S’pore: An island of opportunity for the qualified outsider

Kevin Brown
Financial Times

As one of the great economic success stories of Asia, Singapore has a lot going for it as a destination for expatriate executives.

Safe and secure, with one of the lowest crime rates in the world, the island state also boasts the second highest living standards in Asia, with gross domestic product per head of $38,972 in 2008 – just behind the UK – according to the International Monetary Fund.

For a short period in early 2009 it looked as though things had gone badly awry. The economy contracted by 10 per cent in the first quarter in the wake of the global financial crisis. But it has since recovered strongly and is on track for growth of 15 per cent this year, according to the trade and industry ministry, before moderating to between 4 and 6 per cent in 2011.

Much of the growth has been driven by foreign investment – and foreign talent – both of which have been aggressively solicited by Singapore since it achieved independence from the Malaysian federation in 1965, having been given self-government by the UK in 1959.

The marketing pitch was simple: Singapore has a stable political environment, virtually no corruption, good facilities for expatriate families, good quality of life, easy travel opportunities around the region, and widespread use of English (even though the national language is Malay).

All those advantages remain in place, with the additional benefit – from the point of view of expatriate executives – that the country is now fully developed, with a full range of advanced-country facilities such as public transport, health services and concert halls.

That means there are few settling-in problems for most people. Even getting a visa – often a nightmare process for expatriates in Asia – is simple and efficient for executives, so long as the applicant has a job offer. There are various visa categories, but most executives will want an Employment Pass, which comes with “dependent passes” for family members.

Salaries are generally competitive, but anyone considering a job offer should be careful to compare net benefits – taxes are relatively low compared with most of Europe and the US. On the downside, rents are high (though significantly lower than Hong Kong, with which Singapore competes for talent). International schools are good but relatively expensive.

According to the Ministry of Manpower, there are 110,000 expatriates and 7,000 multinational companies operating in Singapore in industries ranging from software development to gaming – a sector that emerged only this year with the opening of the country’s first two casinos.

Other important sectors include aviation services, pharmaceuticals, medical services, electronics, chemicals, financial services, IT and professional services, petroleum refining, processed food and beverages, ship repair, and offshore platform construction.

However, the single most important sector is financial, with more than 600 local and foreign financial institutions operating on the island, including most of the big global names in banking, insurance, wealth management, fund management, derivatives trading and commodities trading.

The industry contributes more than 13 per cent of Singapore’s gross domestic product and employs 5.4 per cent of the total workforce. The Singapore Exchange, the second largest listed bourse in Asia by market capitalisation, recently gave notice of its ambitions by launching an A$8.4bn takeover bid for the Australian Stock Exchange.

Financial services is also one of the hottest sectors for recruitment, with particularly strong demand for operational and technical executives. This is because of the large number of regional and divisional global headquarters that have been set up by banks and financial services businesses such as Barclays, Citigroup, HSBC, Standard Chartered and Goldman Sachs.

Recruitment has slowed in the current quarter because of a hiring spree earlier in the year, but is expected to pick up again in the new year, suggesting that although this may be a poor time for getting a job in financial services, it’s a very good time to be doing research and planning.

Private banking is also growing fast as Singapore emerges as an Asian hub, with banks such as Bank Sarasin, Clariden Leu and Julius Baer expanding or setting up in the city to take advantage of the surging numbers of wealthy individuals emerging as a result of rapid economic growth, as well as higher flows from elsewhere as the world’s well-off seek exposure to the Asian miracle.

Interestingly, recruitment advisers say that private banks are looking for experienced senior staff of all kinds, even if they have no Asia experience. This is because the Singapore banks are booking an increasing amount of assets coming from the rest of the world, and they need relationship managers and other executives who know how to deal with those customers.

Other hot sectors include:

Financial Times

• Healthcare and life sciences, where growth has been led by government efforts to establish Singapore as a regional hub, with a particular emphasis on research and development. Singapore needs managers capable of leading large teams, but these people are in short supply locally because of the industry’s short history.

• Semi-conductor manufacturing, where there are gaps in management because of a lack of hiring in 2009, when the industry suffered a serious downturn as a result of the global financial crisis.

• Hospitality and tourism. These industries have been growing steadily, but have been given a kick-start by the opening of the casinos, preceded by a government drive to liven up the city with events such as the world’s only night-time Formula One grand prix, which takes place annually in September.

• Oil and gas services – a traditional industry in which Singapore is a global force in sectors such as rig manufacturing.

Many expatriates find that getting a job is not as difficult as they expected. Western qualifications and experience are respected and sought after, and those with the right experience often have a head start over candidates from other parts of the world.

“We are often swamped with candidates for jobs, but they are not always of the right quality,” says Tulika Tripathi, managing director for Singapore at Michael Page International, the recruitment specialist.

“There are obviously people around south-east Asia who see Singapore as a very attractive destination, but they are not always of the right quality. The economy is growing fast and it is a candidate-short market.

“It is going to take five to 10 years for candidates to emerge locally for middle and top management jobs, outside financial services, where it has been happening for many years now. That creates a lot of opportunities for outsiders.”


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