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How Singapore is wooing the ‘best of the best’ talents across the world

The Ministry of Manpower is set to roll out a new work pass with five-year validity.

With talent being the only resource of Singapore, the country cannot afford to lose the global war of talent. This is why the government has further enhanced its work pass framework and introduced the Overseas Networks & Expertise (ONE) Pass.

NG Zhao Yang, local principal in the Employment Practice Group of Baker McKenzie Wong & Leow, said the ONE Pass is more beneficial to foreign workers compared to the other work passes, like the Employment Pass (EP), since it has a five-year validity period.

Typically, an EP has a two- to three-year validity, whilst the Personalised Employment Pass (PEP) is granted for up to three years, Bird & Bird ATMD’s Senior Associate, Natasha Chengsaid.

Apart from longer validity, ONE Pass also eliminated the need for holders to reapply for a new pass to change jobs, unlike EP holders who need to do so.

ONE Pass holders will also be able to “concurrently start, operate, and work for multiple companies at any one time. EP holders can only work for the entity which sponsored his/her EP unless specific permission is sought and obtained from the MOM,” said NG.

But amongst the benefits that ONE Pass provides, Cheng said the biggest privilege a holder could get is having a dependent, particularly their spouse, to work in Singapore on a letter of consent.

Cheng explained that dependents of EP and PEP pass holders can only work in Singapore on a work pass.

“If an EP holder's spouse wishes to work in Singapore, the spouse will need to ensure that he/she qualifies for a work pass on his/her own merit,” NG commented.

Qualifying for the ONE Pass

To qualify for the ONE Pass, applicants must meet the salary threshold of S$30,000.

“Candidates must be earning at least S$30,000 as a fixed monthly salary for the last year or they will have to show that they will be earning a S$30,000 fixed monthly salary with an employer in Singapore,” Cheng said.

The salary threshold of the ONE Pass is its most important difference from other existing work passes by the MOM, according to NG.

“The current EP salary threshold is S$5,000, or S$5,500 if the applicant is in the financial services sector. The salary threshold of S$30,000 was chosen as it is comparable to the top 5% of EP holders,” NG said.

Candidates who do not meet this criterion can still apply for ONE Pass if they have outstanding achievements in the field of arts and culture, sports, science and technology, and research and academia.

“More details on the eligibility criteria for new applications and renewals under this route will be announced closer to 1 January 2023,” NG said.

On top of these requirements, Cheng said candidates must show that they are going to be working for a company which has a market capitalisation of at least US$500m or a revenue of US$200m.

Those who are not eligible for the ONE Pass can consider applying for an EP or a PEP. 

The PEP, like the ONE Pass, is not tied to a single employer; however, this type of pass is not renewable, according to Cheng. The qualifying salary for the PEP is S$18,000 per month currently, but this will increase to S$22,500 in September 2023.

“At some point, a PEP holder will lead to transit either to an EP or perhaps to ONE Pass,” she said.

If the ONE Pass and the EP are not viable options, NG said foreigners can also consider S Pass and Work Permit. However, as these are for mid- to low-skilled workers, it is unlikely they will be helpful in such a scenario,” NG added.

Potential loopholes

Goh Seow Huihead of Bird & Bird ATMD’s Employment Practice, said the requirements set by the government disqualify “quite a number of people” and “weeds out most companies.”

“To get a seat at the table is really not easy. Just on that alone, I think the idea of it being abused is quite hard to fathom. It’s hard to abuse a system that you can’t even get into in the first place,” Goh said.

Goh, however, said there could potentially be loopholes to the work pass framework.

“There is no time limit for the ONE Pass holder to remain employed. A lot of things can happen in five years. You do well in the first two years and in the middle of that you may lose your job, or circumstances change… What’s going to happen? Because then, it looks like this person might have a free ride all the way to the end of the five years,” Goh said.

The potential loophole, however, can be dealt with through proper enforcement of measures, according to Goh.

“The minister’s response is that everyone reserves the right to cancel [the pass] if there are periods of economic inactivity. It’s a logical response but what remains to be seen is its enforcement. How much of a watchful eye can MOM be? How can they keep tabs on ONE Pass holders and their movements? It’s really an enforcement issue,” she said.

According to NG, MOM will request the following information from ONE Pass holders to ensure that they are utilising the flexibilities accorded to them: details on all professional activities over the past year and the annual salary earned from all professional activities.

Best of best

The successful implementation of the ONE Pass not only benefits foreigners but Singapore as a whole given that it targets only the “best of the best” or the “super expatriates.”

“[The ONE Pass] is a natural evolution of the Singapore government's desire to make Singapore more attractive to high-level talent in order to bring Singapore's economy to the next level,” NG said.

“All sectors can benefit from the ONE Pass. High-level talent will be attracted to come to Singapore, and when they are onboard, they can uplift their own organisations with their skills and experience,” the expert added.

Goh, for her part, said the ONE Pass also puts away “any doubt” that Singapore is not welcoming to foreigners.

“Singapore’s policy has always been to welcome talent. The introduction of the ONE Pass is a strong signal to the market that what the government wants is for talent to come to Singapore,” she said.

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