The Buzz over Population: Are citizens being crowded out?

Updated: Feb 18

By Val Alvern Cueco Ligo


The name Erramalli Ramesh should ring a bell. In case it doesn’t, he was the guy who got into a fight with a security guard over parking rights in a condominium in Whampoa. His name is not important for this article, but his actions are – they brought issues of immigration and Singapore’s population back into the spotlight. Of particular interest here is CECA, or the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement, started in 2005, which guarantees things like a waiver of tariffs between both countries.

When a video of Mr Ramesh deriding the security guard went viral, it prompted a sizeable group of Singaporeans to gather in Hong Lim Park for a protest against Ramesh, CECA, and the government’s now suspended plans to increase Singapore’s population to 6.9 million by 2030. Now, while these issues seem interlinked, there are some clarifications to be made about how they are linked:

1. The biggest assumption is that CECA gives special immigration privileges to Indian nationals which is how Ramesh became a citizen. Firstly, he became a citizen through marriage – his wife is Singaporean.

2. Next, while CECA does guarantee entry and residence in Singapore, it is only in the capacities of a business visitor, short-term contractors, professional, or an inter-company transfer. Whatever the title is, any Indian national will still be required to apply for, and be granted, a valid visa. These positions can be further broken down into different types of temporary entry:

  • Short-term Temporary Entry which applies to the Business Visitor and the Short Term Service Supplier

  • Long-Term Temporary Entry which applies to Intra-Corporate Transferees and Professionals. If you’re wondering what constitutes a professional, you can click here. An important point about Intra-Corporate Transferees is that they could potentially stay in Singapore for a maximum of 8 years. With that said, this is not specific to just CECA. The Japan-Singapore Economic Partnership Agreement (JSEPA) makes the same provision for Japanese “intra-corporate transferees” coming into Singapore. An interesting difference is that for the JSEPA, it seems that “further extensions may be possible” after the maximum allocated 8 years. This is the same for the Korea-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (KSFTA). However, like CECA and the rest of Singapore’s established FTAs and EPAs, there is no special provision for citizenship or permanent residency.

Another important thing to note is that those under CECA’s long term temporary entry can apply to have their spouses or dependants come with them. The Korean and Japanese versions only permit short-term business visitors to be accompanied by family members.

3. Any foreigner who wants to work in Singapore will also have to satisfy qualifying criteria set by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), which applies to Employment Pass, S Pass, and work permit holders.

4. As for citizenship, that’s another ball game altogether. The rules have never been spelt out but it’s usually the case that long-staying PRs will get citizenship, though even that is not guaranteed.

The Ramesh case caused enough worry for the Home Affairs ministry to explain how he obtained his citizenship, a Minister to talk about CECA and a chorus of warnings about not spreading fake news that could widen the citizen-foreigner divide.

The need for foreign manpower to supplement the local workforce in terms of numbers and skills, as well as for new citizens to make up for Singapore’s low birth rate, are reasons that have been articulated time and again. From an employer’s point of view, having more foreign workers help because Singaporeans simply won’t do certain jobs in spite of higher pay. While workers will laud attempts to tighten the immigration tap, employers will deride such moves as detrimental to businesses.

The term “foreigner’’ has also been used loosely. Most of the foreigners here are Malaysians, a traditional source of manpower. This is mostly due to the historical relationship between Singapore and Malaysia. It is likely that the angst isn’t directed at the presence of Malaysians but other destinations such as China, India and the Philippines who are increasingly making their presence felt in front-line jobs.

Some political parties have indicated that they will campaign on a pro-Singapore platform, which might stoke nativist sentiments if not carefully explained. DPM Heng Swee Keat urged resistance against these “nativistic tendencies”, adding that we should be wary of political parties pulling us toward populist sentiment.



The chart below shows an overall increase in population across different demographics over the years. Of note are the Permanent resident and non-resident populations.

The PR population jumped from 478,221 to 533,183 between 2008 and 2009, the largest annual jump since PR figures were collected in 1990. The population peaked in 2010 at 541,002. After that, the number of PRs stagnated, with no significant jumps or decrease in numbers.

Non-resident populations, which include migrant construction workers, foreign domestic workers, employment pass holders, and S-pass holders, peaked in 2016 at 1,673,724 people. This number sharply fell by almost 30,000 people between 2016 and 2017, to 1,646,457 people. However, that drop did not last very long as 2019 saw the largest ever number of non-residents in Singapore at 1,677,360. The annual Population in Brief report said this was probably due to growth in the services industry and an improvement in the construction industry. Foreigners have consistently amounted to one-third of the workforce here.

The chart below is a more detailed breakdown of Singapore’s foreign population.


It shows an overall increase in the number of people with different work passes from December 2014 to June 2019, amounting to a total of 1,399,600 people in our foreign workforce. The only exception to this is the work permit pass holders (including foreign domestic workers) which saw a 10,300 fall. You might have noticed a discrepancy between the total foreign workforce numbers (1,399,600) and the non-resident population (1,677,360) — this gap is made up of students and dependants. If we exclude Foreign Domestics Workers (FDWs) and Construction Workers, foreign workforce numbers go down to 812,700 – a high since December 2014 which had 764,200.

Overall, the annual Population in Brief report summarises the major changes for the first half of 2019:

  1. Singapore’s population grew to 5.7 million, boosted by an increase in the number of foreign workers

  2. Between 2017 and 2018, the number of citizenships given was the highest in 11 years, at 22,550 new citizenships

  3. The number of PRs granted was 32,710 – slightly higher than the previous year’s increase of 31,849

According to MOM, as of June 2019, the total foreign workforce in Singapore stands at 1,399,600.

