UNESCO Social and Human Sciences
You are in the MOST Phase I website (1994-2003).
The MOST Phase II website is available at: www.unesco.org/shs/most.


Asia Pacific Migration Research Network (APMRN)

Migration Issues in the Asia Pacific


    A. Background

Singapore, a small city state of about 650 sq km, had an estimated resident population of just over three million persons at the end of 1995. This figure comprises citizens and permanent residents, but excludes foreigners working and living in the country on employment passes and work permits, dependants, students and long term social visit passes. Annual estimates of the size of the foreign (i.e. non-citizen, non-PR) population, are not made public although this information is available for census years. However, the majority (estimated at 350,000 in 1995) are thought to be foreign workers. Including the tourists, whose arrivals numbered over seven million in 1995, Singapore is indeed a busy city. The ethnic composition of the Singapore population reflects the important role of immigration in the country’s history for, in spite of being located in the midst of a largely Malay archipelago, 77 per cent of the resident population are ethnic Chinese, 14 per cent Malays, 7 per cent Indians (including other South Asians) and 1 per cent ‘Others’.

Rapid economic growth over the last three decades, together with the slow-down in the growth of the domestic labour force, has meant opening Singapore’s doors to immigration in spite of the government’s original desires to limit population growth and to achieve a wholly indigenous work force. As an indication of the level of Singapore’s economic growth, it may be noted that real GDP grew by nearly 9 per cent in 1995, after falling from a growth rate of over 10 per cent in the two preceding years. In 1995, Singapore’s per capita GNP reached S$35,035 or US$24,718 (US$1 = S$1.4174 in 1995). Reflecting the buoyant economy, the unemployment rate was only 2.7 per cent. The male and female labour force participation rates were 78.4 per cent and 50.0 per cent respectively.

As the country developed, concerns have emerged in the last decade over the persistent low, below-replacement fertility level and the ageing of the population. These are expected to have wide-ranging economic and social implications. Replacement-level fertility was reached in the mid-1970s and fertility has since remained below this level. In spite of the selectively pro-natalist policy adopted in 1987, the Total Fertility Rates (TFRs) over the last five years appear to have stabilised at the 1.7–1.8 level. The proportion of the young has declined and is projected to decline further in absolute and proportional terms. The population has been ageing steadily and the proportion of the population aged 65 and over is expected to reach 20 per cent of the total population in 2030. Immigration is seen by the government as necessary to augment the domestic labour force and to prevent the erosion of Singapore’s competitiveness as a result of the ageing of the work force (see, for example, Lee 1996). The conditions for stay are, however, highly dependent on the skills and qualifications of the potential migrant, as shown below.

    B. Information on Migratory Movements

Statistics on immigration and emigration are published only rarely. Information on net migration can, however, be deduced from data on population growth and natural increase which are published annually. Time series data on the Singapore population have to be read carefully as a change in the reporting convention was made after the 1990 Census. Except for 1990, when the figures on both the resident and total population were made available publicly, subsequent estimates were published only for the resident population. Figures for the 1980s decade were also adjusted subsequently to show only the resident population whereas those prior to 1980 remained for the total population.

Table 1: Percentage Distribution of Population by Residential Status, 1970–1990





Total Population (000s)








Permanent Residents




Non-citizens non-PRs




(1) Immigration
Immigration, as mentioned, has been an important part of Singapore’s demographic history. Some, for example Pang (1992), would also argue that the Singapore economy has been built on immigration. At its founding in 1819, there were reportedly only 150 Malay fisherfolks on the island. Migration from China, India and the countries surrounding Singapore was the main contributor to population growth up to the period around World War II (Figure 1). Peninsular or West Malaysia (then known as Malaya) was the main source of in-migration during the 1950s, after legislation was introduced in 1953 restricting immigration from sources other than Malaysia to economic and compassionate grounds (Arumainathan 1973). The free flow of mostly unskilled migrant workers from West Malaysia was stopped as well when Singapore and Malaysia became two separate political entities in 1965, and Singapore embarked on a policy to control its population growth and the high level of unemployment. Since that time, an increasing pool of foreigners have entered the country either as temporary workers or for permanent residence.

