FROM next month, foreign professionals seeking the top-tier Personalised Employment Pass (PEP) have to earn more than four times what they currently have to make in a year.

Their annual income has to be at least $144,000, a sharp rise from the current $34,000.

In addition, the duration of this pass, which cannot be renewed, will be shortened from five years to three years.

These changes, announced by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) on its website last week, represent the latest move by the Government to tighten the inflow of foreign labour, a hot-button issue at the last general election.

The PEP lets foreigners work in Singapore without being tied to a specific employer. They can also stay for up to six months between jobs, compared with a month for Employment Pass (EP) holders.

EP holders making $34,000 or more a year can apply for the PEP after a minimum stay of a few years in Singapore.

But from Dec 1, PEP applicants must first hold a P1 pass - the highest kind of EP - and earn $144,000. Those on lower-level P2 and Q1 passes will no longer be eligible. Nor will former P1 pass holders.

Overseas-based foreign professionals applying for a PEP must have a last-drawn monthly pay of $18,000, up from $8,000. And existing PEP holders will lose their passes if they do not make the $144,000 annual income limit by the end of 2014. But those whose PEPs expire in the first half of 2015 can stay until the expiry date.

The MOM told The Straits Times yesterday that about one in three of the 12,000 PEP holders here can meet the new cut-off, based on current pay.

Mr Aasim Saeed, 34, is not among them. News of the changes shocked the IT manager of a chemical and pharmaceutical firm. "For those who still hold the pass, you cannot simply change the rules like that," he said.

The Pakistani national received his PEP in February, after three years here. It is set to expire in 2017. But his $6,000-plus salary is far from the new cut-off, and he does not expect it to double by the end of 2014.

"It's impossible," he said.

The MOM says the changes are "in line with (its) recent moves to raise the quality of EP holders". These "will also ensure that the PEP remains a premium pass for top-tier foreign talent working in Singapore."

EP qualifying salaries and educational criteria were raised in July last year and January this year.

Human resource experts, however, do not expect the latest move to affect many companies, saying Singapore remains very attractive to talent.

The 12,000 PEP holders represent about 7per cent of the 174,700 EP holders here.

"This comparatively small number suggests that many highly skilled foreign workers don't consider the PEP essential for working here," said Kelly Services vice-president and country general manager for Singapore Mark Hall.

Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Teo Siong Seng was less sanguine. "It's putting the barriers very high," he said.

He felt that continued efforts to tighten foreign labour inflows could make things harder for firms already facing a tough external environment.

"We know the feelings on the ground," he said, referring to public unhappiness over high foreign worker numbers. "I just wonder whether the Government is over-reacting."