The Government of Singapore's drive to pressure banks in the city state to hire Singaporeans was underscored last weekend when Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said locals must be better represented in top front-office roles.
Tharman and Tan Chuan-Jin, the acting Manpower Minister, started 'active' discussions with the CEOs of all the major institutions about a year ago about developing a Singaporean 'core' in financial services. Guy Day, global chief executive of Ambition, a recruiting agency, said this has become a politically sensitive issue, "...and the government has been keen to demonstrate its desire to ensure adequate opportunities are available to Singaporeans."
Speaking about the promotion of a 'Singaporean core' in financial services, Tharman told reporters that there were differences between the banks. "Some have Singaporeans much better represented in the range of functions, others have Singaporeans pretty much in the middle and back office. So it depends on the bank. But the local banks do a better job clearly,” he said.
A number of the domestic banks, such as United Overseas Bank, have graduate management training programmes to develop the skills and experience of locals. Craig Brewer, director of banking and financial services at Hudson Global Resources, said many foreign banks are also investing in management development programmes. BNP Paribas, for instance, is planning a banking campus in the Lion City.
Singapore recently announced a raft of measures aimed at promoting employment of locals, including - among others, making it more difficult to employ foreigners. Although unemployment is low - at around 2% - roughly one-third of the workforce comes from abroad. Reuters reported in March that complaints about alleged bias against Singaporeans in workplaces accounted for half those received last year, according to the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices, an organisation backed by the Manpower Ministry. And Singaporeans are quick to point out that the steep rise in living expenses is due to the influx of expats pushing up housing and other costs.
Finance skills are still very much in demand, according to the Ministry of Manpower's Skills In Demand list, but recruiters are saying that while jobs at senior levels 'for the right person' are still available, the window has pretty much closed for entry-level candidates.
Day said Ambition hasn't seen candidates at middle and senior management level experiencing a denial of work visas. "But there is unquestionably greater scrutiny at lower levels and anecdotally we have seen some visa applications declined."
Brewer said overseas-based talent is still considered an option when a niche or specialised skill cannot be sourced from the local market. His view is supported by that of Victor Teoh, deputy MD of RecruitPlus Consulting, who believes that the financial services pie remains big enough to accommodate both local and foreign talent, based on merit and a level playing field. "Even if employment pass [Singapore's work permit] conditions are refined, there will still be ample opportunities for foreign finance professionals."
Brewer said the growth in the number of Singaporeans working in middle- and back-office functions follows the emergence of this sector in the past decade. "In a short time, Singapore became recognised as a global hub when foreign and local banks established back-office centres and employed Singaporean graduates from a range of backgrounds."
But, he added, front-office banking is still a very specialised area. "Employers obviously prefer to source from the local market as domestic knowledge and experience can be a valuable skill set, but in specific cases the need to source from abroad may come into play depending on the requirements of the role."
Finian Toh, a manager in the banking and finance division of Robert Walters Singapore, said the management of banks - both foreign and domestic - could start filling these roles by attracting Singaporeans who currently work abroad and have developed front-office skills comparable to expat counterparts. "They could also identify high-performing individuals by merit and groom them for higher level positions."
Teoh maintains, however, that the hiring of more locals for senior roles will require a different approach from employers. "The proposed refinement to employment pass conditions should address 'beyond the numbers' [quotas] issues," he said, referring to Tharman's comment that employment of Singaporeans should not just be a 'numbers game'.
Toh believes that quotas, especially at senior levels, are unlikely as "it is impossible for the Government to impose (them)". Ambition's Day agrees that quotas are improbable, saying they are not a popular nor necessarily effective mechanism. "If certain skills and experience are not available in the local market and need to be sourced from outside Singapore, this needs to be accepted. We should be more concerned about why it is happening, which brings us back to adopting a more progressive approach to human resources, especially in terms of developing a bigger pipeline of local talent at a leadership level."