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Overseas financial professionals need to understand Asian culture, says leading OCBC banker

OCBC Chin Yee (LR)

The emergence of a stronger local talent pool in Asia means only the best Western-based finance professionals, particularly those who already understand Asian markets, stand a chance of finding work in the region, says Goh Chin Yee, the head of global treasury business management at Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation.

The OCBC Group, whose other businesses include a private bank and an insurance firm, is Singapore’s oldest financial services group and the second largest in Southeast Asia by assets. It has a market capitalisation of S$31.2bn and a global network of more than 500 branches and representative offices in 15 countries and territories.

Goh joined OCBC in Singapore as a graduate nearly 25 years ago and has worked across a range of departments, including strategic management, investment research, fund management, finance and risk management. She spoke to eFinancialCareers about the importance of Asian experience, why risk is a great place to start a banking career, and why investment research was so much tougher back in the 1980s.

How hard is it for finance professionals based outside Asia to find work in the region?

Asia is currently the place to be, not just for banking jobs, but for doing business in general. This is especially so as the centre of gravity of today’s world economy is increasing centring towards China. There is definitely demand for banking and finance professionals across most of Asia, although probably not as much as perhaps a few years ago.

There is also more Asian talent in the market, so candidates outside of Asia would have to rise head and shoulders above domestic candidates, who would already have an edge when it comes to local languages skills and cultural knowledge. Overseas candidates who have had prior experience in the region, either studying or working, have an edge over candidates who don’t. Overseas candidates need to get a good understanding of the local culture to show that they are adaptable and will fit in.

What skills are in demand in treasury?

Besides front-office treasury skills in trading, sales/advisory and asset-liability management, there is also demand for middle-office and compliance roles for treasury, liquidity and counterparty risk management. In terms of hiring, OCBC has an internal job-application programme that is part of our staff-development programme. When we do have positions available, we try to fill these internally by first searching our existing talent pool before recruiting from external sources.

What do you like most about your job?

My current role in treasury business management gives me excellent insights into how inter-connected and dynamic the global financial market is. For example, the global financial crisis of 2008, which started in US subprime mortgages, spread rapidly through the financial systems of the US and many other countries. From stock markets and real-estate markets, to currency and commodity markets, nowhere was spared. I enjoy the challenges of having to address heightened global banking regulations and manage the risk returns in treasury activities.

What are you looking for in a candidate?

I would expect a candidate to do his homework: get a basic understanding of the organisation, especially publicly available information such as the company vision, values and strategy. The candidate should also understand the job they are applying for and what skills are required. He should then be able to articulate how his own skills and experience would enable him to perform the job well. He should also share what else he can bring to the role; what factors would differentiate himself from other candidates. Finally, I expect the candidate to show integrity – it’s one of OCBC’s values and we expect all staff to practice it. Maintaining and enhancing reputation is critical to any company’s future success, but this is especially so in the financial sector.

Why did you decide on a banking career?

I graduated from the National University of Singapore in 1988 with an engineering degree, specialising in civil and structural engineering. I attended a university career talk and was attracted to banking as it seemed a dynamic industry, and banks are a partner in any country’s economic development. Upon graduation I was selected for the OCBC graduate programme, which lasted for about half a year. Together with other recruits, I attended two weeks of introductory talks by various division heads from corporate banking, consumer banking, treasury, investment banking, and support functions such as finance, information technology and operations. This allowed me to get a big-picture view of the bank and the industry. I then went on rotation to a few divisions such as retail-branch banking, corporate banking and treasury. At the end of the programme, I chose to join the corporate-planning department because it provided a macro view of the bank and banking industry, and allowed me to participate in strategy formulation for the firm.

What do you wish you’d known when you started?

When I first started in banking, the only risk-management function in existence then was credit control. Now risk management is one of the fastest growing and in-demand roles. If I had known this, I could have started my stint in risk management earlier in my career. I could have been one of the pioneers in intellectually stimulating, challenging and exciting developments like the evolution of capital requirements under the Basel Accord and the development of risk models for market, credit, interest-rate and liquidity risk.

What was the most challenging time in your career?

I’ve tried many different roles in various divisions in OCBC since I joined in 1988. After corporate planning I worked in investment research, fund management, finance, risk management, and now treasury business management. Moving to a new function always comes with challenges such as having to learn the ins and outs of the role quickly and having to manage a new team. On top of these challenges, I still have to deliver results and plan for continued enhancements.