In 1995, there were reportedly 300,000 foreign blue-collar workers working temporarily in the country on work permits, up from 60,000 two decades earlier (Business Times 5 January 1996). In addition, another 50,000 foreigners worked on employment passes in supervisory, managerial and professional positions, up from 20,000 in 1980. There has been a steady increase in the number of foreigners granted permanent residence in Singapore. In May 1996, Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a speech that 25,000 foreigners became permanent residents ‘every year’ but did not specify the time frame (The Straits Times 29 May 1996). It is likely that this figure pertains to the period 1994–95 as elsewhere (Singapore, Ministry of Health 1994), it was reported that 22,000 new permanent residencies were granted in 1993. The number of new permanent residencies over the last two years represent a five-fold growth compared to 1986, when only about 5,000 new permanent residencies were given out (Cheung 1991). As shown below, PR status may be granted to employment pass and skilled work permit holders and entrepreneurs but not to unskilled workers.

(2) Emigration
Since, unlike immigration, there are no administrative controls on emigration from Singapore, data on emigrants have been estimated based on applications for certification of good behaviour (the Certificate of No Criminal Conviction or ‘Good Conduct’ Certificate). This underestimates the actual number of emigrants to the extent that not all receiving countries require such certification; on the other hand, not all applicants may have in fact emigrated. Nevertheless, in the absence of better information, this estimate has been used as a proxy measure.

In the late 1980s, Singapore’s leaders expressed concern over an appreciable increase in the number of Singaporeans who wanted to emigrate, as indicated by the increase in applications for the ‘Good Conduct’ certificate). The estimated number of emigrants reached 12,000 persons in 1987 (Cheung 1991) but this number is thought to have declined in recent years. The sharp increase in emigration has been attributed to the economic recession in Singapore in the mid–1980s. Periods of net out-migration associated with economic slowdowns have been part of Singapore’s demographic history (as Figure 1 shows).

Figure 1

    C. Migration Policies

(1) Immigration
Singapore’s immigration policy since independence has been described as one that tries to maximise the economic benefits of immigration while minimising its social and economic costs (Pang 1992). Besides the immigrants’ potential contributions to the economy, an early thrust has also been to selectively open its doors to people from countries that bore cultural similarity to the local population. Hence, recruitment was initially permitted only from ‘traditional’ sources, essentially Malaysia, but this has had to be widened as labour needs continued to expand. At present, the search for skilled workers and professionals has extended world-wide although the sources for recruitment of unskilled foreign workers remain confined largely to the Asian region.

Depending on their skills levels, the terms and conditions for foreigners to work or stay in Singapore differ substantially. Skilled workers, professionals and entrepreneurs are encouraged to take up permanent residence and citizenship may be granted after two to ten years of residence (Social Integration Management Service 1994). Unskilled foreign workers, on the other hand, are permitted to work only for limited time periods, after which they are expected to return home. Selective immigration of persons who can contribute economically is not a new or recent policy in Singapore. This policy was apparently adopted by the British administrators in charge of Singapore from as early as 1953 (Arumainathan 1973).

(2) Emigration
In Singapore, there is no general policy to control emigration. Except for criminals and young men in or awaiting compulsory national service who are required to report to the authorities, there is virtually free movement out of the country. As mentioned, there was concern in the late 1980s over a reported sharp increase in the number of persons emigrating or intending to emigrate. The main concern was with the economic consequences of emigration. Measures were taken to identify the causes of outflow and ways to retain people in the country. This has changed, however, as the country tries to grapple with the issue of its long term viability. Singaporeans are now encouraged to venture overseas for work and investment. To avoid the potential brain drain, efforts are being made to help expatriate Singaporeans remain rooted.

    D. Social and Political Effects of Migration/Key Problem Areas

Government leaders in Singapore have on various occasions expressed concern about the potential social impact of a large pool of migrant, particularly unskilled, workers and over-dependence on foreign labour, quite aside from the concern about its impact on the restructuring of the economy. Recent incidents with certain foreign governments over the handling of foreign workers (and their families) may have greatly increased consciousness in Singapore about its political consequences as well.

