Frustrating numbers: how many foreigners working here?

For the most recent session of parliament Yaw Shin Leong (ex-Workers’ Party/Hougang) asked Manpower Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam for some statistics about the numbers of work passes issued to foreigners. Tharman provided numbers of his choosing (in other words, not quite in answer to Yaw’s question) that are so scanty, no reader can make much sense of them.

From the Manpower Ministry website, I see the exact words even though the Hansard has not yet been updated:

Written Answer by Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister for Finance and Minister for Manpower, to Parliamentary Question on number of Work Permits, S Passes and Employment Passes issued since tightening of foreign workers’ quota

Mr Yaw Shin Leong: To ask the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Manpower if he will provide a breakdown of the number of work permits, S passes and employment passes issued in each month from July 2010 to January 2012 since the implementation of the foreign workforce tightening measures in July 2010.

Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam: The foreign workforce tightening measures have been phased in from July 2010. Foreign worker levies are being increased in steps, starting from July 2010 to July 2013. The salary and other criteria for S Pass and Employment Pass holders are also being phased in.

The impact of these measures will hence not be seen instantly. Their effects should be seen over the next few years, and have to be assessed against the context of the state of the economy, the demand for labour and the availability of local workers.

The table below provides the year-end stock of Employment Pass, S Pass and Work Permit holders (excluding Foreign Domestic Workers) for 2010 and 2011.

There are many things wrong with the above answer. Firstly, Yaw asked for the monthly numbers of new passes issued, but Tharman’s answer referred to the extant stock at the ends of 2010 and 2011. One might say Yaw’s question was badly phrased, and I would agree. Yaw should have asked for the numbers issued, the numbers cancelled, thus the net increase/decrease, plus the balance extant at the end of each month. He could also have asked for conversions, i.e. from Employment Passes to Permanent Residency. But that is Yaw’s problem and he can be criticised for a thoughtlessly phrased question. Yet, however inadequately Yaw’s question was structured, Tharman should at least have answered it, especially as the figures should be easily available within his ministry.

Tharman was free to add additional information and explanations, as he did in saying that the impact of the tightening measures cannot be assessed in such a short term. That is entirely reasonable.

Secondly, the numbers were so scanty, it’s hard to make much of them. If Tharman had given monthly stock figures, we might be able to read more into them, but not when, despite Yaw asking for monthly figures, the reply came in the form of year-end totals. Ministers should show more respect to parliament as representatives of the people, and provide fuller answers.

* * * * *

Although the above was described as a written answer, Tharman seemed to have delivered it verbally, in the process providing additional numbers, as I deduce from a Straits Times report:

While the number of foreign workers in each of the three work pass categories went up last year, the pool of SPass holders rose at a slower rate than the previous year, said Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam yesterday.

The fastest growth was in the number of employment pass (EP) holders – professionals who hold the highest tier of foreign work passes.

Their numbers climbed up 23.9 per cent from 142,000 in December 2010 to 176,000 in December last year.

But the proportional increase is about the same as the 23.5 per cent registered in 2010 when the number of EP holders rose from 115,000 in 2009 to 142,000.

In contrast, the rate of increase of SPass holders – mid-tier skilled workers – has slowed from the previous year.

Their numbers rose 15.3 per cent, from 98,000 in 2010 to 113,000 in December last year.

But in 2010, it rose by 19.5 per cent, from 82,000 in 2009 to 98,000.

The pool of work permit holders, excluding foreign maids, expanded at the slowest rate, at 4.8 per cent. There were 702,000 such workers last year compared to 670,000 in 2010.

— Straits Times, 15 Feb 2012, Slowdown in growth of S Pass holders, by Andrea Ong

Moreover, in a reply to a separate parliamentary question, raised by non-constituency member Lina Chiam, Tharman also mentioned that the total numbers of foreign nationals working in Singapore were 1,113,200 and 1,197,900 at the end of 2010 and 2011 respectively. From these grand totals, we can work out the number of foreign domestic workers even though this category had been omitted from the reply to Yaw’s question. Thus:

The disorganised and highly selective way in which information is provided to the public is most unsatisfactory. It is high time Singapore adopted a scheme for open data. I also believe that citizens should have the right to obtain such information via a Freedom of Information Act, not just parliamentarians.

I said above that it is hard to interpret the numbers, because they are so few. Moreover, one cannot help but be skeptical about their significance from the way Tharman seemed to be choosing what numbers to release based on how they might serve whatever argument he wanted to make. Even so, I think a 15% increase in S-Pass holders and 24% increase in Employment Pass holders within just 12 months represent extremely high leaps, and easily accounts for the widespread feeling that this place is being overrun.

