Immigration to Singapore

Immigration to Singapore is historically the main impetus for population growth in the country since the founding of modern Singapore in the early 19th century. Immigration and immigrant workers in Singapore have been closely associated with Singapore's economic development. For a long period after its founding, the majority of Singapore's population were immigrants. It was not until around the 1930s that the number of native births in Singapore would overtake net immigration. After its expulsion from Malaysia in 1965, immigration laws were modified in 1966 to reinforce Singapore's identity as a sovereign state. However, the initial strict controls on immigrant workers were relaxed as demand for labour grew with increased industrialisation. Immigration would again become the largest contributor to population increase in Singapore in the late 20th century and early 21st century.

The Immigration and Checkpoints Authority publishes a number of criteria for eligibility for permanent residence.[1] In colonial times, British merchants and others moved to Singapore and helped develop the region. The large flow of migrants into Singapore in more recent times however has raised concerns and curbs on immigration have been introduced.[2]


Population growth and immigration in selected periods[3]
Period Population increase Natural Increase Net Immigration
1881–1891 43,857 −30,932A 74,798
1901–1911 75,729 −59,978A 135,707
1921–1931 139,387 18,176 212,211
1947–1957 507,800 395,600 112,200
1970–1980 339,400 315,400 24,000
1990–2000 970,601 330,030 640,571
  • ^A Negative figures are due to low birth rate and high death rate

Early immigrationEdit

Early population figures show that, for a long period, the growth of population in Singapore was fuelled by immigration that started soon after Stamford Raffles landed in Singapore in 1819. The founding of colonial Singapore as a free port led to a rapid influx of people, initially mostly Malays, quickly followed by Chinese. It was estimated that when Raffles arrived in Singapore on January 1819, Singapore had about 120 Malays, 30 Chinese and some local tribes such as the Orang Laut. Another estimate put the total population of Singapore at 1,000, mostly of various local tribes.[4] By 1821, the population was estimated to have increased to 4,724 Malays and 1,150 Chinese.[5] Javanese, Bugis and Balinese also began to arrive. In the first census of 1824, out of the 10,683 total, 6,505 were Malays and Bugis constituting over 60% of the population. The total population of Singapore then increased to 16,000 by 1829, 26,000 five years later, and 60,000 by the beginning of 1850.

Chinese migrants started to enter Singapore from the Straits area and southern China to trade just months after it became a British settlement. Later migrant workers from China would also increase considerably to work on the pepper and gambier plantations, with 11,000 recorded in one year.[6] Indian migrants also arrived, mostly from Bengal and the Coromandel Coast. Singapore became one of the entry and dispersal points for a large number of Chinese and Indian migrants who came to work in the plantations and mines of the Straits Settlements, some of whom then settled in Singapore after their contracts ended. By 1860, the total population had reached around 90,000, of these 50,000 were Chinese, and 2,445 Europeans and Eurasians. The first thorough census in Singapore was undertaken in 1871, and it showed that Chinese were the largest ethnic group at 57.6%.[7] In 1901, the total population of Singapore was 228,555,[6] with 15.8% Malays, 71.8% Chinese, 7.8% Indians, and 3.5% Europeans and Eurasians. The Chinese population of Singapore has stayed at over 70% of the total ever since.

The early population figures show that Chinese immigrants of the period were overwhelmingly male. The 1826 figures give a total population of 13,750, with 5,747 Chinese males and only 341 Chinese females, compared to 2,501 Malay males and 2,289 Malay females.[8] The sex ratio of Indian migrants was similarly distorted. The imbalance of the sexes of the immigrant communities continued for a long time with the continual flow into Singapore of male migrant workers who were either single or had left their wives and children behind in China or India, for example the 1901 census figures show that there were 130,367 Chinese males and 33,674 Chinese females.[9] Most of the early Chinese immigrants did not intend to settle permanently to raise their families there; they worked to send money back home, and many would return to China after they had earned enough money. For over a hundred years, the great proportion of the Chinese in Singapore were immigrants – by the late 1890s only around 10% of the Chinese population were native-born in Singapore. Later an increasing number would also choose to settle permanently in Singapore, especially in the 1920s when more chose to remain in Singapore rather than leave.[10] Change in social attitude in the modern era also meant that Chinese women were freer to emigrate from China, and the sex ratio began to normalise in the 20th century, which led to a much greater number of people being born in Singapore.[11] Immigration continued to be the main reason for the Chinese population increase in Singapore until the 1931–1947 period when the natural increase in population surpassed the net immigration figure.[10][12]