Among the reservations raised has been the potential competition for use of resources such as public space, transportation, etc. This concern has materialised somewhat in the form of irritations expressed by some Singaporeans over the congregation of foreign workers in certain parts of the city on weekends, particularly where these places are at or close to residential areas. Overcrowding on roads and other public spaces, littering, vandalism, urinating in public and theft are some of the complaints levelled (see, for example, Latif 1996). No instances of violence or open conflict involving locals and foreign workers have surfaced to date.

Illegal entry and staying beyond the permitted work period are reportedly on the rise again after the Singapore government had amended the Immigration Act in 1989 to raise the penalties for illegal immigrants and their employers. The problem is apparently worst at construction work sites where crimes, including murder and assault, committed by foreign workers have also risen. While there has again been no reported outcry by the Singapore public, the government is concerned about its effect on law and order in Singapore. Stringent application of Singapore laws have on occasions given rise to political tensions between Singapore and the sending countries.

Another area that could have important implications for Singapore’s relations with sending countries, and perhaps internationally as well, relates to the issue of abuse. Abuse committed against foreigners who work as household maids is a case in point. It is particularly difficult to know its true incidence—instances of mistreatment have been accompanied by other reports of highly satisfying relationships between employers and employees. While the Singapore government has been reluctant to legislate the terms and conditions of work of domestic maids, preferring to see them as private agreements between employers and employees, it does take a serious view of this matter and cases of abuse that have been brought to court have been treated severely.

A longer term concern of the government has been the impact of foreign workers, particularly domestic maids, on the values acquired by younger generations of Singaporeans. This is the case in spite of efforts to recruit only from countries sharing similar cultural backgrounds as Singaporeans. Besides direct values transmission, a perhaps more insidious influence on the character development of these younger Singaporeans is the role models provided for children about their future adult roles and the stereotyping of foreigners.

With regard to emigration, the potential problem of a ‘brain drain’ has always been a concern of the Singapore government. This is not surprising given that the country is resource-scarce and highly dependent on its people to sustain economic growth, and some would say, even survival. The effects of the development of the external economy, which was accelerated in the early 1990s, have yet to be seen.

    E. Existing Research Capabilities, State of Research & Documentation, & Work to Date on Establishing a Network

Collection of statistics on immigration and emigration are carried out by agencies of the government, as are annual population estimates. Research on migration is also carried out by academics in universities and ‘think tanks’ but mainly on an individual basis. As far as is known, there is no institution devoted to migration research in Singapore or even one where migration is the main focus. Networks are mainly personal.

Key national research issues (for next five years) will be the impact of Singapore’s regionalisation program on emigration, while key international, regional research issues (for next five years) will be economic integration, labour migration and international relations.


    Arumainathan, P. 1973, Report on the Census of Population 1970; Singapore, volumes I and II. Department of Statistics, Singapore.

    Cheung, Paul P.L. 1991, ‘Social and Economic Implications of Singapore’s Immigration and Emigration Patterns’, Paper prepared for presentation at the International Conference on Migration sponsored by the Centre for Advanced Studies, National University of Singapore, 7–9 February 1991.

    Latif, Asad 1996, ‘Singapore’s Foreign Workers’, Asia 21 July.

    Lee Kuan Yew 1996, New Challenges for Employers in 21st Century Singapore. Address by Senior Minister to the Singapore National Employers’ Federation (SNEF) Second Assembly of Chief Executives and Employers, 10 July 1996.

    Pang, Eng Fong 1992, ‘Absorbing Temporary Foreign Workers: The Experience of Singapore’, Asian and Pacific Migration Journal Vol. 1, Nos. 3–4, pp. 495–509.

    Singapore, Department of Statistics 1996, Yearbook of Statistics; Singapore 1995.

    Singapore, Ministry of Health 1994, Population and Development Issues: Singapore. National Report for the International Conference on Population and Development, Cairo.

    Social Integration Management Service 1994, Settling in Singapore.

To MOST Clearing House Homepage

bottom line