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Retrenchment doubles in 2Q; foreign students fret over meeting grant obligations

Ng Qi Siang
Ng Qi Siang • 6 min read
Retrenchment doubles in 2Q; foreign students fret over meeting grant obligations
TGS recipients from overseas are bonded to work in a Singaporean entity for three years afte
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The Covid-19 outbreak continues to wreck damage on the economy and the job market. On Sept 14, the Ministry of Manpower reported that retrenchments in 2Q more than doubled to 8,130 from 3,220 in 1Q. The government has made repeated assurances it is doing what it can to minimise job losses among locals.

As part of the measures, the qualifying monthly salary of Employment Passes (EP) for foreign professional workers has been raised from $3,900 to $4,500 with effect from Sept 1. For mid-skilled workers holding S-Passes (SP), the new salary requirement will be at least $2,500 with effect from Oct 1 from $2,400 now.

“It has always been made known to employers that if they are in a position to consider candidates from different sources, then they must not favour foreign applicants over local applicants that are equally qualified or equally suitable for the job,” Manpower Minister Josephine Teo told the media on Aug 27.

In the first half this year, the axe has fallen proportionally more on foreigners than locals, with a cut of 5.7% in foreign employment versus 2.7% for locals. Out of the 66,400 foreigners who lost their jobs between January and June, the bulk were work pass holders, but there were also 4,100 EP jobs cut as well.

The congruence of factors have put the group of international students who are recipients of the Tuition Grant Scheme (TGS), in an unfavourable situation. In return for receiving subsidies for their school fees, they are to work with a Singapore entity for three years after they graduate. They face financial penalties, otherwise.

Unlike scholarship holders with assurance of jobs upon graduation, TGS recipients are to “diligently” seek employment on their own by applying for at least 10 jobs a month, with the Ministry of Education (MOE) regularly checking to ensure this is fulfilled satisfactorily.

The scheme was introduced during the years when Singapore’s economy was in full swing and the government was actively wooing bright young foreigners to study, work, and perhaps take up permanent residency or eventually citizenship here.

Now, with the additional emphasis on hiring locals, coupled with tighter requirements such as the higher EP criteria, some TGS recipients are worrying if they can fulfil their obligations amid this soft employment market.

If TGS recipients are deemed to have flouted the requirements, they are to pay liquidated damages calculated based on the total grant amount received (inclusive of GST), plus 10% interest per year, compounded at the end of each academic year.

The amount of grants varies. At Nanyang Technological University, it ranges from $10,310 for its Renaissance Engineering program to $68,510 for medical students for international students accepted in 2019. If there are extenuating circumstances, reduction or waiver of the damages is at the discretion of the government.

International students may apply for a one year long-term visit pass after graduation so that they can find a job in Singapore. Graduates unable to find a job are encouraged to contact MOE with documentary proof of their job search to discuss their employment plans. The ministry may also issue a letter of support to facilitate the extension of the recipient’s stay in Singapore.

Between a rock and a hard place
TGS recipients who spoke to The Edge Singapore — on the condition of anonymity — acknowledge that they are not the only ones facing difficulties in job search. However, many believe that they face a steeper climb.

According to one recipient, recruiting calls and e-mails often end abruptly once employers realise that she is not Singaporean, even when such a requirement is not listed on the job description. She admits that her own government is under a similar pressure to protect local workers. Nevertheless, she hopes for special consideration to be extended to TGS recipients here in Singapore.

A local Yale-NUS College alumnus helping his international classmates notes that contrary to popular belief, international students may face greater difficulty finding a job in fields outside of the lucrative sectors such as finance and consulting. Most firms will not pay $3,900 a month for a fresh graduate. It will be tougher with the new requirement at $4,500. Another TGS recipient feels that this could negatively affect Singaporean job-seekers by increasing competition for jobs in these lucrative industries.

Even TGS recipients already employed might be affected. The recent increase in salary criteria will apply to future EP renewals, which means those on two-year EPs may find difficulty renewing their right to work in Singapore for their third and final year. “Although I think for TGS holders, there will be special consideration as there is an obligation, I think after that it will be harder [to renew my EP],” says a TGS recipient who recently graduated from NUS.

Anecdotally, there has been some flexibility regarding EP requirements for TGS recipients. However, not many employers will perform the bureaucratic somersaults necessary for a fresh hire. Some believe that TGS recipients lack bargaining power because of their lack of experience. “The fact of the matter is that we are expendable [to firms],” one says.

Meanwhile, many are already feeling the financial strain. Some students have resorted to taking out a bank loan to buy out their TGS in order to have more flexibility to find work elsewhere, says a recipient.

The alumnus from NUS advises TGS recipients to manage their expectations, and take lower-paid SP roles instead, should they not be able to obtain an EP position. Unfortunately, that is another problem, as they will be competing with TGS recipients graduating from local polytechnics.

Hope is at hand
Affected TGS recipients are making themselves heard. Several Yale-NUS college students have started a petition to share their experiences with the college management. Local students at the college have even written to their MPs on the matter, with at least seven elected legislators having replied to these pleas at press time.

Spokespersons from the local universities point to the range of help such as career portals and personalised career coaching that could include lessons on interviewing and networking, or even personality assessment tools such as MBTI. Singapore Management University, for one, requires students to attend the Finishing Touch programme and mandatory internships to develop the necessary skills.

“We understand that the current economy has been a source of anxiety amidst a challenging time for many, and we remain wholly committed to supporting our students through this,” says a spokesperson from Yale-NUS College, which is compiling a set of new resources for its students — half of whom are from outside Singapore.

MOE is aware of the difficulties TGS recipients face. “We work with the institutes of higher learning (IHLs) and other public agencies to help facilitate their application for the necessary work pass arrangements while keeping to the Fair Consideration Framework. MOE is actively monitoring the situation,” an MOE spokesperson tells The Edge Singapore. “TGS bond recipients who require assistance if they have issues fulfilling their bond requirements should reach out to their IHLs for support.”

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