Some might also say this accounts for the frequent complaint that local employees are being replaced by foreigners. I would be a little more careful before saying that, because we are mostly relying on anecdotal information. These high percentage increases of foreigners are from a base that is relatively low compared to the local working population. Considering our low birthrate, the local working population cannot be increasing very much (unless a rapid rise in the number of Permanent Residents boosts the ‘locals’ number). Perhaps our GDP growth requires a higher growth in foreign workers to make up for a shortfall in locals?

It so happens that Tharman’s answer to Lina Chiam’s question provides total figures for 2006 to 2011. From those, I can compute total increases in working population, and I can also then compare against GDP growth:

For three of the last five years, the growth in the number of working persons exceeded GDP growth, causing GDP output per working person to fall. It has recovered somewhat in the last two years, but (at 2005 market prices) we’re not significantly better off in 2011 than in 2006. Beyond that, I can’t say anything conclusive; I certainly can’t say if the recent double-digit increases in S-Pass and Employment Pass holders is too hot, too cold or just right.

We need more data than the government seems prepared to give.

This essay is the second of three on ‘frustrating numbers’.  The others are on scholarships for foreign students and household income gap.

16 Responses to “Frustrating numbers: how many foreigners working here?”

  1. 1 Chanel 23 February 2012 at 17:40

    Yes, S’poreans deserved a Freedom of Information Act. Even a developing country like India has a similar law. Openness and full transparency is the only way for PAP government to build trust. Perhaps the elitism in PAP is ingrained that the party/government thinks that ordinary folks don’t have the intelligence to read the information in a reasonable manner. Thsi mentality of the ruling elite needs to change, and change fast.

    My guess is that the government will not give us an FOI Act….maybe they would give us a Fudged Information Act??

  2. 2 Anonymous 23 February 2012 at 22:04

    It is quite clear that Tharman is trying to hide something from us by not giving the monthly figures. What can an MP do if the Minister does not answer his question? Is there any way to force a Minister to open up? Can the MP scold him for not answering the question? Is the Minister flouting any law for not answering the question? Is it against the constitution to hide facts from the public? Can we demand something to fix this so that MPs will have all the information they need to make a parliamentary session a debate instead of a time wasting fact-finding session?

    • 3 Rajiv Chaudhry 4 March 2012 at 00:41

      One of the problems in Singapore is that parliament meets for less than 30 days in a year (as an aside, this makes our parliamentarians easily the highest paid in the world on an hourly basis), with each sitting starting at 1:30 pm. By contrast, the House of Commons sits for about 60 days a year, eight hours a day, making their sittings equivalent to 120 sittings of the Singapore parliament.

      On top of this time constraint, the amount of time an MP has to raise questions in the House was recently cut from 30 to 20 minutes (10 minutes if addressing a whole house). Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries can now speak for only 40 minutes instead of one hour previously, see

      Considering we have some of the highest paid parliamentarians in the world, it is hard to understand their need to rush through urgent business of state. Presumably their private business demands greater attention.

  3. 4 liewkk 24 February 2012 at 01:49

    I am actually quite concerned with the number of Chinese nationals in Singapore. While i have nothing against them per se, their presence do speak of perhaps a more cynical and systematic move by the state to pull in more Mainland Chinese to balance what it deemed to be slower decline in the birth rates of ethnic Malay population. LKY did sound a warning in the recent CNY dinner speech that if Singaporeans do not accept immigration, the ethnic Chinese population would reduce by half eventually. Till date, we have no exact figures of the Mainland Chinese in Singapore, and speculation ranges from 250,000 to a million. I do tell my Hong Kong and Taiwanese friends that numerically and proportionately, Singapore holds more mainland Chinese than these two places, which are supposedly part of the Chinese orbit. The state should come out frankly with not just the foreign population, but the exact breakdown along national lines. This would actually confirm the suspicion of whether there is a more institutional attempt of maintaining, if not increasing the predominance of what is understood as the so-called “Chinese” majority.

    • 5 Poker Player 24 February 2012 at 13:58

      I am not sure how many readers know that the govt of Penang is led by a remnant of the PAP’s time in Malaysia (the DAP). One of UMNO’s (DAP’s political enemy) tactics to win back the state is scaring the Malays of Penang about how the DAP is going to treat the Malays – using the PAP in Singapore as example.

      How times have changed…we used to be the self-righteous ones during our time in Malaysia – complaining about the race-bias of UMNO…

  4. 6 Unbranded BreadnButter 24 February 2012 at 10:47

    Nothing against YSL but the technique of asking pointed questions is lacking amongst many parliamentarians, both white and blue clad. There seems to be a rather large gap between the top guys like ministers, Sylvia Lim, CSM and the backbenchers.

    I am not sure if monthly figures would help as the effects of policy changes need time to take effect. Taxes and levies are disincentivise employment of foreign labour rather than curb their absolute supply/demand. Having said that, yes we do need more data. We haven’t come up with a poverty line!

