to be notified of each change in the holder's employment status. The holder may remain in Singapore on the PEP for up to six months between jobs.
A PEP is issued only once, for a three-year duration, and cannot be renewed. The intent behind the PEP is that the person will, after three years in Singapore, take the next step of applying to become a permanent resident and assimilate into the Singapore talent pool.
The basic requirement for a foreign national to obtain a PEP is a last-drawn fixed monthly salary of S$18,000 or more. The foreigner must file the PEP application within six months of the last drawn salary. An employment pass holder (i.e., an individual who is already working in Singapore) whose fixed monthly salary is S$12,000 or more may also apply for a PEP. The entire process usually takes about eight weeks.
The PEP is not available to employment pass holders under the sponsorship scheme, self-employed freelancers, sole proprietors, partners, company director–shareholders, journalists, editors, subeditors or producers.
PEP applications are now online also; hard- copy applications have been phased out. PEPs have the same dependant privileges as employment passes.
The EntrePass is intended for foreign entrepreneurs starting new businesses in Singapore and contributing to local employment. As such, an EntrePass application normally involves a proposed company rather than an already existing local sponsor or employer.
A new EntrePass is issued for 12 months and can be renewed, subject to certain criteria. It is valid for another 12 months after the first renewal, and thereafter for 24 months for subsequent renewals. The EntrePass application requires the applicant to provide his or her work experience as well as a detailed business plan. The required business form is a Singapore private limited company.
One of the following criteria must be fulfilled:
- the company receives at least S$100,000 funding from an unrelated venture capitalist or business angel that is accredited by a Singapore government agency;
- the company holds intellectual property (IP) related to its business contributed by one or more of the shareholders and registered with the Singapore Copyright Office or an approved foreign IP institution;
- the company is involved in ongoing research collaboration with a research institution recognised by the Agency for Science, Technology and Research or institutes of higher learning in Singapore;
- the company is an incubatee at a Singapore government-supported incubator;
- the applicant has a significant business network and entrepreneurial track record;
- the applicant has a record of extraordinary achievements in the areas relevant to the intended business; or
- the applicant has a good investment track record.
EntrePass applications are made online; hardcopy applications are no longer accepted. Applications are assessed jointly by the MOM, IMDA, SGInnovate and SPRING Singapore.
Renewal of an EntrePass depends on evidence of business activities, continuing shareholding in the company, employment created for locals (i.e., Singapore citizens or permanent residents) and business expenditure. Apart from the requirement that the EntrePass holder own at least 30 per cent of the shares in the company at the end of the first year, the following requirements must also be fulfilled:
|After year||Number of local employees||Minimum business expenditure|
|Two||One PME or three other full-time employees (FTEs)||S$100,000|
|Four||Two PMEs or six other FTEs||S$200,000|
|Six||Three PMEs or nine other FTEs||S$300,000|
|Eight and later||Four PMEs or twelve other FTEs||S$400,000|
Business expenditure for this purpose is defined as operating expenses less the amount of any royalties, franchise fees or know-how fees to overseas recipients, any work subcontracted overseas and the EntrePass holder's remuneration from the company.
Persons who do not earn enough or do not have the qualifications to secure an employment pass may obtain an S pass. For work pass purposes, these employees are described as mid-level skilled technical workers. The criteria are a fixed monthly salary starting at S$2,500 and rising with age and work experience; educational qualifications from technical certificates corresponding to at least one year of full-time study through polytechnic diplomas to university degrees; and any relevant work experience. S pass applications are made through the same online system as employment passes and likewise usually take about three weeks to be processed. There is, however, an S pass quota that obliges employers to maintain an industry-specific ratio of local and foreign employees.
Renewals and appeals
Employment and S passes may be renewed as early as six months before the pass expires. (The PEP is issued just once, and the EntrePass is only renewable three months before expiry.) Renewal largely involves the employer updating the employee's data (if it has not been necessary to do so already) and is generally a routine matter unless there has been a change in policy or in the qualifying requirements for the pass.
