Singapore’s population drops for first time since 2003 as foreigners leave

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Singapore’s population shrank for the first time since 2003 as travel restrictions and job losses brought on by the coronavirus pandemic forced foreign workers to leave the global business hub.

Office workers wearing protective face masks walk in Singapore’s central business district amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Singapore on August 17, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su/Files

The total population fell by about 18,000, or 0.3%, to 5.69 million, according to the annual population report.

Foreigners fell sharply, down 2% to 1.64 million, and a slight drop in permanent residents outweighed a small increase in citizens, some of whom returned from overseas as the pandemic spread around the world.

“These trends are largely due to COVID-19-related challenges posed by weak demand and travel restrictions,” the report said, citing job losses in the services sector, which relies heavily on low-wage foreign labour.

As the economy faces the worst recession in history — official estimates range from 5% to 7% this year — the government has been raising the bar for foreign recruits to preserve jobs for locals.

But authorities in low-tax corporate hubs, home to the Asian headquarters of many multinationals, have also warned that the populist turn could hurt business.

“We have to be careful not to give the wrong impression that we are now closing down and no longer welcoming foreigners,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a speech earlier this month after opposition parties criticized the government’s immigration policy after the election Too slack.

Singapore’s non-resident population has more than doubled in the past 20 years, driving population growth in the city-state with the world’s lowest birth rate.

That raised concerns about competition for jobs and strain on public infrastructure, which came to the fore again in the July 10 vote in which the ruling People’s Action Party ceded a record number of seats to the opposition.

“As activity picks up, there could be a resurgence of manpower shortages going forward,” said Selena Ling, head of financial research and strategy at OCBC Bank.

Reporting by John Geddy, Aladana Aravindan and Lin Chen.Edited by Gerry Doyle

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