    • 7 Chanel 24 February 2012 at 16:13

      Unbranded BreadnButter,

      1) Why should such information only made public only when asked in Parliament?? This is a topic that is very close to S’poreans’ hearts, so such data should be regularly and fully disclosed by Department of Statistics

  5. 8 Rabbit 24 February 2012 at 13:07

    In order to explain the huge influx of EP and S passes better, we expect quality no less, not just quantity. As such, further breakdown in numbers by profession and vocations of all these passes will help citizens understand whether PAP immigrant policy is justifiable. as always claimed by the govt.

    Let’s say the bulk of EP and S passes showed these are doctors, investors, nurses, chief engineers, researches, school professors, researchers. Than Singaporeans have no qualm having these professionals as a form of supplement to our labor shortages. The world must give Singaporeans the benefit of doubts (regardless of how PAP tried to paint us) that we are not always anti-immigrants if it justified welcoming them.

    On the other hand, if EP/S passes were mostly issued to vocations which Singapore has no lack since time immemorial as a developing country e.g. IT professional, Operations manager, purchaser, HR profession, Accountant, Sales/marketing profession and other common PMET jobs, than the excessive issuance of such EP/S passes is difficult to justify, resulted in majority of Singaporeans being replaced and misplaced and wages depressed as a result. The latter is the most likely situation which PAP has been keeping mum and not willing to share more.

    Statistics are meant to be informative both in quality and quantity to the numbers. Without further transparency and crucial information which is long overdue, how can the govt expect citizens or the opposition parties to engage them constructively inside and outside parliament? Times have been wasted in parliament asking questions for answer which should have been there in the first place. Parliament should be a place for debating and discussing policies and not asking why numbers are missing. So what is the ruling party trying to hide from us? To use Chua Lee Hoong words, we are weary and I am not seeing a first world parliament.

    They complained Singaporeans are whiney and don’t understand the greater picture when we have none of those picture to begin with?

    The more half-cooked and reluctant information from the govt, the more it arose our suspicion that PAP has an agenda. When that happened, don’t start suing us for not behaving in our right state mind making allegations or trying to smoke rats out of their dark places. Taxpayers have the rights to know the specifics because these questions will be raised again in the next election, so better answer them now rather than later.

  6. 10 Saycheese 24 February 2012 at 16:39


    Our government is open in this. They are very clear that immigration is to maintain Racial Balance while compensating for the declining birth rate, meaning that there will hardly be any Malay granted citizenship. What they did not quite say, at least not so openly, is that they are bringing those with better genes to replace the local stock to improve the gene pool e.g. Northern Indians rather than Tamils or guest families and others instead of southern Han Chinese.

  7. 11 X-men 24 February 2012 at 16:58

    If you have noticed, our ministers have the habit of not providing direct answers to the questions asked and our MPs have the habit of not following up and demand the ministers to answer the question asked. Funny but true and it happens all the time.

  8. 12 Eugene 24 February 2012 at 19:32

    The dramatic increase in the issuance of Employment pass which enables them to obtain Permanent Residency creates suspicion that the papies are trying to leverage them for the next general election.

    The lack of transparency and accountability by the papies is working against thier interest in the long run. Many nuetral citizens are beginning to be aware and suspect the papies have somethings to hide.

    • 13 kitty 25 February 2012 at 22:29

      So, you are basically saying that the papies are looking to change the law so that Singapore PRs can vote in a National Election of a sovereign country?

      If that is so, I’m ready to vote for the very last time in 2016 as a Singaporean against the papies before ditching my Singapore citizenship and move to a country where citizens comes first.

      I’m no traitor to this country. Only those who believe that non-citizens have the same rights and benefits as citizens are.

      This is the last straw on the camel for me.

  9. 14 Alan Wong 24 February 2012 at 21:15

    PRC operate a coffeeshop & sell hawker food also get PR.
    PRC operate a spa & be a masseuse can also become PR.

    Sometimes we hear in the news that such & such a person holding such & such an occupation is a PR.

    Is Singapore really that desperate for such ‘talents’ ?
    Is there any possiblity of us being conned by those in power ?

  10. 15 Peter Mak 25 February 2012 at 19:20

    “Considering our low birthrate, the local working population cannot be increasing very much….”

    I presume you mean the birthrates from at least 20 years ago.

  11. 16 Jeremy Khoo 28 February 2012 at 08:06

    Thanks for the great analysis Alex. I wonder if you managed to come across recent data on the breakdown of the Work Permit holders? I mean besides the 207K FDWs there seems to be a black hole with regards to data on the remaining 702K Work Permit holders and they make up nearly 60% of the total foreign workforce! It is very frustrating for NGOs like mine who reach out to these underprivileged migrant workers. You might remember we met last week at the Canadian High Commission.

    Thanks in advance.

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