Will Singapore Immigration Politics Impact Law Firms?

, The Asian Lawyer

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protest against the government at Hong Lim Park on February 16, 2013 in Singapore

Singapore’s government has long sought to enhance the island nation’s status as a hub for the global financial and legal services industries. But that goal is potentially coming into conflict with populist sentiment against increased immigration by foreign workers.

Though foreign lawyers and firms have so far not been specifically targeted, a number who have lived and worked in Singapore for years say they are worried the profession will eventually be affected by more general measures being implemented in response to the public outcry.

There is also more immediate concern that immigration politics may factor in government decisions on renewal of Qualifying Foreign Law Practice (QFLP) licenses, which allow designated foreign firms to practice local law in certain areas. In exchange, those firms agreed to recruitment and revenue targets for their Singapore offices, targets that a number say they will not meet.

“You do sense a greater degree of nationalism creeping in,” says the head of one global firm’s Singapore office. “Going forward, it might be more difficult to bring people here from elsewhere in the network.”

The Singapore-based lawyers who spoke to The Asian Lawyer uniformly requested anonymity because of the political sensitivities involved. Some are with firms that are in the process of seeking renewal of their QFLP licenses.

Though discontent with the immigration-friendly policies of the ruling People’s Action Party has been long-simmering, a government proposal earlier this year to counteract the country’s low birthrate and aging demographic profile by boosting population from 5.3 million today to 6.9 million in 2030 has become a rallying cry for the political opposition. It has also sparked a series of large protests in a country long known for its social order.

As elsewhere in the world, much of the anger is focused at low-skilled migrant workers, who are seen as a drain on social services. But there is also some bitterness directed at highly skilled expatriates from the West and elsewhere in Asia—many Singaporeans think they drive up living costs for everyone else and taking well-paid jobs that might otherwise go to locals. That group includes foreign lawyers, whose numbers have almost doubled in the past six years to over 1,000 today.* The number of local lawyers has also grown in that time but at a much lower rate.

Singapore has long been a welcoming destination for expats, and they are highly visible in the country’s business districts. Though he doesn’t see that changing anytime soon, one Western lawyer who has lived and worked in Singapore on and off for almost two decades says there has been a palpable change in mood over the past year or so.

“I’ve heard several people here say they’re feeling the resentment,” he says. The lawyer says the PAP, which has held power in Singapore for some 50 years, clearly feels pressure to act after the opposition did better in the 2011 election than it has ever done before.

“They’ve felt the need to respond to the criticism that things are too expensive,” he says.

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