Should Singapore adopt a “freedom of movement” policy for its citizens to thrive in today’s globalized world?

Flight Arrival in Zurich, Switzerland

This 3000-word essay was a submission piece for the author’s social science module in university. It explores possible governmental policies and their implications, with the goal of helping citizens of Singapore thrive in an ever inner-connected world.

Introduction & Definitions

Global Context

Local Context


Before we delve into its viability, it is paramount to discuss what a free movement policy entails and how it has performed in the context of existing multilateral agreements (specifically a regional union). The “freedom of movement of workers” policy was first established in Europe based on the principles of “mobility rights” in the aftermath of World War II. The motivation for its implementation was rooted in hopes of economic recovery for participating nation-states through the free movement of labor. During the post-war period, citizens from the newly formed European Union (EU) could fill job vacancies in the different member states, which benefited all parties involved — unemployment fell and industries began their recovery with additional manpower. The modern iteration of this policy chapter still holds true to its beginnings as EU law edicts that “nationals of any member states may be employed in another member state under identical conditions equivalent to their home nation” (Official Journal of the European Union, 2016). In 2015, a special report by the European Court of Auditors detailed that almost 4% of the entire EU-28 population ( over 11 million people) are long-term beneficiaries of this labor mobility clause. Hence, the introduction of a “freedom of movement of workers” policy has undoubtedly provided livelihood to many Europeans in the past and present. While the perks of labor mobility are undeniable, the advent of guarded globalization and a growing economic disparity between EU member states (along the east-west axis) has also led to an intensification of nationalism support. Lega Nord, a right-wing populist party in Italy perfectly demonstrates the changes in sentiment among Europeans as they enjoyed an increase in votes of over 550% between the 2014 and 2019 European Parliament elections, becoming Italy’s most popular political party (European Parliament, 2019). Although these ramifications may seem daunting, they play a salient role in the policymaking process for Singapore — an opportunity to learn from the shortcomings of others. With a better understanding of labor mobility and its impact, we can now move on to discuss the feasibility of adopting such a policy in the context of Singapore.


In addition to generating economic opportunities abroad for Singapore citizens, a labor mobility policy can improve the welfare of the nations involved. Despite Singapore’s claims of being cosmopolitan, employment policies in the status quo show otherwise as groups of foreign workers continue to be treated differently. This systematic prejudice against certain workers contradicts the cosmopolitan image of Singapore and inevitably fuels preconceptions of certain races within a colonial frame of reference (Yeoh, 2004, pg. 2441). As a multiracial society, such biases damage our social fabric and worsen the welfare of minority groups. By replacing conventional immigration policies with a labor mobility agreement, we allow the free labor market (where employers compete for the best workers) to determine employment opportunities regardless of race or socioeconomic background. This integration of human commerce between nations also promotes peace as “commerce cures destructive prejudices, and it is an almost general rule that everywhere there are gentle mores, there is commerce and that everywhere there is commerce, there are gentle mores” (Montesquieu, 1914, p. 338). This is the first crucial step the government can take towards mitigating welfare impacts caused by existing immigration policies. Academic research conducted by various reputable institutions has also shown that both immigration and emigration can increase the welfare of all countries involved by up to 10%. These improvements in well-being come in two main forms: the first, when migrants move from a low-labor productivity country to one with higher productivity, which affects the migrants themselves and those at home (through remittances). The second, when an inflow of migrants increases the size of the labor force, increasing the mass of varieties available for consumption and as intermediate inputs (di Giovanni, 2015, p.26–27). Taking these factors into account, the labor mobility policy has proven itself to be a good candidate in enabling Singapore citizens to thrive through the dual-benefit of economic opportunity and improved national well-being.

