Recruitment and human resources teams at banks in Singapore are paying closer attention to the nationality of people they promote and hire as the city state’s government encourages them to boost the number of locals within their workforces.
Financial professionals in Singapore, both locals and foreigners, are comparatively worried that their nationality could affect their careers. In Singapore, 29% of respondents to a global eFinancialCareers staff-diversity survey said they had experienced or witnessed discrimination on the grounds of nationality at their currently employer – a larger percentage than for either age or gender discrimination in the country. The Singaporean proportion was also slightly above those for Hong Kong (25%) and the UK (23%) – two markets in which financial services firms also rely heavily on foreign talent – and significantly higher than in US (9%), France and Germany (both 11%). Only in the Middle East, where draconian headcount quotas force employers to hire locals, was nationality discrimination a bigger concern.
Public debate about nationality discrimination in Singapore has recently focused almost exclusively on the perception among some locals that the country’s liberal skilled-immigration regime has lead to many industries, including banking, employing too many foreigners. “Singaporean finance professionals in the past have said they weren’t being given opportunities because foreign managers preferred candidates from their own country,” says Craig Brewer a director at recruitment firm FiveTen Group in Singapore.
The Singapore government reacted to public pressure by introducing the Fair Consideration Framework (FCF) in August, a new law that requires employers to treat Singaporeans “fairly” during the hiring process. Firms must now advertise vacancies on the government-run Jobs Bank for 14 days before they can apply for a work visa for a foreign candidate.
There are significant exceptions to the advertising requirement, however – it doesn’t apply to senior jobs paying more than S$144k (US$114k) or to internal transfers of professional staff. Perhaps because of this, banks in Singapore have endorsed the FCF and the wider objective of increasing local representation in the workforce.
International banks, in particular, are now going beyond the letter of the law in an attempt to end the perception that they favour hiring international candidates. Barclays, for example, is telling agency recruiters to provide at least three Singaporean candidates per shortlist and its internal recruiters are undergoing "unconscious-bias training to improve the way they interview and select new staff.
“The FCF has had a positive impact on hiring processes in Singapore. These days more than 90% of hiring managers I interact with are keen to recruit Singaporean talent – sometimes they’re willing to sacrifice job requirements to ensure they’re developing local capabilities,” says Brewer.
Global banks have also stepped up their recruitment drives at local universities and their attempts to encourage overseas-based Singaporeans to return home. Barclays is strengthening its relationships with US and UK Singaporean societies, running a Facebook campaign targetting Singaporeans abroad and organising events with Contact Singapore, a government unit which promotes the local labour market.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, DBS, the largest of the country’s three local banks, has already achieved a high degree of workforce localisation. Close to 95% of its Singapore-based front-office employees are Singaporean citizens or permanent residents, as are its CEO, CFO and heads of consumer banking, institutional banking, wealth management, capital markets, and treasury and markets, according to Theresa Phua, Singapore head of human resources at DBS.
The recent localisation push in Singapore raises the question of whether foreigners in the city state are now more likely than locals to fall victim to nationality discrimination. Evidence of this is scant so far, however. For starters, overseas nationals who after a few years become Singaporean permanent residents – DBS CEO Piyush Gupt, for example, hails from India – are actually counted as “local” hires by banks.
“I don’t think there’s much actual discrimination against expat candidates,” say Brewer from FiveTen Group. “But it may seem that way for some expats as there’s now a deeper talent pool of Singaporean candidates with relevant banking skills, so expats will be experiencing more competition for jobs. The market has matured and isn’t growing as rapidly as it was up until 2007, so there’s simply less need for foreign talent.”
While expats already living in Singapore may not be quite as sought after as they once were, junior foreign nationals looking to relocate to the country face more serious challenges. The FCF makes it especially tough for young finance professionals to obtain employment passes and banks are generally reluctant to hire from abroad at analyst to associate level. “There’s an inherit risk in relocating someone and it costs a lot of money – it’s never the preferred option these days,” says Brewer.