Immigration from China and India to Singapore stopped during the years of Japanese occupation.[12] After the Second World War, the immigration pattern shifted from the influx of migrants from other countries to movement of people between peninsular Malaya and Singapore, with a significant number of net migrants moving from Malaya to Singapore. However, after the declaration of independence of Malaya in 1957, the migration of people from Malaya began to fall.[11]

Post-independence immigrationEdit

Population size and growth by residential status in selected years[13]
Year Number (thousands) Growth
Total population Permanent Residents Non-residents Total population Permanent Residents Non-residents
1990 3,047.10 112.1 311.3 1.70% 2.30% 9.00%
2000 4,027.90 287.5 754.5 1.80% 9.90% 9.30%
2006 4,401.40 418 875.5 1.70% 8.10% 9.70%
2008 4,839.40 478.2 1,196.70 1.70% 6.50% 19.00%
2010 5,076.70 541 1,305.00 1.00% 1.50% 4.10%
2012 5,312.40 533.1 1,494.20 0.80% 0.20% 7.20%

When Singapore became an independent nation in 1965, it signalled the end of free movement of people between Malaysia and Singapore. This and increasing job opportunities in Malaysia meant that the previous high level of movement of people between the two countries fell significantly. Net migration in Singapore dropped to 24,000 in the decade of 1970-80 due to tighter control of immigration from Malaysia and other countries. However, a lower rate of natural growth in population and the need for low-skill labour resulted in a deliberate shift in policy by the Singapore government to allow more foreigners to live and work in the country, and net migration increased in the 1980-1990 period to nearly 200,000. By the decade of 1990-2000, the net migrant number of over 600,000 had surpassed the natural growth of the population, and accounted for nearly two-third of the population increase. The same high level of immigration is also seen in the next decade with 664,083 net migration recorded.[3] Curbs on immigration however began to be implemented in the 2010s to ease increasing social issues arising from the high level of immigration.[2]

The high level of foreign migrant workers in late 20th and early 21st centuries meant that Singapore has one of the highest percentages of foreigners in the world. By the middle of the 2010s, nearly 40% of the population were estimated to be of foreign origin; although many have become permanent residents, most of them were non-citizens made up of foreign students and workers including dependants.[14] Between 1970 and 1980, the size of the non-resident population in Singapore doubled. The numbers began to increase greatly from 1980 to 2010. Foreigners constituted 28.1% of Singapore's total labour force in 2000, to 34.7% in 2010,[15] which is the highest proportion of foreign workers in Asia. Singapore's non-resident workforce increased 170% from 248,000 in 1990 to 670,000 in 2006 (Yeoh 2007). By 2010, the non-resident workforce had reached nearly 1.09 million, of these 870,000 were low-skilled foreign workers in Singapore; another 240,000 were skilled foreign worker, better-educated S-pass or employment pass holders. Malaysia is the main source of immigrants in Singapore (386,000 in 2010), followed by China, Hong Kong, and Macau, then South Asia, Indonesia, and other Asian countries.[15]

As of June 2014, the total population of Singapore stands at 5.47 million: 3.34 million citizens and 0.53 million permanent residents (total resident number 3.87 million), with 1.60 million non-residents with work passes and foreign students.[16]


In Singapore, the term immigrant workers is separated into foreign workers and foreign talents. Foreign workers refers to semi-skilled or unskilled workers who mainly work in the manufacturing, construction, and domestic services sectors. The majority of them come from places such as People's Republic of China,[17] Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Thailand, as part of bilateral agreements between Singapore and these countries. Foreign talent refers to foreigners with professional qualifications or acceptable degrees working at the higher end of Singapore's economy. They mostly come from India, Australia, the Philippines, People's Republic of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, Republic of Korea, Malaysia, Europe, New Zealand, United Kingdom and the United States.