Although the economic benefits may be indisputable, critics have raised a common discourse about the limited integration of transnational businessmen in their new homes. These critics argue that many immigrants work in limited areas and often form expatriate enclaves as they struggle to establish business overseas, ultimately retreating to “ethnic enclave economics” (Ley, 2004). This trend of negentropy is present in many different migrant groups as humans are often attracted to familiarity. During the mass exodus that occurred at the end of the Vietnam war in 1975, over 125,000 people left South Vietnam for the United States to escape communist reprisal and economic regression. Initially, the American government attempted to distribute these new asylum seekers throughout the country to facilitate their assimilation, but their efforts remain insubstantial as enclave communities formed anyway — creating businesses in “Little Saigon”. A major cause of this phenomenon stems from the perception of non-whites as second-class citizens, which remained a widespread sentiment among the American population despite racial reforms in the 1960s. As such, many immigrants of the 20th century found it difficult to fully integrate into the new society they reside in. This limited integration as critics assert, detriments the well-being of immigrants and impedes their opportunity to thrive.

Yet, the proliferation of technological innovations and changing migration trends in the 21st century speak of a different story. In this day and age, the ethos of cosmopolitanism — now a cultural habitus of globalization (Ang, 2001) is commonly accepted as a part of life in large cities around the world. Despite cultural differences, modern transnational businessmen have evolved considerably — allowing them to thrive despite the lack of familiarity and comfort found in their home countries. These economic migrants may continue to congregate with fellow expatriates, but their well-beings are no longer threatened by the extent of integration abroad or defined by the company around them. The advent of a counterculture “global nomad” lifestyle epitomizes this new adaptability found in working professionals as they constantly move between borders, seeking happiness and individual well-being instead of traditional materialism (Kannisto, 2016). As the world continues to become more interconnected through advancements in information and communication technologies, cosmopolitanism and its associated lifestyles will continue its growth in popularity among the younger generations, eventually leading to a paradigm where well-beings and opportunities surpass contemporary geographical barriers. With the considerations of such implications, it is prudent for Singapore to introduce labor mobility policies now as the youth continues to explore what it means to be a global citizen.


While the concerns raised by these critics are valid in the context of the EU, they do not necessarily provide a substantiated point of reference for Singapore. A key fallacy in this comparison stems from how the policy is implemented. In the EU, the “freedom of movement of workers” policy is founded on a framework that includes all member states based on geographical boundaries and irrespective of economic disparities. Singapore on the other hand has a “freedom of choice” to build partnerships with select nations. This enables the government to work with strong economies, providing favorable working conditions for all parties involved. Through this arrangement, social divisions caused by the “undercutting of wages and stealing of jobs” are mitigated as fair wages and employment opportunities for locals will still remain within arm’s reach. Ultimately, Singapore’s adoption of a labor mobility policy comes as the best version of compromise between economic prosperity and social stability. The prejudices outlined above are often found beyond the realm of job security and can never truly be eliminated in a cosmopolitan society even with transnational labour mobility out of the question.


As a consequence of Singapore’s open market economy and heavy reliance on human capital, the slowdown of globalization has exacerbated financial uncertainties and unemployment among her citizens — causing harm to their ability to thrive. Today, many local businesses are propped up by the government’s stimulus package as a means of survival. In order to re-enable Singaporeans to thrive in today’s globalized world, the government needs to take a firm and prudent approach through the implementation of a “freedom of movement of workers” policy with select nations. Not only will this alleviate pressure on our labor markets, but the new economic opportunities may also equip citizens with additional experiences and skills which would have been otherwise unattainable locally. The appropriate execution of such a policy also encourages welfare betterment among partner nations, which addresses the joint experience of development and success necessary for Singaporeans to thrive.

While limitations do exist in the form of possible social divisions, existing arrangements for the proposed policy can only at best, mitigate the situation. For these issues to be truly addressed effectively, Singapore and its partners must inculcate a “global” culture through cosmopolitan education. Fundamentally, the “freedom of movement of workers” policy accurately tackles the necessary prerequisites for Singapore citizens to thrive in today’s globalized world.