New hiring framework hits arts sector

Arts groups affected by the manpower rules include the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra (above), which performed live the soundtrack to The Fellowship Of The Ring movie in June, and dance group Arts Fission Company, which may soon lose Thai dancer Vavarom Tavivoradilok.

First it was restaurants, then retail. Now the arts is the latest sector to be hit by the tightening of regulations for hiring foreigners.

Several non-profit arts companies are feeling the heat of across-the-board measures such as the recent hike in the qualifying salary for foreign employment pass holders. They say there is not enough local talent in areas such as dance, music and musical theatre, which require many years of specialised, intensive training.

Those affected by the Manpower Ministry's new rules include full-time contemporary dance group Arts Fission Company and professional orchestras such as the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra and the Singapore Chinese Orchestra.

Arts Fission, helmed by Cultural Medallion recipient Angela Liong, has lost three full-time foreign dancers this year and may soon lose a fourth. Two years ago, Liong hired Vavarom Tavivoradilok on an Employment Pass, which is for foreign professionals. The 28-year-old Thai dancer is a political science graduate from Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University who has been studying dance since the age of six.

Her pass came up for renewal recently, but she did not make the cut following the hike in the qualifying salary announced in September. Her application for the lower-tier S Pass, which is for mid-level skilled foreigners earning at least $2,200, was also rejected. She wants to apply again and hopes to stay on because "there are no full-time dance companies in Thailand".

Her monthly salary is under $3,000. Under the new rules, which kick in from January, young graduates from good educational institutions qualify for the Employment Pass if they earn at least $3,300, up from $3,000. Older applicants have to command higher salaries to qualify. The rules are aimed at making employers consider Singaporeans first.

But choreographer Liong says the blanket ruling "could affect the survival of the company". It employs six full-time dancers and lost three of them - from Thailand, Japan and China - earlier this year under similar circumstances.

She says the arts is a niche area, different from other industries in that "the skills and creative contribution of our dancers are not so easily replaceable by another". She looks for "thinking dancers", adding: "If I don't have great dancers who understand my ideas, they are just ideas."

To replace the foreigners who left, she offered three local apprentice dancers full-time positions, "but it will take them at least three years to mature".

Also worried is the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, which employs 82 full-time musicians, 17 of whom are foreigners employed here on work passes.

Says general manager Terence Ho: "The new rules will mean either raising salaries to make the grade for an Employment Pass or paying more in S Pass levies, all of which will cost us more to sustain the orchestra."

Employers must pay a levy for each S Pass worker hired, which is $300 and above for skilled workers in the services sector, which the arts comes under.

The Metropolitan Festival Orchestra, which though less than a year old, has mounted major classical concerts such as performing live the soundtrack to The Fellowship Of The Ring movie in June.

It engages all of its professional musicians per project, hiring up to 100 of them for big concerts. General manager Low Jia Hua says that while most of them are Singaporeans, a significant number are Singapore-based foreigners on work passes.

He says: "The reality of the music industry is that it is international. In order to perform at international standards, we always need to make sure that we engage the best professional orchestra-trained musicians available to us here, whether they are Singaporeans or foreigners."

While more locals are graduating from arts colleges here, foreigners make up a large percentage of the cohort. More than half of musical theatre graduates at Lasalle College of the Arts are from abroad, as are 70 per cent of students at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music.

Singaporean musical theatre director and performer Hossan Leong says talented foreign students who want to stay on and work "are not taking away jobs from our actors. If I graduate from a local college, I've already stayed here for three years, I've actually put down roots".

The question of whether foreign manpower policies "can be refined to take into account the modest pay scales of skilled arts professionals and the freelance nature of work in these sectors", was raised by Nominated Member of Parliament for the Arts Janice Koh in Parliament on Tuesday.

Ms Koh asked whether the Ministry of Manpower could consider giving out a special work pass of up to one year for foreign arts students who have graduated from local tertiary institutions.

She also asked if the ministry has monitored the impact of the tightened supply of foreign workers "on the size and diversity of the talent pool available for our nascent arts and creative industries".

As of Life!'s press time, the ministry had not replied to her question.

clare@sph.com.sg

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.