International students on S'pore government bond unable to find jobs, desperate for help and answers – TODAY

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SINGAPORE — Jobs are not open to them, but leaving Singapore is not an option even as their savings are fast depleting from having to pay rent with zero income.

SINGAPORE — Jobs are not open to them, but leaving Singapore is not an option even as their savings are fast depleting from having to pay rent with zero income. 
This is the dilemma faced by the latest batch of international students who graduated with an obligation under the Ministry of Education (MOE) tuition grant scheme to serve a three-year bond working for a Singapore entity, but find themselves unable to fulfil it.
Now months deep into a fruitless job search even after sending out hundreds of applications, they are desperate for some intervention and answers to chart their path ahead.
TODAY spoke to six of these graduates, among them a vocal group from Yale-NUS College who claimed that the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has been delaying or rejecting their work pass applications, even when they managed to secure a job.
They want to know why this is the case when they are being tied to their bonds at the same time.
They also hope to be exempted from the current onerous process of getting their work pass approved, which has taken more than two months for some to hear back about their application.
In response to TODAY’s queries, MOM said it works with MOE and institutes of higher learning (IHLs) to help facilitate the students’ application for the necessary work pass arrangements.
MOM added that it “will exercise flexibility where necessary” when processing them.
“Tuition grant bond recipients who require assistance if they have issues fulfilling their bond requirements should reach out to their IHLs for support,” MOM also said.
MOE said that it is “cognisant” that international students have to fulfil their tuition grant obligations and is “actively monitoring the situation”, but did not comment on whether it will relax its bond requirements or waive bonds as a last resort.
Among the international students interviewed was a National University of Singapore (NUS) graduate who wanted to be known only as Mr Wang.
The 24-year-old said he had waited for a month before he was informed that his EP application was rejected. He then spent another month appealing against the outcome before it was approved.
Mr Wang said: “It is ridiculous that we have to apply for the same visas as other foreigners to begin with. They are people who don’t need to be here… They can theoretically not come. We don’t have the choice but we have to compete with them, essentially.”
Given the Government’s push to protect jobs for locals, a few of the international students also questioned if their bonds can be deferred until the job market is open once again, but without having to post a hefty banker’s guarantee.
The banker’s guarantee is currently equivalent to the estimated liquidated damages payable if they wish to break their bonds. And liquidated damages are calculated based on the total grant amount the student had received, plus a 10 per cent interest per year, compounded at the end of each academic year.
Or at the very least, they hope the Government will waive some of the interest as they did not choose to put up with the cumulatively long waits for a job and a work pass.
As it has become a real possibility that they remain jobless throughout the one-year grace period given before they face a danger of being asked to pay liquidated damages, others want to know if they will be given more time to look for a job.
As this liability is also subjected to an MOE review, they hope the ministry can be more transparent about its requirement for graduates to prove that they have put in substantial effort towards their job search.
For a Yale-NUS College graduate, liquidated damages could cost about S$100,000.
A South Korean graduate from the liberal arts college who declined to be named said: “Singapore doesn’t want me it seems, but I can’t look for a job in Korea… If I look for a job elsewhere, I have to pay back a crazy sum of money.”
Breaking into tears as she spoke, the 24-year-old who had sent out more than 200 job applications so far added: “This does not make sense at all. The Government should be responsible for us as well.”
She also felt that her four years of education had gone to waste as she, in her desperation, started applying for jobs she has no interest in but may stand a higher chance in, such as those requiring proficiency in the Korean language, her native tongue.
Dejected after exhausting all her options, she said: “Industries, companies’ missions and values don’t matter anymore. I am just looking for a company willing to sponsor my visa.”
MOE issues tuition grants to international students to help them manage the costs of full-time tertiary education in Singapore.
During his time as education minister, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat had said that the students provide “important manpower support” to key economic sectors, and also hone local students’ cross-cultural competencies.
When revealing that about S$108 million is spent on international students’ tuition grants yearly last year, former Education Minister Ong Ye Kung also said that benefits include having a catchment of people who can contribute to Singapore.
However, international students feel like they are on the receiving end of recent policy moves to tighten the foreign manpower policy, whether this was intended or not. 
Among other things, MOM tightened work pass requirements twice this year such that the minimum salary requirement for new Employment Pass (EP) applications — the one most international students rely on — had jumped from S$3,600 to S$4,500.
Graduates using a self-assessment tool on MOM’s website find that the new salary floor does not apply to them, but they still found it hard to convince employers to think otherwise.
Employers and students serving the bond also wonder if they would eventually have to meet the new S$4,500 mark the moment an EP application, which might have been approved at a far lower salary point, is due for a renewal one to three years down the road.
Said a 23-year-old Yale-NUS College graduate who spoke on condition of anonymity as well: “The fact is that (the exemption for international students who are bonded) is not a written, codified policy… We find ourselves almost having to lie to employers that (our applications) would work out when it may not.
“(The authorities) should make it very clear and codified so it offers some kind of legitimacy for international students to tell employers that they have the exemption.”
An NUS graduate who declined to be named said she doesn’t blame employers even as she remains jobless after sending about 75 applications.
“It is not their fault that the restrictions are as they are,” said the 22-year-old who secured a job offer in April only to see it rescinded three weeks later as the firm had “suddenly” rolled out a blanket rule to not sponsor EPs.
However, the authorities “should either create a different and a streamlined track for tuition grant scheme students to apply for work passes or scrap the bond”, she said. 
Asked what support schools can give, Mr Norvin Ng, director of career services at Yale-NUS College’s Centre for International & Professional Experience, said the college, where about half of its students are foreigners, is working to compile a set of new resources for its students in view of the latest MOM policies on work passes.
The resources will help them “position themselves as eligible candidates”, he added.
An NUS spokesperson said the university supports its graduates by providing them “full access to a wide range of recruitment opportunities across industries”.
Graduates who face difficulties finding employment can seek personalised coaching from their career advisors on job searching, interviewing and networking strategies, she said.
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