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Why Singaporean finance professionals don’t like leaving Singapore

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Shifting from Singapore to Malaysia, two countries joined by a causeway bridge barely a kilometre long, doesn’t initially seem like the most radical example of international mobility in the finance sector.

But even as recruiters note a slight increase in demand for Singaporean candidates to fill banking jobs in Malaysia, especially senior-management and shared-services positions, they are bemoaning Singaporeans’ reluctance to actually make the move.

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“For generic front-office banking roles, we haven’t seen much movement from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur because local experience and clients are key advantages. By contrast, for senior management positions, we have seen several banks in KL, both the local and international, try to hire candidates from Singapore,” says Muzamir Raja-Ahmad, manager, front-office banking, Robert Walters Malaysia. “These are generally management/C-level roles, often on a contract basis.”

Adrian Choo, a partner at Boyden Global Executive Search in Singapore, has recently worked on several regional-level job vacancies based in Kuala Lumpur. “For example, I had a client who wanted an APAC CFO in KL. But it’s challenging because regional leaders have historically been based in Singapore and many don’t want to relocate.”

It’s a similar story for back-office jobs in Malaysia. “Compared with two years ago there has been an increase in demand for candidates to move from Singapore to Malaysia, although the numbers remain small,” says Steve Parkes, director of recruiters Michael Page in Kuala Lumpur.

Banks such as Citi, HSBC and Standard Chartered – via its Scope global technology and operations subsidiary – have been building operations hubs in Malaysia, supported by the Multimedia Development Corporation, a government body which fosters the development of shared-services centres.

“Shared-services centres are more open to Singaporean and other foreign talent as they can bring product knowledge and best-practice. And because shared services is not regulated by the Malaysian central bank, it’s easier to obtain work permits,” says Parkes.

But despite the comparatively liberal visa regime and even as back-office roles are offshored away from Singapore into more cost-effective Malaysian hubs, “very few” Singaporean operations professionals are opting to relocate, says Parkes.

Why Singaporeans don’t want to shift

The main turn-off is monetary: as a rule of thumb, say recruiters, salaries in Malaysia are about half the level of those in Singapore. For example, the pay range for a mid-level product controller in Singapore is US$60k to US$100k, while in Malaysia it’s US$25k to $50k, according to the Robert Walters 2014 Salary Survey.

“Salaries are not the same as in Singapore and taxes are higher in Malaysia. Expat packages with all the bells and whistles are not being offered and schooling choices are expensive and limited,” says Parkes from Michael Page. “Also, some candidates don’t want to leave the creature comforts of Singapore. Having lived there myself, I can understand why some might find Malaysia a real culture adjustment.”

Choo from Boyden says Singaporean candidates also refuse moves to Malaysia because they are worried that working in a smaller financial market with fewer job vacancies will limit their career progression opportunities. “Also, compared with the high levels of safety and security in Singapore, I hear concerns from candidates – rightly or wrongly – of a perceived lack of safety for their family members if they moved to KL.”

To overcome the above obstacles, successful Singapore-to-Malaysia transfers have often involved significant steps-up in seniority and responsibility, such as a promotion into a regional role, says Raja-Ahmad from Robert Walters. A large proportion of candidates who’ve made the move also have family links to Malaysia, say recruiters.

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