Statutorily, any person who is aggrieved by a decision not to issue or renew a work pass (or to revoke a work pass) may appeal to the MOM, whose decision is final. There is no forum or tribunal or appeal should an application for the grant or renewal of a work pass be refused. An applicant is not entitled to know the reasons for refusal. Nonetheless, as a matter of practice it has always been possible to appeal in writing for a review of an unfavourable decision. In addition, the Work Pass Division does specify and ask for fuller or better information or documents. This is done so that it may have sufficient information to consider and approve an application, rather than reject it without any feedback.
ii Labour market regulation
Contract and tort law are relevant. The Employment Act, the Industrial Relations Act, the Trade Unions Act, the Retirement and Re-employment Act, the Central Provident Fund (CPF) Act, the Work Injury Compensation Act and the Workplace Health and Safety Act are also important sources of employment law in Singapore.
The CPF Act, for instance, makes it mandatory for employers to contribute to their employees' national pension fund (CPF) accounts. Under the CPF scheme, Singaporean employees and permanent residents generally contribute 20 per cent of their salary to the CPF, while their employers make a 17 per cent CPF contribution over and above the salary paid to the employee. The contribution levels vary with age and there is a cap on contributions. Additionally, new permanent residents phase into the CPF scheme over three years, meaning that full CPF contributions at the normal levels are required in respect of a permanent resident only in their third year. Foreigners on work passes are excluded from this scheme. This means that, at the same wage levels, Singaporean employees and permanent residents are structurally more expensive to employ than work pass holders.
The Employment Act regulates conditions of service and seeks to prevent malpractice and abuses in the workplace (e.g., imposing limits on overtime work, regulating entitlement to sick leave). The Act, however, does not offer protection to employees if they earn more than S$4,500 in a managerial or executive position (which has not been clearly defined). The presumption is that such employees are better able to protect their own interests and hence do not need statutory protection.
Apart from litigation, arbitration or mediation, employees or employers can approach the MOM for free mediation or conciliation services when there is an employment dispute.
iii Rights and duties of sponsored employees
Spousal and familial applications
An employment pass holder with a fixed monthly salary of at least S$6,000 may be accompanied by his or her spouse, partner or children under a dependant's pass or long-term visit pass. An employment pass holder with a fixed monthly salary of at least S$12,000 may be accompanied by his or her parents. The dependant's pass and long-term visit pass eligibility matrix is as follows:
|Fixed monthly salary||Relationship||Eligible for|
|S$12,000 and above||Parents||Long-term visit pass|
|S$6,000 and above||Spouse (legally married)||Dependant's pass|
|Unmarried children under 21 years||Dependant's pass|
|Common-law spouse||Long-term visit pass|
|Unmarried handicapped children over 21 years||Long-term visit pass|
|Unmarried stepchildren under 21 years||Long-term visit pass|
An S pass holder earning a fixed monthly salary of S$6,000 or more has the same dependant's pass privileges as an employment pass. Otherwise, S pass holders may not bring their families to live in Singapore.
Dependant privileges for an EntrePass holder are subject to different criteria, namely employment created for locals and annual business expenditure:
|Local employees||Business expenditure||Relationship||Eligible for|
|Two PMEs or six other FTEs||$200,000||Parents||Long-term visit pass|
|One PME or three other FTEs||$100,000||Spouse (legally married)||Dependant's pass|
|Unmarried children under 21 years||Dependant's pass|
|Common-law spouse||Long-term visit pass|
|Unmarried handicapped children over 21 year||Long-term visit pass|
|Unmarried stepchildren under 21 years||Long-term visit pass|
A dependant's pass or a long-term visit pass are valid for the same duration as the primary work pass.
There is no public guidance from the MOM on whether a dependant's pass or long-term social visit pass are available to same-sex spouses and partners. Male homosexual acts or 'gross indecency' between 'any male person' and 'any [other] male person' are legally criminal offences punishable with up to two years' imprisonment, but prosecutions are rare.
Cancellation of work pass
When the work pass holder leaves his or her job, the pass must be cancelled and the card destroyed by the pass holder to avoid misuse. A cancellation may be requested up to 14 days in advance online. Cancelling a work pass holder's pass effectively cancels the family member's pass at the same time.
When the work pass is cancelled, the person will receive a 30-day short-term visit pass. A visit pass can be extended for up to 89 days. Work pass holders are also required to pay any outstanding income taxes in Singapore before they leave. There is a 'tax clearance' obligation on the employer to notify the Revenue of a foreign national's impending departure at least one month in advance, and to withhold any monies owing to the employee pending clearance from the Revenue.
