More foreigners are applying for PR status for fear of losing their jobs during recession
By Cassandra Chew
Snaking lines starting in the wee hours outside the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) are now a common sight as more foreigners clamour for permanent residency here.
From as early as 11pm the night before, they start queueing at the entrance of Lavender MRT station. Hailing from countries like India, China, the Philippines, Malaysia and Myanmar, most are desperately vying for a spot in the permanent resident (PR) application processing queue.
By 3am on Jan 24, at least 10 individuals were already gathered there.
They laid out newspapers to lie on and sipped coffee from a nearby 24-hour coffee shop to stay awake. Several came with company so their friends could hold their spot while they took toilet breaks.
By 5.30am, the informal queue had swelled to about 60 people. As if in a group march, they collectively crossed the street from the MRT station to the official ICA queue post, which had just opened, in an orderly fashion.
By 8am, the line had snaked around ICA's Kallang Road building, with over 220 people in it.
A random poll of 20 people in the queue showed that 15 were there to apply for PR. Others were there for visa matters, like the renewal of long-term visit passes.
When ICA's doors opened at 8am, the PR hopefuls rushed into the building, scurrying into lifts or rushing up four flights of escalators to the fifth floor where the PR Services Centre is located.
Each time The Sunday Times visited on Jan 2, Jan 7 and Jan 24, all queue tickets for PR applicants were snapped up within 15 minutes.
Newspaper vendor Ye Yibin, 69, who has been manning a stall by the MRT station for five years, said the lines started growing longer about a year ago but have surged since last November. 'Before, there would be a few people at 6am, but now the lines are much longer. Many of them gather from 2am and use my stools,' she said.
Labour watchers say one reason for the desperation of these PR applicants is the recession. Foreigners who fear for their jobs are making a beeline to apply for PR so they can remain here in case they get axed.
Employment pass, S-pass and work permit holders can remain in Singapore for between seven and 14 days if they lose their jobs. Personalised employment pass holders can remain unemployed here for up to six months, while PRs can remain here until their five-year re-entry permit expires.
Nanyang Technological University economics professor Choy Keen Meng said: 'The rush makes sense because employment pass holders are at high risk of retrenchment during a recession. If they want to stick around, having a PR would mean they won't be repatriated.'
Most of those standing in line overnight know that PR applicants have the option of using ICA's e-appointment system to secure a spot in the processing queue, but they said the waiting time for e-appointments is too long.
A 44-year-old exhibitions manager, who would give his name only as Alan, had been waiting in line since 12.30am on Jan 7. The Singaporean said he visited ICA's e-appointment website after he failed to obtain a queue ticket on Jan 6, but found that the next available appointment was on March 10.
He was there to submit the PR application of his Vietnamese wife of nine years. Permanent residency would allow her to work and supplement their household income. A three-month wait would mean three months of income lost.
This was also why China national Lin Wenhai, 33, arrived at 11pm the day before to queue for his ticket.
'Having PR would give me a sense of security here, and would also enable me to bring my parents, wife and daughter in Fujian over,' said the factory worker who has been here for five years.
Mr Lin, like many others in line, left his family in search of a better future here, and hopes to be reunited with them soon.
In response to queries from The Sunday Times, ICA would only say that while there is no set limit to the number of queue tickets given out daily to PR applicants, limited resources mean it can only process a certain number of applications on any given day. This is why it places a limit on the number of applications it accepts each day.
The ICA spokesman added that the success of PR applications is not based on the timing of their submission, but that the applications are considered on individual merit. As of last October, Singapore has 478,200 PRs.
Since the e-appointment system's launch in March last year, ICA officers have periodically used tablet PCs to assist those in the queues with the online booking process.
'PR applicants are strongly encouraged to make use of the e-appointment system to book an available date that best suits their schedule and which assures minimal waiting time,' he said.
In an economic downturn, should permanent residency be given out freely?
Interest of Singaporeans key
'Our population policy must strike a balance between encouraging Singaporeans to have more babies, and granting PR to foreign talent. This policy should remain consistent in both good and bad economic times. We must constantly attract talent to increase the competitiveness of our workforce and economy so as to achieve sustainable growth. The interest of Singaporeans is always accorded priority over permanent residents for all matters. We should always seek synergies between Singaporeans and PRs to grow our economy which in turn will benefit more Singaporeans.'
DR TEO HO PIN, chair of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Law and Home Affairs
Foreigners contribute too
'I have accomplished a lot in my career, I have designed buildings that are now completed. I am not the type of person to snatch something from others. I am here because I know I can benefit from this country and this country can benefit from me.'
MR JOSE ROMERO, 30, architect from Antipolo City, the Philippines, who is applying for PR here
Sustaining the population
'Singapore's total fertility rate is one of the lowest among the developed countries, standing at 1.29 in 2007. To have a sustainable population, we need to continue to encourage marriage and parenthood, engage our overseas Singaporeans, and facilitate the naturalisation and integration of suitable foreigners, regardless of good or bad economic times.'
NATIONAL POPULATION SECRETARIAT SPOKESMAN
Improve our human capital
'In the next months, I expect the number of foreigners working in Singapore to shrink...In releasing foreign manpower to their home countries, we must however maintain a sense of fairness and responsibility. Whatever the economic conditions, some of our foreign manpower do stay on as PRs or citizens. Competition for talent is global and will intensify once the economic crisis blows over. We all stand to gain through improvements in the stock of Singapore's human capital. In other words, we still cannot afford to ignore our longer needs.'
MRS JOSEPHINE TEO, assistant secretary-general of National Trades Union Congress
[In good times, there is no need to rush for citizenship. Having some ambiguity allows for flexibility. One can be here and there. But in bad times, lines are drawn more clearly, and there are benefits to being a citizen, or at least a resident. And suddenly there is clarity. Certainty. Citizenship has its privileges. And suddenly one knows where one future lies.]