My most challenging role was in investment research. My job was to use available information to give robust analyses and opinions. Back in the 1980s, the internet was not widely available and we had to gather information the old fashioned way: largely through daily newspapers. I only had a small window every morning to plough through the information and churn out an educated opinion, such as a buy, hold or sell call for investors. On some days I only had minutes to info-gather and make the call! I embraced the concept of change to deal with these challenges. Change is the only constant in life. And as clichéd as it sounds, the best way to deal with change is with a positive attitude. I have also learnt how to plan, prioritise and organise my work and time more efficiently.

What are your thoughts on gender diversity in banking?

I have seen a good mix of men and women entering the banking profession, and there are more women now who are reaching or have reached senior levels in the banks. For example, in traditionally male-dominated risk-management roles, there are increasingly more chief risk-officer positions being held by women.

Comments (7)

  1. While it is positive that a senior banker in Asia contributes an article such as this, it is saddening and to an extent frightening to see the same mistakes being made in Asia as were made in the West a few years ago with regard to hiring. Asian economies will experience slowdowns in the medium term, and it is important that they have staff on board who have worked through market slowdowns before.

    The fresh perspective which can be brought by overseas candidates for jobs is the very thing which makes them attractive, yet the writer thinks that only people steeped in the Asian markets should be hired. What is regarded by the writer as an ‘edge’ for local candidates may actually turn out to be quite the opposite. While it is of course important for banks to have some staff with local knowledge and to an extent (although this requirement is exaggerated) for language skills, it is important that financial institutions have a diverse staff and include people with experience which might help mitigate any slowdown. Cultural fit is important, particularly in smaller financial institutions, where the working conditions may not be palatable to overseas candidates. But there are many overseas candidates who can add something more than local candidates, experience of, for example, US and European markets should be embraced by Asian financial institutions, rather then looking to build organisations full of identikit candidates.

    I am based in Hong Kong and am turned down for jobs on a daily basis because of my ethnicity, regardless of what I might be able to bring to the jobs I apply for. I have been told by agencies here that diversity is not regarded as important in Asia, and I think this is a big mistake. Gender diversity, mentioned in the article, is of course very important, but racial diversity is every bit as crucial.

    There is an opportunity for Asian banks to prevent the type of economic turmoil seen in the West in recent years, but to sleepwalk into something similar by making the same mistakes in hiring when they have the chance to avoid them is unforgiveable, and should any banks in this region require bailing out, I hope the regulators do a robust job of investigating whether banks hired the right people and could have mitigated any problems and I hope the public don’t have to bear the burden this time.

  2. Oh you are a sad person. You are not good enough to get a job, you don’t belong in Asia, go back to your own country!

  3. @Asian

    Predictable response, but what is ‘good enough to get a job’ – read my comments and you’ll see that’s my point! How do you know whether I’m good enough to get a job or not?

    You’re a racist, no? Imagine you came to the US or Europe and someone told you to go back to your own country!

    Sucking up to someone just because they’re in a senior position doesn’t mean they’ll give you a job you know!

  4. I agree with anonymous. Even as a chinese-american based in shanghai I am constantly turned down for jobs because they would rather hire a local. Despite the fact that I studied chinese history, politics, economics, etc. in university and studied abroad, etc. and am willing to take a local salary.

    Same as in HK where I interviewed for multiple jobs

  5. With the exception of London and New York, majority of European cities do not embrace diversity as well. Try making an English presentation to French clients or French colleagues. It wouldn’t happen as French language skills will be a pre-requisite. And i’m not just picking on the French – it’s the same in Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Netherlands, Norway etc – the list goes on. Both Singapore and Hong Kong are relatively more diverse / international than any of the continental European countries.

  6. In response to the last post, while this may be true, two wrongs don’t make a right. Also, none of the European countries you mention have cities which are really world financial centres for banking, and none of these countries have English as an official language.

  7. To last post: The difference is the English is taught as a second language in French/German (in Europe) schools. People in Europe understand English.

    In China, only a very, very small minority of the population actually understands English (only the privileged and the educated). Imagine hiring a person that can’t read or write the local language? How are you going to communicate to clients who know no English at all? (I dare say that there’s more discrimination/unpleasantness in Europe than there is in China based on the fact that people understand English, but just refuse to speak it)

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