It is not the sheer numbers, however, that are scaring people — it is what these numbers are said to do to one's livelihood. Perhaps the biggest reason immigration has been an issue for as long as it has is the perception that the influx of foreigners meant that there would be more competition for jobs, especially in the PMET (Professionals, Managers, Executives and Technicians) fields.

Last month, the Manpower ministry released statistics focused on PMET employment in Singapore; PMET Share of Employment. As of 2019, 58.3% of residents employed in the workforce are PMETs, with a bulk of that number made up of Singaporean citizens at 55.8%. The other 2.5% are assumed to be permanent residents but the report does not state so explicitly.


This tension recently reached its peak in the public sphere after the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) had to correct its online posts when it said that Singaporean PMETs were increasingly being retrenched, even as more foreigners were taking up jobs here. You can read our stories on SDP here and here.


The Fair Consideration Framework (FCF) was launched in 2014 to ensure that employers do not favour foreigners over locals. Companies must show that they have tried to hire locals by advertising job vacancies in a national jobs bank administered by the Singapore Workforce Development Agency before applying for employment passes or risk having their “work pass privileges curtailed”.

These rules became tighter since then.

In 2016: The FCF watchlist was introduced which monitors companies flagged for unfair hiring practices — since it was introduced, about 600 companies have been put in the list. Any applications for employment passes from these companies will either be rejected or withdrawn by the Ministry of Manpower.

In 2018 :

  • Regulations extended to companies with 10 or more full-time employees that want to hire foreigners for positions with a fixed monthly salary below S$15,000. (This was an increase from the previous S$12,000 ceiling and minimum employee size of 25.)

  • These companies must advertise the job position on the National Jobs Bank portal for at least 14 days.

In 2020 : The government just announced even stricter rules and punishments for employers with discriminatory hiring practices. Under the updated framework:

  • Employers found guilty of discriminatory practices will be barred from applying for work passes for existing employees.

  • In addition, they will not be allowed to apply for new work passes for at least 12 – a 6 month increase from the previous 6-month ban.

  • Employers and key personnel found to be lying about fairly considering all candidates can now also be prosecuted in court.

  • If found guilty under the Employment of Foreign manpower Act, they could be jailed for 2 years, find up to $20,000, or both.

Besides regulations for jobs, the government recently tightened the Immigration Act in 2017. You can read about it here.


One of the bigger worries is how Singapore’s “culture” is vulnerable to dilution because of the influx of foreigners. In fact, the following charts illustrate just how worried some Singaporeans are about this.

A study conducted by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and United Nations Women found that out of the 1,005 Singaporeans surveyed, 53 per cent felt that migrant workers threatened the country’s culture and heritage. Another 32 per cent felt that migrant workers have poor work ethic and are not to be trusted. In addition, 52 per cent of the Singaporean respondents felt that migration has caused the crime rate to go up. While this statistic is low relative to respondents from other countries – 51 per cent for Japanese respondents, 77 per cent for Thai respondents, and 83 per cent for Malaysian respondents – it still showed that more than half of the surveyed Singaporeans held some sort of distrust toward migrants.


The most worrying statistic is that 60 per cent of the Singaporeans surveyed do not think that migrant workers should receive the same pay or work benefits as locals – the highest figure amongst the four countries. In addition, 42 per cent do not support equal wages for locals and migrant women doing the same job. Interestingly though, in the same survey, 58 per cent of respondents believed that migrant workers have “an overall positive net effect” on the national economy, with 56 per cent saying that they regularly interacted with migrant workers.


A separate survey conducted in 2019 by the Institute of Policy Studies, surveying about 4,000 Singapore citizens and permanent residents, found that 90 per cent of people believed it was good to have people from other nationalities living in the same neighbourhood. However, more than 60 per cent of them said that immigrants do not do enough to integrate with the Singaporean community.


As of June 2019, there were 3.5 million Singaporean citizens which is a 0.8 per cent increase from the previous year. 22,550 people were granted citizenship between 2017 and 2018 with a majority of them being from Southeast Asian countries at 61.6 per cent. The rest are made up of people from other Asian countries (32.4 per cent) and 6 per cent from countries outside Asia. 32,710 were granted permanent residency in the same time frame.


Recently, the Minister of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) announced that it will co-create new content with Singapore citizens for the Singapore Citizenship Journey (SCJ). This will involve a group of 100 Singaporeans from diverse backgrounds discussing and creating content based on their common values and understanding about what it means to be a Singaporean. The SCJ is a compulsory induction programme for new Singaporean citizens between the ages of 16 and 60.

Now, when we talk about the difference between PRs and Citizens, we usually think through the different benefits each of them receive. Permanent residents do enjoy certain benefits but unsurprisingly, Singaporean citizens still have way more.


For example, while PRs can purchase resale HDB flats (subject to HDB’s eligibility schemes), they are not eligible to purchase subsidised new housing from HDB.


A big one for those with children are the education subsidies enjoyed by Singaporean citizens —while PRs have to pay 180SGD for primary school, it is free for Singaporean citizens. At secondary school, PRs have to pay 320SGD while citizens pay just 5SGD.


Singaporeans also enjoy greater subsidies for certain healthcare services. For example, should you need to be warded in Ward Classes B1, B2, or C, you’ll have up to a 20 per cent, 65 per cent, and 80 per cent subsidy respectively. PRs get 10 per cent, 55 per cent, and 70 per cent.

For a full list of the differences in benefits, you can click here.

It seems that as long as Singapore’s birth rate continues to be unsustainable, there will be a push and pull when it comes to immigration issues. While the government has done much to encourage more births, it seems inevitable for small, developed countries such as Singapore to ride this wave of immigration. Japan is the closest example of an ageing population having detrimental effects on a country’s economy. For Singapore to avoid the same fate, it seems that immigration will be here to stay – whether we like it or not.

Read Val's take on this here.

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