Masks Down, Singapore smiles again at high earners

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If there is any doubt that Covid is in Singapore’s rear view mirror, put it aside. The country is making new efforts to attract the foreign talent it needs to stay in the game as one of Asia’s leading global cities and business hubs. Having come out of the pandemic well, largely due to blunders by rivals like Hong Kong, Singapore wants to take the lead. This implicitly implies a recalibration of the signals transmitted to the outside world.

While the small republic has always presented itself as much more open than its neighbours, the most recent campaign has gone up a few notches. The government said on Monday it was revising visa rules, establishing a new five-year pass for foreigners earning at least 30,000 Singapore dollars ($21,431) a month, which allows them to work in multiple businesses and allows dependents to seek employment. Requirements to advertise jobs locally before hiring expats will be relaxed. Manpower Minister Tan See Leng described the changes as an opportunity: “Businesses and talents are looking for safe and stable places to invest, live and work. Singapore is such a place.

Singapore’s security and stability have never really been in doubt. There’s little violent crime or theft – it’s a great place to raise children – and the People’s Action Party has ruled since Malaysia’s independence in 1965. Which had been questioned in recent years , gathering pace during the pandemic, was how badly Singapore was really about adding more of the world’s best and brightest to its 5.5 million people. Removing or reducing some barriers to immigration will be good, but it will also require a change in attitude. The same global talent Singapore wants to attract has at best been met with ambivalence and what many expatriate workers saw as punitive labor and immigration regulations during some of the toughest days of the pandemic. These were preceded by a deep recession and an electoral setback for the PAP in 2020 which was widely seen as a reaction in part against too many foreigners in quality jobs. Expats have faced restrictions on spouses’ ability to work, increased minimum wages for work permits and no guarantee of returning to Singapore if you leave to care for sick people at home. Ministers lined up to warn multinational employers against cutting local workforces when laying off staff. Companies suspected of not giving local talent a fair chance have been placed on a watchlist. Singapore can, of course, adopt whatever laws it wishes. He has the first and last word on who comes, on what terms. No one I know has questioned that. But the message has become very mixed. Leaders said the shutdown would be the demise of the republic, but there would often be enough caveats that local voters would feel their concerns were being addressed. Finance has come under scrutiny, despite a long-term ambition to make the country a hotspot for money markets. Business got the message: in July last year, as parliament debated the workforce, Citigroup Inc. issued a press release trumpeting the appointment of Singaporeans to senior positions.

Now, with more economies reopening, the message is changing, at least in tone. This was highlighted during Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s speech at the National Day rally, in which he announced the repeal of a controversial law criminalizing sex between men that has long been a source of bad news. public relations. Lee did not make a direct connection, but devoted significant parts of his speech to the need to stay engaged in the world. In the talent hunt, Lee said, “Singapore cannot afford to be skimmed or left behind.” Singapore wants to prevail in a difficult post-pandemic period characterized by an end to low levels of inflation, interest rates and wages. A scramble for human capital will be another – and more difficult – hallmark of this new era. Singapore doesn’t just need high-flyers, vital as they are. The new visa floor of S$30,000 per month is comparable to the income of the top 5% of Job Passport holders. The reopening has been accompanied by labor shortages at most levels, from home improvement contractors to engineers and technology executives. Tan pointed out that the government is committed to nurturing local talents and leaders. Courting foreign stars creates the kind of vibrant economy that provides opportunities for Singaporeans, he said. The visa initiatives were unveiled hours after the wearing of masks against Covid became voluntary indoors, except for public transport, healthcare and food preparation. The wait had been long. After more than two years, children can see the faces of their teachers in classrooms and each other. More pragmatically, with increasing business travel and tourism around the world, Singapore has gotten rid of another deterrent, though it hasn’t been forcefully enforced in recent months. (The presence of red-shirted “safe distancing ambassadors” has been reduced. SDAs were once a common sight snapping photos of patrons drinking lattes at downtown tony cafes, haunts for expats and Singapore’s cosmopolitan class, in their vigilance for breaches of protocol.) Yet along the malls of Orchard Road on Monday night, there was no obvious difference. Inside and outside, many people wore masks. Hard-won attitudes and habits cannot be reversed overnight. Is the best reception reserved for foreign expertise rather an evolution or a revolution? I will give Singapore the benefit of the doubt. If that doesn’t work, officials can always push the pendulum again. Pragmatism will always reign.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• In New York, London and Hong Kong? Moving On: Anjani Trivedi

• Singapore retreats on banning gay sex. But not very far: Daniel Moss

• Singapore still wants smart, wealthy expats: Rachel Rosenthal

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Daniel Moss is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asian economies. Previously, he was Bloomberg News’ economics editor.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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