Temasek condemns “racist campaign” as Singapore banks balance interests of local and foreign staff

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Temasek condemns “racist campaign” as Singapore banks balance interests of local and foreign staff

Temasek’s decision to openly and forcefully defend some of its Indian staff from online abuse shows that financial institutions in Singapore need to support their foreign employees while at the same time building up their local headcounts. This is a difficult balancing act.

The investment firm has issued an unusually strongly worded statement about a “divisive, racist campaign” that recently targeted Indian employees on social media. The Facebook posts highlighted the LinkedIn accounts of Indian staff and questioned why Temasek is recruiting foreigners instead of locals. “This makes us very angry at the false claims perpetuated. The Singaporeans among us are also ashamed at such hateful behaviour on the Singapore social media,” the statement said. "We have referred these posts to Facebook as in clear breach of their own community guidelines on hate speech, and will continue to press them to be more active in stamping out such hate speech, wherever it occurs on their platforms."

As a government-owned company, Temasek is somewhat of a bellwether for the finance sector, and other firms are likely to follow its tough response to racist social media abuse. “They always lead from the front, and this will probably scare off more xenophobic remarks,” says former HSBC banker Rahul Sen, now a global leader in private wealth management at search firm Boyden.

Banks including DBS and Standard Chartered have been similarly criticised online about their hiring practices. A spokesperson for Citi, which has the largest workforce of any foreign bank in Singapore, told us today that the firm “unequivocally condemns racism and will support colleagues who have experienced racism in any form”. 

An Indian national told us that bankers from his country rarely feel uncomfortable living in Singapore, a country with low levels of crime, tough anti-racism laws, and where about 9% of local citizens are of Indian origin, having immigrated as long ago as the 19th century. “There are plenty of online keyboard warriors, but you just ignore them, and concentrate on work and family. If there’s any direct racism, the government authorities take swift action,” he adds.

Targeting ill-deserved abuse at particular overseas nationals working legally in Singapore also undermines legitimate general debate about the proportion of locals in the finance sector, which the government has been trying to increase since enacting the Fair Consideration Framework, a law that prioritises Singaporeans for jobs, in 2014. Competition for vacancies among Singaporeans and expats was a contentious topic during July’s General Election as Covid-19 impacted the job market. Singapore’s unemployment rate hit 2.9% in the second quarter, the highest level in more than a decade.

Local banking professionals are becoming increasingly anxious about job security, even though the finance sector added 1,500 jobs in the first half of the year and several banks have pledged not to make redundancies in Singapore during the pandemic. “With this built-up resentment and angst, it’s no wonder that locals are questioning why some jobs go to foreigners,” says Marie Tay, managing director of search firm The Resolute Hunter. “With the conclusion of the recent elections, authorities have exerted greater pressure to ensure financial institutions hire more local staff. In the past, companies had more headroom to source from overseas on grounds of competency and skill sets,” she adds.

Earlier this month the Ministry of Manpower placed 47 employers, 30 of which were in the financial services and professional services sectors, on a watch list for potentially discriminatory hiring practices. All 30 services firms have a high concentration of foreign staff from single nationalities. “Most Singaporeans are aware that we don’t have enough locals in terms of population growth to fill all executive roles, and we need to remain open to global talent,” says a senior headhunter. “The problem some locals have is hiring from a certain country, such as India, with no diversity in citizenship,” she adds.

The government today announced a new S$1bn scheme to boost local hiring in sectors that are still growing amid the recession, including financial services. Firms that raise their headcount of Singaporean staff over the next six months will receive a subsidy for up to 25% of their salaries for one year, subject to a cap.

Data suggests that locals are already relatively well represented in financial services. There were 22,000 net new jobs created in the finance sector between 2015 and 2019, about 75% of which went to Singaporeans, according to the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS). Temasek’s 600-strong workforce in Singapore is 90% comprised of Singapore citizens or permanent residents (PRs), and this proportion is “broadly the same” among the firm’s senior leadership. Singaporeans form 70% of the overall and managerial headcounts at Standard Chartered, while more than 90% of DBS’s local workforce are Singaporeans and PRs.

Banks in Singapore may find it difficult to maintain these ratios, even with government support. “One of the key prongs of our developmental strategy is to attract more global and regional headquarter functions of the FIs [financial institutions] here to serve the broader Asian region,” MAS deputy managing director Jacqueline Loh said in a speech last week. “When that happens, it will involve FIs bringing in a diversity of talent from their global workforce to build up these new functions here, and this may cause the proportion of Singaporeans in these FIs to come under pressure,” she added.

Photo by JC Gellidon on Unsplash

Have a confidential story, tip, or comment you’d like to share? Email: smortlock@efinancialcareers.com or Telegram: @simonmortlock. You can also follow me on LinkedIn.

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