In September 1998 the Singaporean government first constructed a system under which different types of employment passes (EP) are issued to immigrant workers according to their qualifications and monthly salaries. The "P, Q, R" employment pass system was put into practice in September 1998; a new "S" type employment pass was later introduced in July 2004. The government has also set different policies on recruiting foreign talents and foreign workers.

In 2014, the Ministry of Manpower did away with their pass type category, however, the criteria remains the same. From 1 January 2017, new EP applicants will have to earn a fixed monthly salary of $3,600 or more, depending on their qualifications and experience.[18]

The different policies towards 'Foreign workers' and 'Foreign talent' in Singapore have led some people to feel that their contributions toward Singapore's development are valued differently. However, the Singapore government has always stressed the importance of immigrant workers to Singapore's economy and development. Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, then Prime Minister, said in his 1997 National Day rally speech that the government's lack of restrictions on the recruitment of foreigners did not extend only to top-rung prestigious positions, but also to middle-level management, skilled worker and technician positions.[19]

Foreign talentEdit

Various policies and incentives are used to attract foreign talent to Singapore. CONTACT SINGAPORE was launched in 1997 by the International Talent Division of the Ministry of Manpower, beginning with six offices worldwide, to facilitate the inflow of international talent to Singapore.[20] The Singapore Talent Recruitment (STAR) Committee was formed in November 1998 with the aim of attracting foreign talents to Singapore. Other similar programmes include Manpower 21,[21] launched in 1999, and the International Manpower Program of the Economic Development Board.[22] The government has developed the Scheme for Housing of Foreign Talents with the aim of providing affordable yet comfortable accommodations for foreign talents, to attract them to work and stay in Singapore.[19]

Foreign workersEdit

On the other hand, stringent policies and regulations have been set on employing foreign workers. In 1981, the government even announced its intention to phase out all unskilled foreign workers by the end of 1991, except domestic maids and those employed in construction and shipyards. The policy stance was met with strong protests from employers facing labour shortages.[23]

In April 1987, the Singapore government announced its immigration policy, which intended to control the foreign worker inflow. The two key elements in the policy were a monthly levy payable by the employer for each foreign worker employed, and a "dependency ceiling" that limits the proportion of foreign workers in the total workforce of any one employer. The government later introduced a two-tier levy system in October 1991 under which employers were required to pay a higher levy on workers whose employment would change the "dependent ceiling" value of the company.[23] The levy and the "dependency ceiling"[24] have remained the two instruments with which the government has regulated worker inflow in line with changes in domestic labour-market conditions.[23]

Non-residents working in Singapore will require a work visa. There are various types of Singapore work visas starting from work permits for the lower-skilled labourers, to P1 and P2 category Employment Passes to attract niche professionals with good credentials in both education and work experience.

From 1 September 2012 only foreign workers with earnings of at least SGD4,000 (USD3,150) per month can sponsor their spouses and children for their stay in Singapore and some of them are also not allowed to bring their parents and in-laws on long-term visit passes. The new regulation also impacts those who switch companies on/after the date, but foreign workers whose families are already in Singapore won't be affected. The increase from SGD2,800 to SGD4,000 was to ease public disquiet over the influx of workers from overseas.[25]

In December 2012, there were over 1,268,300 foreign workers employed in Singapore, while in December 2018 this had increased to 1,386,000.[26][27] As of 2020, foreign workers make up some three quarters of the whole construction industry, half of manufacturing, and 30 per cent of services.[28]

During the COVID-19 pandemic it became clear that dormitories used to house foreign workers were reported to be unsanitary and crowded - conditions that made it ripe for the virus to take hold.[29] In some cases, foreign workers in dormitories would be living twenty to a room.[30] Retired diplomat Tommy Koh called the living conditions "third world" while Amnesty International called the situation a "recipe for disaster".[31][32] Dominique Mosbergen at the Huffington Post said that COVID-19 "exposes ugly truth about Singapore’s treatment of migrant workers".[33] As the situation continued to evolved, it became clear by the middle of April that while cases had remained reasonably low in the general population, there was a significant spike in cases of foreign workers who were housed in dormitories, leading to their declaration as Isolation Areas under the Infectious Disease Act.[34][35][36][37][38] The significant increase in cases towards the end of April was brought about because of the close proximity and intermingling of workers the packed dormitories, but also because of aggressive testing of the part of the Singapore government to try to get a hold on the situation.[39][40][41] Minister of Manpower Josephine Teo vowed to improve the living conditions of foreign workers after the quarantine was handled.[42]

