NEWS ANALYSIS

No simple return to old jobs, when Singapore-Malaysia land travel resumes

Singapore

PRIOR to Covid-19, over 350,000 travellers crossed the land border daily between Singapore and Malaysia, making it the busiest land checkpoint in the world.

Many were Malaysians, commuting to work in Singapore. They performed laborious roles as food servers, cleaners and builders. They also provided essential services, like in healthcare and public transport. All of that came to a halt when the border closed in March last year.

When land travel between the two neighbours eventually resumes, those who lost these jobs - which paid in Singapore dollars - will likely want them back. But not all may get to have that option.

Leaving migrant domestic workers out of these figures, the number of non-resident workers employed in Singapore plunged by 181,500 in 2020 - which is equivalent to over 15 per cent of the non-resident workforce as at December 2019. Over three quarters of the workers shed (-138,800) held work permits and other passes, compared to S Passes (-26,000) and Employment Passes (-16,700).

Before the pandemic, work permit holders - who tend to work in blue-collar jobs - made up about two-thirds of the non-resident workforce.

In other words, the employment decline was disproportionately borne by workers in precisely the kinds of jobs that many Malaysian commuters used to perform in Singapore.

When Malaysia's movement control order (MCO) took effect on March 18 last year, it delivered a shock to companies dependent on such workers. Overnight, many had to choose between their homes and their jobs; something they had never needed to do before.

All of a sudden, companies were left with wide swathes of vacant jobs - ones that were unlikely to attract locals in large numbers.

Rose Tong, executive director of the Singapore Retailers Association, told The Business Times that retailers were strapped for manpower as a result of the MCO. To some extent, that remains the case.

"The feedback from retailers is that Singaporeans shun retail jobs, citing their dislike of shift hours and their desire to pursue other career aspirations. Many vacancies remain unfilled to-date, which limits retailers' ability to maintain their stores or to expand," she said.

That said, when the border reopens, Ms Tong believes demand for Malaysian workers will not be as strong as before.

"Firstly, the DRC has dropped," she said, referring to the dependency ratio ceiling, which caps the ratio of foreign workers in a company's total workforce.

The DRC for the services sector has been tightened to 35 per cent this year, down from 40 per cent in 2019 and 38 per cent last year.

"Secondly, companies may have already filled positions vacated by the Malaysians, taking up various government schemes like the Jobs Growth Incentive and the SGUnited mid-career programmes. Thirdly, if the retailer has downsized, then they have no need to re-employ," she added.

Another hard-hit industry in Singapore is manufacturing, which shed some 34,200 non-resident workers last year - despite strong demand for electronic goods, including personal computers and medical equipment.

Manufacturers found themselves caught between rising demand and a labour crunch, with many scrambling to advertise for substitutes.

"Your work directly impacts humanity", assured one firm's job advertisement for a production operator.

But then, it stated that the operator would need to work 12-hour shifts, be mostly on their feet; wear protective gear from head-to-toe; could be called in on weekends and public holidays; and be paid between S$1,000 and S$1,500 a month.

Even amid a rapidly deteriorating job market, it is hard to imagine many locals took that bait.

Still, the initial shock of the border closure appears to have lost some of its bite.

"Initially, many thought the situation would last three to six months. I think the whole facts have now sunk in," said Douglas Foo, president of the Singapore Manufacturing Federation (SMF).

To cope with manpower shortages, many turned to automation solutions, like robotics and 3D printing. "If we can 3D-print some of the components, then we can resolve some of the issues. It's better than waiting for the border to reopen," he said. "Even though the cost is a bit higher, you still need to go down that route."

According to Mr Foo, manufacturing businesses have now largely adjusted to the border closures. SMF members understand the movement of people to and fro remains a challenge, because of the health risks. Hence, they accept the border reopening will take time, and will probably be done in stages. "Certainly, the day will come when things will resume. But it will be quite a different model," Mr Foo said.

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