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Singapore - Finding Employment

In both 2015 and 2016 Singapore was in 1st place on the HSBC Expat Explorer country league table, which surveys the experiences of almost 27,000 expats in 45 host countries across the globe.

Three out of every five respondents in Singapore reported an increase in their earnings when they moved there, with the same percentage seeing Singapore as a good place to advance their career. The average annual income for expats in Singapore is USD139,000, comparing favourably with an average of USD97,000 across the world. 23% earn more than USD200,000, which is more than twice the global expat average of 11%. This is perhaps not surprising given that Singapore is consistently one of the wealthiest countries on the GDP index with over S$200bn in reserve.

Overall, 66% of expats agree that Singapore offers a better quality of life than their home country (compared to 52% of expats globally), while three quarters (75%) say the quality of education in Singapore is better than at home, the highest proportion anywhere in the world. Respondents also reported an excellent quality of life and a safe, family-friendly environment. The low levels of taxation and absence of capital gains tax also affect quality of life for high earners, although some expats are expected to pay a portion of their earnings to their home country regardless of where the money was earned, which will affect their net income. The high costs of housing and healthcare in Singapore which is not subsidised for foreigners is often covered by the employer.

Singapore is a busy country with a culture of long working hours; the locals talk about the hectic pace of life and wanting to retire in other countries. Many companies expect their employees to work long hours with overtime shifts as the norm, and coping with the journey home on rush hour public transport systems where strangers do not interact other than actively jostle for space may not suit some people.

Married couples may find the transition and the long working hours difficult, especially as a spouse cannot work without their own job offer and successful application for a work visa. The derogatory term ‘Sarong Party Girl’ is used in Singapore to denote local women who dress provocatively and seek encounters or relationships with wealthier Caucasian men which may end marriages, but there is no real evidence of the extent to which this happens. On the whole, the lifestyle and facilities of this clean and modern city state do facilitate friendships amongst the expat community and the increased disposable income can improve family life enormously.

Singapore is a hub of the financial and technological industries, visibly successful in the skyscrapers of the Central Business District (BBD), and has high levels of training and education provision for children and the workforce as it strives to continue its success as a knowledge based economy. There has been a development boom, with the entire Marina Bay area around the Esplanade Theatre now providing upmarket commercial, residential and leisure premises, with botanic gardens and a water sports centre. New subway lines continue to be installed, and large casino resorts on Sentosa Island and Marina South have opened in the last few years. Singapore is positioning itself as a centre for biomedical sciences, financial services, digital media and tourism. Whilst 2016 is not a good year for export businesses, the domestic oriented segments of the economy are holding up well and unemployment is only 2.1%. There are a number of skill sets which will be in high demand from potential employees.

If you want to work in Singapore, you must have received a written job offer and have received the work visa approval via the employer’s application to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) before you arrive in the country. This process may be weeks or months, with interviews by phone, video call or in person. The employer has to justify recruiting foreign staff, by assessing quotas and following advertising and recruitment procedures, and pay additional levies; your salary must be above set thresholds. The Singapore population is very highly educated, so access to jobs is very competitive even for highly qualified individuals. Be well prepared for the interviews; don’t give an indication of plans to change career in the next five years, problems with punctuality or difficulties working with other people, but instead concentrate on the areas you are very successful at.

If you don’t have a global employer who is offering you an opportunity to move to Singapore within their own business, the best place to start would be the Government’s ‘Contact Singapore Job Portal’ on You will notice that there are three options, only one of which invites further searches by foreigners, entitled ‘International Professionals’. You can then search current vacancies by sector, and each one will give a short introduction to the vacancy including minimum qualifications required.

There are many recruitment companies that will be able to help, albeit with a commission fee. A small selection of companies offering the chance to work in Singapore include:

Kelly Associates
20 Anson Road, Level 11 Twenty Anson, Singapore 079912.
Tel (65) 6709 3388

1 Finlayson Green, #10-00, One Finlayson Green, Singapore 049246
Tel (65) 6736 2022 or (65) 6736 2155

391A Orchard Road, Ngee Ann City Tower A, #12-08 Singapore 238873
Tel: (65) 6732 6006

If you are to be employed in a profession which is governed by local regulations, after receiving a written job offer and formal approval for a work visa, you must then register and gain accreditation with the appropriate government organisation. This will be a thorough review of your qualifications, experience and employment, and includes anyone arriving to work professionally in the fields of law, medicine, dentistry, nursing, pharmaceuticals, engineering, and land surveying.

The British Chamber of Commerce can be found at 39, Robinson Road, #11-03, Robinson Point, Singapore, 068911
Telephone (65) 6222-3552

Do not enter Singapore hoping to find work whilst you are there. The Ministry of Manpower actively encourages employers to employ local workers and a country which enforces a low crime and corruption rate will not accept anyone trying to circumnavigate the employment and immigration rules. The government advertises its crackdowns on employers using illegal workers, for which prison sentences and large fines are levied as a warning to others. Foreigners who work without valid work passes face a fine of up to S$20,000, with the possibility of up to 24 months’ imprisonment in addition to or instead of the fine. They may also face a lifetime ban on working in Singapore. If someone offers you the chance to gain a work visa which is not genuine, be aware that this is illegal and is a scam to obtain your money.

