If you want to work in banking but not feel embarrassed about it, you’re better off in Singapore or Hong Kong than London or New York.
Bankers in these Asian cities lead charmed lives, enjoying the pay and privileges of their jobs without suffering constant criticism from politicians, the public and the press.
Here’s why you won’t be bashed as a banker in Asia.
Unlike in the US and Europe, governments in Singapore and Hong Kong haven’t spent billions bailing out local banks. Asian banking scandals, such as the mis-selling of Lehman Brothers minibonds, haven’t been big enough to rile the public against the entire profession. “The perception is that the banking crisis originated from Western, not Asian, banks,” said Gary Lai, managing director, Southeast Asia at recruiters Charterhouse Partnership in Singapore.
While Europeans sometimes blame bankers for the current climate of fiscal austerity, the public in Singapore and Hong Kong don’t make the same link between bankers and bad news. “The main problem facing people in Hong Kong isn’t austerity, it’s more about high housing costs – there’s more bashing of property developers here,” said Alex Wong, a former banker who’s now a career consultant at EntreNet Careers in Hong Kong.
Local banks in Singapore and Hong Kong are generally stable, profitable and expansionist – they (and their bankers) are seen as national champions, not RBS-style national embarrassments. Singapore’s OCBC, DBS and UOB, for example, are ranked second, fifth and sixth respectively on Bloomberg’s survey of the world’s strongest banks. “In Hong Kong, HSBC is called a local bank – people here are proud of its growth story,” Wong said.
Bankers may enjoy lavish lifestyles in Singapore and Hong Kong, but their after-work antics are mostly good, clean fun. Unlike their counterparts in London and New York, their reputations haven’t been besmirched by alcohol- and drug-fuelled excess. “Bankers tend to be less ostentatious in Asia, in public at least,” said Emma Boyd, a manager at the Financial Women’s Association (FWA) of Singapore. “Without an in-your-face banking culture, the industry here retains a sophisticated, professional image.”
“You don't see as many bad apples here on the scale of the London Whale,” Wong from EntreNet Careers said. “In general, the financial system is very well regulated – we have deposit insurance and a true lender of last resort – something that the eurozone desperately needs.”
Bankers’ pay makes them objects of odium in recession-ravaged Europe, but in the millionaire strongholds of Singapore and Hong Kong bankers are seen as one wealthy group among many. “Bankers don’t feel any particular public sentiment against them,” said Tony Latimer, training director at the Asia Pacific Corporate Coach Institute in Singapore. “The serious envy-generating money in Asia is made by business people, not salaried bankers.”
Bankers in Asia are escaping claims of fat cattery because of a perception that they actually deserve what they earn. In Singapore – a country founded on meritocracy, the reward of individual effort – bankers are generally viewed as “specialist professionals who suffer stress and irregular hours,” said Daniel Koh, a psychologist at Insights Mind Centre in Singapore. “People understand that these demands mean they deserve their high pay.”
Why bash bankers when you’re aspiring to be like them? “Many Asian families emphasise the need to make money and are thus more forgiving of the idea of greed,” said Lai from Charterhouse. “Getting rich is highly acceptable in Asia,” Boyd from FWA added.
The Western media loves a good story about high-profile overpaid bankers. “But in Singapore, it’s less of a personality-driven culture. And with our closely controlled media, those at the top end of banking aren’t overexposed to being reported on,” Boyd said.