2013 Population White PaperEdit

In early 2013, the Singapore parliament debated over the policies recommended by the Population White Paper entitled A Sustainable Population for a Dynamic Singapore. Citing that Singapore's 900,000 Baby Boomers would comprise a quarter of the citizen population by 2030 and that its workforce would shrink "from 2020 onward", the White Paper projected that by 2030, Singapore's "total population could range between 6.5 and 6.9 million", with resident population between 4.2 and 4.4 million and citizen population between 3.6 and 3.8 million. The White Paper called for an increase in the number of foreign workers so as to provide balance between the number of skilled and less-skilled workers, as well as provide healthcare and domestic services. It also claimed that foreign workers help businesses thrive when the economy is good.[43] The motion was passed[44] albeit after amendments made to leave out "population policy" and add focus on infrastructure and transport development.

The White Paper was criticised by opposition parties.[45] Member of Parliament Low Thia Khiang of the Workers' Party of Singapore had criticised current measures of increasing the fertility rate, claiming that the high cost of living and lack of family and social support discouraged young couples from having babies. As for current immigration policies, he had noted that immigrants were a source of friction for Singaporeans and that an increased population would put more stress on the already strained urban infrastructure.[46] PAP MP Inderjit Singh had also spoken out on the issue, citing cohesion and social issues that would have been made worse with the proposed immigrant influx rate.On 16 February 2013, nearly 3,000 people rallied to protest the White Paper and raise concerns that the increased population would lead to the deterioration of public service and the increase of the cost of living in the future.[47]

Impact and criticismEdit

The large influx of migrants from the 1980s onward has raised concerns about the government's policy on immigration. Whilst the inflow of immigrants and foreign workers have helped to alleviate a labour crunch and help the economy, it has also resulted in strong sentiment by the locals against both foreigners and the government, and was a major issue in both the 2011 general and presidential elections.[48] Singaporeans have attributed to the government's open-door immigration policy the country's overcrowding and falling reliability of its public transportation system, increasing property prices for housing, suppressed wage level, increased competition for jobs and education, increasing income inequality and other social problems.[49][50][51][52][53] These issues came under close scrutiny by foreign media in the aftermath of the 2013 Little India riot.[54] Local NGOs have also raised issues of migrant welfare, especially those relating to work injury and living conditions.[55][56] Social pressures have been acknowledged by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong with various measures put in place in the last few years, such as the Fair Employment (Consideration) Framework and Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices and increasing support for migrant workers.[55][57]

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and various government agencies have spoken out against a rising anti-foreigner sentiment after Singaporeans expressed outrage at disparaging statements made by foreigners residing in Singapore.[58] For example, in March 2012, Sun Xu, a scholar from China studying in the National University of Singapore, made a remark in his blog that "there are more dogs than humans in Singapore".[58][59] This was weeks after a revelation in parliament that SGD36 million worth of scholarships were awarded to 2,000 foreign students every year, something that is unheard of in other countries.[52] The government was accused of disadvantaging local students in places for education and affordability,[52] and in response it has made a policy change in primary education to give some priority to Singaporeans.[60]

Further incidents have also fanned local sentiments against expatriates and foreign workers in Singapore, for example, the publicity over negative comments about the locals by banker Anton Casey and Filipino nurse Ed Mundsel Bello Ello.[61][62][63][64] In the case of Anton Casey, he had posted comments on Facebook which had abused, variously, a taxi driver and Singaporean commuters in general.[65] For Ello Ed Mundsel Bello, he suggested that Singaporeans could not compete with Filipinos.[66] Whilst anti-foreigner sentiments are still prevalent online, fifteen foreigners who were interviewed by CNA did not feel such anti-foreigner sentiments reflected what they encountered in the real world.[67] Local Singaporeans have also written in to the press to encourage fellow Singaporeans to have a mindset of being more accepting towards other cultures, reminding them that Singapore is also from immigrant stock.[68][69] Media reporting that foreign workers helping out in distress situations have also helped improve locals' perception of them.[55]

