SINGAPORE: Amid the global economic uncertainties, it will soon be more difficult for highly-skilled foreigners to remain in Singapore for an extended period if they find themselves out of a job.
While this privilege is currently enjoyed by a small group of eligible foreigners - about 12,000, or less than 7 per cent of the 174,000 Employment Pass holders - the number is set to get smaller.
Starting next month, foreign professionals applying for a personalised employment pass (PEP) - which among other things, allows them to stay here continuously for six months while being unemployed - will have to meet more stringent criteria that includes a minimum annual fixed salary of S$144,000, up four-fold from the existing S$34,000 a year.
The validity of PEPs - which are non-renewable - will also be reduced from five years to three years.
The new criteria was put up recently on the Ministry of Manpower's (MOM) website. The MOM said that the changes ensure that the PEP "remains a premium pass for top-tier foreign talent working in Singapore and is in line with recent moves to raise the quality of Employment Pass holders".
It added: "Foreigners with in-demand expertise and skills should be able to secure a job and obtain an Employment Pass before too long a period."
Under the changes, apart from the higher minimum annual salary and shorter validity period, only P1 Pass holders - or the top tier of Employment Pass holders - who earn a fixed monthly salary of at least S$12,000 and overseas-based foreign professionals whose last drawn fixed monthly salary was at least S$18,000 may apply for the PEP. New PEP holders can also bring in their parents, spouses and children.
The MOM will give all existing PEP holders until Dec 31, 2014, to meet the revised minimum annual fixed salary requirement.
Responding to TODAY's queries, an MOM spokesperson said that PEP holders whose passes are due to expire within six months after Dec 31, 2014, will be allowed to remain until expiry.
"Those who are not eligible under the revised PEP criteria can continue to work and live in Singapore on an Employment Pass or S Pass, subject to the prevailing assessment criteria," she added.
Unlike the Employment Pass, the PEP is tied to the individual instead of a specific employer.
It was introduced in 2007 to "strengthen Singapore's attractiveness to highly-skilled foreigners and facilitate their continued stay and contributions here", according to the MOM.
While PEP holders whom TODAY spoke to did not think that MOM's latest move would diminish the attractiveness of Singapore as a destination for foreign professionals, they were concerned about the shorter validity period amid the uncertain economic climate.
Said a Canadian professor who is teaching at a university here: "To some... (they) like a degree of certainty. Five years was reasonable because at the end of it, you can decide if you want to stay to become a resident or not. Reducing it would deter some people, but not everyone. It depends on their objectives and if they want to work in Singapore for a long time."
Mr Joel Hides, Associate Director of recruitment consultancy firm Robert Walters Singapore, noted that many foreigners who relocate to Singapore on an Employment Pass would subsequently apply for PEP "because they may want greater flexibility in employers".
The changes could come at a time when there is greater clamour for a PEP, he noted. "The fact that foreigners have to leave the country within a month of their Employment Pass ceasing, encourages a lot of people to apply for PEPs, particularly in the currently uncertain outlook," Mr Hides added.
Still, recruitment firm Kelly Services Vice President Mark Hall felt that the more stringent criteria were "unlikely to discourage the majority of people from working in Singapore". "In terms of relocating for career purposes, Singapore remains very attractive," he said.
Welcoming the changes to the PEP regime, Members of Parliament whom TODAY spoke to reiterated that they would further differentiate top foreign talent, although Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Zaqy Mohamad felt that they may "impede our ability to attract top talent to Singapore".
He said: "If they want to relocate their families here, they might find that three years is a bit too short or disruptive."
Still, he added: "This will differentiate top talent against ordinary workers and give local PMETs some certainty in terms of stability and prospects."
Agreeing, Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Inderjit Singh said: "(The PEP) can be subjected to abuse where people may just be exploring opportunities without being firm about staying here. I'd rather someone who's got a firm offer be given a pass than someone who's just here to test the market."
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