One key challenge for Singapore is to find enough foreign nurses to supplement local ones to care for the elderly as the health care system will require 24,000 of them by 2030, according to media reports.

"They (nurses and healthcare staff) number 58,000 now and the Ministry of Health estimates that this will need to grow to 82,000 by 2030," Health Minister Ong Ye Kung told Parliament on Wednesday.

Singaporeans and permanent residents make up about 72 per cent of Singapore's pool of registered and 63 per cent enrolled nurses. The rest are from the Philippines, Malaysia, China, India, Myanmar and other countries, according to a report by The Straits Times.

Acknowledging the heightened international competition for nurses, Ong added that the ministry is supportive of a suggestion by Nominated MP and breast surgeon Tan Yia Swam of granting permanent residency to good performers.

He also pointed out that by 2030, one in four Singaporeans will be aged 65 and above, up from one in six today. Singapore is ramping up the nursing homes’ bed capacity to 31,000 beds by 2030 from 16,200 now.

"In our Asian culture, we value caring for our seniors at home. Our seniors also prefer to age in a familiar environment. We should not lose this," The Straits Times quoted Ong as saying in Parliament. "As a society, we must guard against the assumption that seniors will always become sick and frail, and unable to take care of themselves," Ong said.

No exodus of local nurses

Replying to several MPs' questions on manpower, the minister said there has been no exodus of local nurses and that efforts are afoot to raise the intake of nursing students locally to 2,300 from 2,100 currently. While locals will continue to form the bulk of the nursing workforce, the number and role of foreign nurses will grow.

"If we want to take care of our seniors and the sick, if we want to reduce the workload of healthcare workers, we must expect foreign healthcare workers to play a bigger role in the coming years," said Ong. "This is especially so in areas that are facing a bigger manpower crunch, like aged care or palliative care," he said.

Ong also pointed out that the high attrition rate is among foreign nurses, which rose from its usual 8.9 per cent to 14.8 per cent last year. This was mainly due to increasing demand for nurses all over the world due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Nurses are being poached

Ong added that Singapore's foreign nurses are being poached by other countries like New Zealand and the UK. In his closing speech on the debate on the Healthier SG (Singapore) White Paper in Parliament, Ong underlined the need to prepare for a rapidly ageing population from a healthcare perspective and also the urgency to attract foreign nurses.

Dr Janil Puthucheary, Senior Minister of State for Health, told the House that Singapore is trying to grow its pool of family physicians to meet its target of 3,500 by 2030. Overall, about 200 overseas-trained Singaporean doctors come back every year, he added.