There are also concerns that immigrants were using Singapore as a springboard for immigration to other developed countries.[70] Every year, 300 naturalised citizens renounce their Singapore citizenship.[70] Many foreigners remain hesitant to take up Permanent Residency (PR) or Singapore citizenship because of the two years of mandatory military service for male citizens and second-generation PRs.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ ICA - Becoming a permanent resident
  2. ^ a b Rachel Chang (3 August 2015). "No easy choices on foreign worker, immigrant policies: PM Lee". The Straits Times.
  3. ^ a b Saw Swee-Hock (30 June 2012). The Population of Singapore (3rd ed.). ISEAS Publishing. pp. 11–18. ISBN 978-9814380980.
  4. ^ Lily Zubaidah Rahim, Lily Zubaidah Rahim. Singapore in the Malay World: Building and Breaching Regional Bridges. Taylor & Francis. p. 24. ISBN 9781134013975.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  5. ^ Saw Swee-Hock (30 June 2012). The Population of Singapore (3rd ed.). ISEAS Publishing. p. 7–8. ISBN 978-9814380980.
  6. ^ a b Mrs Reginald Sanderson (1907). Wright, Arnold; Cartwright, H.A. (eds.). Twentieth century impressions of British Malaya: its history, people, commerce, industries, and resources. pp. 220–221.
  7. ^ James Francis Warren (30 June 2003). Rickshaw Coolie: A People's History of Singapore, 1880-1940. NUS Press. p. 18. ISBN 978-9971692667.
  8. ^ Wright, Arnold; Cartwright, H.A., eds. (1907). Twentieth century impressions of British Malaya: its history, people, commerce, industries, and resources. p. 37.
  9. ^ Census of the British empire. 1901. Great Britain Census Office. 1906. p. 123.
  10. ^ a b James Francis Warren (30 June 2003). Rickshaw Coolie: A People's History of Singapore, 1880-1940. NUS Press. p. 19. ISBN 978-9971692667.
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  12. ^ a b Saw Swee-Hock (30 June 2012). The Population of Singapore (3rd ed.). ISEAS Publishing. pp. 11–12. ISBN 978-9814380980.
  13. ^ Population Trends 2012 Archived 13 November 2012 at the Wayback Machine Department of Statistics, Singapore.
  14. ^ "These Five Countries Have The Highest Percentage Of Expats: Find Out Why". ExpatFocus. 10 December 2015.
  15. ^ a b Brenda Yeoh and Weiqiang Lin (3 April 2012). "Rapid Growth in Singapore's Immigrant Population Brings Policy Challenges". Migration Policy Institute.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
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  19. ^ a b Low 2002.
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  33. ^ "HuffPost is now a part of Verizon Media". Retrieved 25 April 2020.
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  35. ^ "COVID-19: Tampines Dormitory declared isolation area under Infectious Diseases Act". CNA. Retrieved 25 April 2020.
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  43. ^ A Sustainable Population for a Dynamic Singapore.
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  48. ^ Hyslop, Leah (5 May 2011). "Singapore opposition stirs up anti-foreigner sentiment". The Telegraph (UK). Retrieved 10 April 2012.
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  50. ^ Boh, Samantha (19 April 2012). "Job bias against Singaporeans the top complaint". my paper. Archived from the original on 2 December 2012. Retrieved 20 April 2012.
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  54. ^ Sharon Chen and Weiyi Lim (10 December 2013). "Singapore to Charge Rioters After Little India Violence". Bloomberg. Retrieved 28 January 2014.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
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  • Athukorala, Prema-Chandra; Manning, Chris (2000). "Hong Kong and Singapore: City-States Shaped by Migrants". Structural Change and International Migration in East Asia: Adjusting to Labour Scarcity. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-554173-1.
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External linksEdit