Investors, skilled migrants and entrepreneurs
i Permanent residence
Holders of employment passes, PEPs, EntrePasses and S passes may apply for permanent residence after working in Singapore for about two years. Generally, the higher the category of work pass held, the greater the likelihood of obtaining permanent residence. The usual processing time is around six months.
A person applying for permanent residence may include his or her spouse and children under 21 years in the same application. A family unit applying for permanent residence is regarded as evincing a greater degree of commitment to Singapore and generally receives more favourable consideration than an application that omits one or more members of the applicant's immediate family.
On the other hand, parents should consider carefully whether to make their sons permanent residents of Singapore because compulsory conscription for national service applies to boys who obtain permanent residence through their parents. They have to enlist in the Singapore armed forces for two years when they reach the age of 18. This is followed by part-time 'operationally ready' or reservist service up to age 50 for officers or age 40 for other ranks.
A person granted permanent residence receives an entry permit to enter Singapore as a permanent resident. If he or she never leaves Singapore again, the duration of his or her status as a permanent resident is indefinite.
A permanent resident is also issued with a re-entry permit. A valid re-entry permit is required to return to Singapore as a permanent resident. In other words, a person ceases to be a permanent resident should the re-entry permit expire while he or she is abroad. In practice, therefore, permanent resident status is not truly 'permanent' but has to be renewed periodically.
The GIP is a scheme offering direct entry to permanent residence. It is offered by the EDB to foreigners with 'a substantial business track record and a successful entrepreneurial background'. In hard numbers, this means that a person seeking a direct route to permanent residence under the GIP must have started and still be a shareholder in a business with a turnover of at least S$200 million both in the past year as well as on average over the past three years. If the business is a private and not a public company, the applicant must own at least 30 per cent of the equity.
The applicant has to offer to make an investment of S$2.5 million either in the start-up or expansion of a business in Singapore within an investment sector that Singapore is interested in promoting (e.g., aerospace engineering, chemicals, healthcare, nanotechnology), or in an approved venture capital fund investing in Singapore-based companies. The approved investment sectors and funds change from time to time. The investment is locked in for five years.
There is also a family office option for applicants with at least five years' 'entrepreneurial, investment or management track record' and whose personal or direct family net worth is at least S$200 million. A high-net-worth individual meeting these criteria may obtain permanent residence under the GIP by investing S$2.5 million in setting up a single-family office in Singapore to manage assets of at least S$200 million.
Permanent residency for the investor's spouse and children is available, if desired, in one application.
Outlook and conclusions
The total population of Singapore experienced a dip from 5.7 million to 5.6 million, with about 1.6 million foreign nationals working, studying and living here. The citizen population has grown by 0.8 per cent over the past year due to citizen births and immigration, while the permanent resident population has remained relatively stable. Foreign employment over the past year declined by about 48,100 from last year's 36,800.
The government takes a pragmatic approach towards immigration. It recognises Singapore's reliance on foreign manpower is a necessity, but that foreign manpower should complement the local workforce. There is a feeling among some Singaporeans that the government's policies mean that locals have strong competition from foreigners for jobs and places in educational institutions. These social pressures have been acknowledged by the government through various initiatives such as training programmes and job matching to assist Singaporeans in all stages of their employment. Moreover, changes to the mandatory labour market testing, use of data analytics to track applications and monitoring by the MOM and TAFEP mean better enforcement of policies in the job market. However, the effectiveness of such initiatives also depends on jobseekers' openness to new occupations or industries and employers' improvement of the quality of jobs to attract jobseekers.
The changes to the work pass framework have the greatest effect on labour-intensive service businesses where labour cost is a major expense, accounting for 20 to 50 per cent of total revenue. Employers are encouraged to look to a wider pool of jobseekers, such as long-term unemployed or mature retrenched jobseekers, to meet their manpower needs. Stricter penalties will add real teeth to the enforcement of employment guidelines, and should lead to higher human resource standards in Singaporean companies.
Employment growth remains robust in sectors such as professional services, financial and insurance services, information and communications, public administration, education, food and beverage services and the retail trade. Job opportunities for both local and foreign employers in these sectors will continue to provide support to the labour market.
1 Leon Kwong Wing is a partner and Trizia May Dela Cruz is a legal executive at Withers KhattarWong LLP.