Many expats work successfully in Singapore without facing discrimination, and the wide use of English, albeit with the Singlish spoken dialect, means many western expats can successfully integrate into the majority of workplaces. However, be mindful that the local political climate is hardening towards foreigners employed in Singapore, with fears over the cost of living, overpopulation and large influx of foreign workers who had been encouraged to come by government policy, at the same time as the manufacturing industry was moving overseas. As a result, inconsiderate behaviour which does not fit in with Singapore’s expected standards of behaviour may prompt hostility. People from mainland China, along with workers from Bangladesh, India and the Philippines are sometimes looked down on as being noisy, lacking integration and courteous manners. These workers have very few rights, often receive less pay and holidays than natives receive for the same jobs, and are open to abuse by some employers, especially those in a domestic setting.

Employment laws prohibit racial discrimination, but some employers will state applicants must speak both English and Mandarin.

Women have equal access to education and employment in Singapore, but employers do sometimes try to assess - some more openly than others - whether a potential female employee may be considering starting a family in the near future.

Being under 25 may cause a potential employer uncertainty about lack of experience and skills, and being in an older age bracket may also discourage a potential employer from accepting an applicant.

If you were fired from a previous job, employers will be reluctant to employ you regardless of the reasons for it happening, even if it was for morally justifiable grounds such as refusing to comply with the owner’s illegal plans. However, if you left the firm voluntarily under such circumstances, it should not detract from your application.

If you are going to work in Singapore it is a good idea to understand some of the cultural values that are widely held here.

The Family: Mutual security and harmony are more important than the individual, with the family at the centre of the social structure. Respect for the elderly is important, with age being important for your status. Close friends are treated as family members.

Face and Respect: Retaining face in all aspects of their lives is of paramount importance to all citizens in Singapore. It is the good name and esteem of the individual, family, school and nation.

Hierarchy: Whilst Singapore sees itself as an egalitarian society, strong hierarchical relationships drawn from Confucianism exist in all areas of life. Elders are introduced first, given preferential seating, and listened to closely. Professionals are treated as experts in their field and are not undermined by members of the public.

Ethnic Diversity: The religious and cultural diversity of the population is respected, with all parties expected to coexist peacefully beneath the veneer of a western cosmopolitan metropolis.

Non-Verbal Communication: Non-verbal messages such as facial expression and posture are trusted more than the spoken word. Often, a point will be hinted at rather than made in a direct statement, so that the other person does not lose face; rather than say ‘no’, someone might say ‘I’ll see what I can do’. The western culture of responding to a question hastily is seen as thoughtless and rude; pausing before answering a question shows you have given the question appropriate thought and considered the right reply.

Business Etiquette: More formal than western countries, business etiquette treats the company or department as more important that the individuals, with a strict hierarchy. Much communication will be non-verbal, and a calm demeanour is superior to an aggressive style. It is a group-oriented culture based on networks for long term relationships that develop over time, in which all parties follow the unwritten rules of the group and are respectful to each other.

Business Meetings: Always make an appointment, at least two weeks in advance if possible, with the request in writing for the most formal means of arranging an appointment. If the meeting involves negotiating, send a list of the names and titles of those who will be attending, well in advance of the meeting. You must arrive on time, with any materials you may wish to show, though there will be a period of small talk before discussing the business at hand. You must wait to be told where to sit. Respect hierarchy, pay attention to non-verbal communication, remember that ‘yes’ may not mean that and ‘no’ will not be said, and do not show open disagreement or anger as this causes a serious loss of face which ends the business relationship. If you wish to encourage questions, openly ask for them and smile if one is asked, remembering to pause for about 15 seconds before answering. You will find negotiations are tough and take a long time, but ultimately are agreed by consensus in respectful discussions.

Signing Contracts: The signing date of a contract with an ethnic Chinese business associate may be determined by an astrologer.

Greeting: The eldest and most important people will be introduced first. Etiquette of handshakes is based on ethnic origin, gender and age of the people involved. Ethnic Chinese may have a lightly grasped but prolonged shaking of hands; younger or cosmopolitan young people and Indians may shake hands. Women extend their hands first if a handshake is to take place with a man, but it is usually sufficient for a woman to nod her head and smile. Generally, Muslim men do not touch women in public, but handshakes between members of the opposite sex can be uncomfortable for many people.

Business Cards: Exchanged after the initial introductions and using both hands, hand your card so the typeface faces the recipient. Examine business cards carefully before putting them in a business card case. Maintain your own cards in pristine condition. It is a good idea to have one side of your card translated into Mandarin, with Chinese characters printed in gold.

Chinese Names: The Chinese traditionally have a family name followed by two personal names; they should be addressed by an honourific title and their surname until they invite you to use one of their personal names or an adopted western name.

Malay Names: Many Malays have a forename, followed by ‘bin’ and then their father’s name, so there will be no family surname. The male title Haji or female title Hajjah before the name indicated the person has made pilgrimage to Mecca. The male name Sayyed or female name Sharifah means the person is considered a descendent of the prophet Mohammed.

Indian Names: Many Indians will place the initial of their father’s name in front of their own name, with the formal name being s/o (son of) or d/o (daughter of) and the father’s name. At marriage women stop using their father’s name and instead use their husband’s name after their own name. All Sikh Indians use the name Singh. Many Indian names are extremely long, so shortened versions are frequently used.

Gift-giving: Chinese gift-giving etiquette is lengthy and complicated. Flowers are for funerals, food brought to a dinner party insults the guest, there are inappropriate wrapping paper colours, and sharp objects signify you are terminating a relationship. Never give a gift without researching this area thoroughly.

When giving a gift to ethnic Malay, avoid toy dogs, alcohol or pig products. Wrap gifts in red or green paper and give with the right hand as you are leaving, to be opened later.

Indians should also be given a gift held in the right hand, wrapped in bright red, yellow or green paper. Avoid alcohol or leather. A gift of money should be given to an amount that is an odd rather than even number.

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