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The overlooked Asian banks currently staffing up (and paying well) in Singapore and Hong Kong

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If you’re looking for a banking job in Hong Kong or Singapore, Chinese banks aren’t your only alternative to Western and home-grown institutions, especially if you’re after a big pay rise.

Recruiters in both cities, mainly speaking on condition of anonymity, say they are trying to win business from non-Chinese Asian financial institutions. The reason is simple: these firms are recruiting right now and typically need to offer above-average pay rises to poach talent from larger banks.

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In Hong Kong, for example, United Overseas Bank (UOB) – headquartered in rival financial centre Singapore – announced earlier this week that it would be moving to a new office and staffing up as part of a long-term plan to use Hong Kong as a financial gateway to China.

“But their brand is not that attractive in HK as candidates perceive them as a small player. They have competitors like OCBC and DBS, which have a much greater presence here, and may have a hard time competing,” says a banking recruiter in Hong Kong. “To attract talent, they have to offer really good salaries.”

Bonuses could also help. “For most candidates, UOB’s deferral system in terms of bonuses is highly likely to be more competitive than deferrals at Western banks in HK, so that’s a strong selling point,” said another Hong Kong headhunter. “I’d love to have UOB as a client; the traditional big i-banks are not exactly hiring people left, right and centre.”

Other Southeast Asian firms on recruiters’ radars in Hong Kong include Maybank from Malaysia and Bank Mandiri from Indonesia. “Their main challenge will be to retain the top talent they’ve hired when the market picks up in the coming 12 to 24 months,” says the headhunter.

At home in Singapore, UOB’s hiring prowess is much stronger than it is in Hong Kong. As we reported in March, UOB and its two Singaporean rivals, OCBC and DBS, are actually increasing their ability to poach candidates from global banks.

Meanwhile, recruiters in Singapore are also trying to drum up business from small, expansionist Asian firms. KGI Ong Capital, for example, a unit of Taiwan’s second largest securities company KGI Securities, now has 100 employees in Singapore and announced plans earlier this month to hire more people as it applies for regulatory licences in cash securities, equities, corporate finance and asset and wealth management.

“KGI needs to recruit from the back to the front office as it expands its footprint in the region, especially front-office deal makers with a solid network in Southeast Asia,” says Lee Tze Yong, head of financial services at recruiters Charterhouse Partnership in Singapore.

The firm will also need to bulk up in risk and compliance, say recruiters in Singapore. As we have pointed to recently, both these functions are suffering from skill shortages in the city state and employers are often awarding pay rises of at least 30% when they hire.

Indonesia’s Bank Mandiri has also opened a new office in Singapore, offering brokerage and investment-fund services, while Malaysia’s RHB is establishing a wealth-management unit.

But as in Hong Kong, smaller or new-entrant firms in Singapore are finding it even more difficult to hire in sought-after job functions such as compliance or relationship management.

“It can be especially challenging attracting the best talents versus the more established players as candidates may be concerned about the relatively smaller platform,” says Lee. “These companies need to have good growth stories and future strategies to sell in order to attract better people.”

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