Expat flows may stabilise later this year

Spread of Covid-19 last year had resulted in a net outflow of expatriates moving out of Singapore due to job losses; many also chose to move home to be with their families


SINGAPORE saw fluctuations in skilled foreign talent flows since the onset of the pandemic in 2020, but the country can expect this to stabilise later this year, say recruiters, relocation firms and immigration consultants.

The spread of Covid-19 last year had resulted in a net outflow of expatriates - higher skilled professionals - moving out of Singapore due to job losses. Many expatriates also chose to leave Singapore to move home to be with their families in the state of uncertainty.

Philip Ng, director of immigration consultancy OCSC Global, said: "We saw an increase in expatriates leaving Singapore as their employment contracts were terminated due to adverse business conditions and more stringent criteria for work passes."

One year on, expatriate inflows into Singapore have slowed down significantly, say relocation companies which assist with expatriates moving and settling in a foreign country.

"We saw more inbound traffic towards the end of 2020 and Q1 2021, but with increased restrictions again at the border, we see a slow down on inbound travel," explained Adam Sloan, managing director, South Asia at Santa Fe Relocations.

Relocation companies see their businesses expediting client requests in shorter turnaround times amid volatile government advisories and frequent changes to border restrictions.

The usual moving timeline of two to three months had significantly reduced to less than a week, said Carl Haggstrom, group managing director at CFM Alliance. CFM is the parent company of five relocation and logistics companies including The Family Movers and Classic Moving - Singapore and Malaysia.

Both relocation companies and their expatriate clients have been adapting to this fluid situation. Professional expatriates looking to move are acutely aware that international travel is subject to the volatile border measures. As a result, exchanges between relocation companies and their clients have become more frequent due to the uncertainty.

Relocation services provider Moovaz has also noticed that the expats want to control their planning and actual journey more now.

Danielle Lin, head of growth marketing and data at Moovaz added that the company has seen people requesting a more integrated and simpler way to handle relocation, rather than the "traditional way" involving communication with multiple parties on different channels.

"Quality of service becomes highly important during this time as relocation is always a stressful life event, not to mention relocation during a pandemic, where there's an extra layer of safety concerns and restrictions," Ms Lin added.

Ruth Lee, general manager at immigration consultancy, Immigration@SG LLP, explained that what happens both at Singapore's borders and the control measures at other countries are equally important in this situation, where measures can change each day. She notes the foreigners are more aware of this.

On the other hand, businesses are cognisant of changing relocation patterns and that remote work is set to stay in the post-pandemic global climate.

Recruitment firms say that it is still early to determine how these changes might impact employers. Yet, mobility is becoming a key priority for companies, who are trying to arrange for flexible work and remote positions for employees.

Julia Radchenko, regional global mobility lead, Asia-Pacific, at HR consultancy Mercer added that they are seeing more companies accommodating "virtual assignments" - an employee who performs the same job remotely as they would do if relocated. "Our research found that one in three companies expect an increase in the number of virtual assignments...More than six in 10 companies who responded to our survey said that they had virtual assignees as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic," said Ms Radchenko.

Amid the rising trend of remote work, industry actors do not believe that it will lessen Singapore's attractiveness as a city for expatriates to move to. Singapore's status as an international hub remains a pull factor for professionals to relocate here, said Rahul Chawla, managing director, Southeast Asia and head of wealth management, Asia, Human Capital Solutions at Aon.

Additionally, businesses will have to grapple with complexities surrounding tax and compliance should employees express a desire to work remotely without relocating.

Thus, it would take time for mobility patterns to shift towards a completely remote workforce. In fact, this depends on a host of factors such as the possibility of a role to go remote, Mr Chawla noted.

Santa Fe Relocations' Mr Sloan is of the view that Singapore will experience an influx of professionals towards the end of the year, as the Republic ramps up its vaccination regime and expects 75 per cent or more of the population to be fully vaccinated by October.

Singapore's status as a business hub will likely remain strong if it continues to handle the pandemic efficiently, says Aon's Mr Chawla. Companies will seek to set up base here, thus bringing international talent back in, he added.

Other observers say that while it may take some time for foreign talent inflows to reach pre-pandemic levels, the country can expect to see more mobile expatriates seeking job opportunities in Singapore in the later part of the year.

"We see this (expatriate inflows) being accelerated as other countries in Asia and South-east Asia also ramp up their respective vaccination programmes and related initiatives to curb the spread of the virus. This will further result in Singapore to be not only a risk free work location but also a preferred lifestyle location with easy access to the Asean region," explained Mr Chawla.


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