Precarity Through the Lens of Singapore’s Foreign Talent

Prarthana Prakash, Gillian Oh, Alston Tan, Singapore Management University

The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted all sections of Singaporean society, and international students are certainly one of them. This impact was highlighted in the local news recently, where an article (pictured below) reported about the anxiety and uncertainty faced by international students over their inability to find employment to fulfil their tuition bond. To understand more about this issue, our group interviewed Stacy, a 23-year-old Chinese national, who came to Singapore as a student in 2016. She graduated in July 2020 from Singapore Management University and was looking to pursue a career in the banking and financial services industry. However, securing a job as an international student amidst a global pandemic proved to be more difficult than anticipated.

When we interviewed Stacy, we found that she felt stressed during the pandemic as the existing pool of jobs was drying up. She saw government policies favouring locals over foreigners who had attained education in the country. In their 2020 article on precarious talent, Zhan & Zhou pointed out how foreign talent isn’t immune to the uncertainties of the job market. They are fungible for domestic talent, often viewed as “flexible” parts of the market. The pandemic also changed the context of reception for migrants in Singapore’s job market as a result of locals-friendly policies. This affected Stacy too, making her feel “like a foreigner”. She admitted not feeling “encouraged, supported or welcomed in the country.” From being excited to start her education in Singapore in 2016, she was left feeling disappointed near the time of graduation owing to the lack of support from the Singaporean government and a sense of animosity from local Singaporeans.

While Stacy managed to land a job after almost a year of searching, she continues to worry about her status in Singapore. A lot is at stake for foreign talent like Stacy who will lose a stable source of income, certainty of the future and the job, if they lose visa sponsorships. Following this, Stacy mentioned how she had the aspiration to become a global citizen, but now, she hopes to obtain a Permanent Resident (PR) status in Singapore as she claims that “permanent residence seems like a reliable guarantee for expatriates in Singapore given the current economy”. Through this, we can see that the pandemic has changed Stacy’s initial aspirations and capability completely.

Zhan & Zhou (2020) also highlight the risks for highly skilled migrants holding employment passes. The fault lines highlighted by the authors can be likened to Stacy’s situation. A recent graduate from Singapore Management University, Stacy would qualify as a “privileged” migrant who may not need government support beyond subsidising tuition grant. However, this discourse often misses the level of precarity that skilled professionals, such as Stacy, face in the job market. Singapore has curated its migrant flow since the 1990s. This, coupled with stricter employment policies makes the path to achieving permanent residence for those like Stacy, trickier. Therefore, even if the aspiration to live and work in Singapore is strong, it doesn’t necessarily translate into certainty for foreign talent.

All these factors beg the question, do foreign talent ever stop feeling like “precarious talent”?

Given the precarious situations faced by highly skilled workers, a way they cope would be through the utilisation of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). This is reflected through Stacy’s experience, where she mentioned how she frequently used ICTs to keep in close contact with her family and friends and that it helped her through tough times. However, she expects difficulties in adapting to life back in China given the difference in technological usage and her lifestyle between Singapore and China, if given the choice of going back. She explained, “Alipay or QR code is very popular and developed faster in China than Singapore. Actually, for people who stay in Singapore like, when we return back to China .. like we cannot get used to Chinese apps. I almost changed all my apps… in China. And when I come back to Singapore, I change back to Instagram and Facebook – the apps I deleted when I returned to China [sic].”

While the globalised world has increased the demand for skilled migrants, little is done to protect these migrants from the risk of sudden job losses. Immigrants like Stacy will continuously face unpredicted immobility, uncertainty and precarity just like their situation in the Covid-19 pandemic as little support is given by their host and home country. In the current migration structure, governments play a huge role in building “chutes and ladders” for low skilled migrants, but we see this being evident for foreign talent as well (Wee et al. 2010). This is the case for Stacy and other foreign talents, where they are given the opportunity to enter Singapore through a joint partnership between the Singapore government and their home country such as by providing education scholarships, work bonds or implementing lax immigration policies in exiting and entering the country. Perhaps the biggest impediment for Stacy in returning to her home country was the financial obligation of not fulfilling the three-year employment bond in Singapore. Unfortunately, the consequences of unemployment were Stacy’s to bear even though the attainment of employment was influenced by factors beyond her control.

We see governments encouraging migration but taking little effort to support foreign talent when they face precarity. If not the government, who then has the responsibility in alleviating their precarity? Do these precarious talents have to fend for themselves just because they decide to migrate?

In conclusion, although the discourse on precarity mostly revolved around low-skilled migrants, Stacy’s story serves as a timely reminder that attention should also be paid towards the precarity faced by high-skilled migrants. While the common assumption is that low-skilled migrants require more government support due to their less favourable circumstances, we see that high-skilled migrants also face several obstacles in their immigration journey and the precarity they face should not be overlooked. The Singapore government has a long-standing emphasis on leveraging foreign talent to facilitate economic development of the country. Thus, it is important that the same or more levels of support be shown for the very migrants they depended on even in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as implementing measures to improve local’s social acceptance of foreign workers.

References

Wee, K., Goh, C., Yeoh, Yeoh, B.S.A. (2019). Chutes-and-ladders: The migration industry, conditionality, and the production of precarity among migrant domestic workers in Singapore. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 45(14), 2672-2688.

Zhan, S., and Zhou, M. (2020). Precarious Talent: highly skilled Chinese and Indian immigrants in Singapore. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 43(9), 1654-1672.