When Eric Lim, now a managing director at UOB, decided to shift back to Singapore after a 12-year stint overseas he found his return home “much more challenging than expected”. Lim had left the Republic back in 1998, joining GE after he graduated and working his way up the ranks within the firm’s finance department across several countries, including the US and Japan.
“I was a senior finance professional from a global firm, but I’d been away for a long time, so having line of sight to the right roles wasn’t easy,” says Lim. I didn’t know the local job market, had lost touch with Singaporean financial services, and didn’t have recruiter connections here either.”
Despite being initially “unsure” about how to go about his job search, Lim secured a role at OCBC and has then gone on to head up group finance at UOB. Ever since his return, Lim has been wanting to help overseas-based Singaporeans enjoy a smoother homecoming than he experienced.
The turning point, says Lim, came last year during a networking session between the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) and about 150 senior financial services professionals. “We spoke about how to increase the Singaporean homegrown talent pool in finance, and as part of this we agreed that we needed to engage better with Singaporeans working in finance around the world.”
Lim soon became one of the driving forces behind Overseas Singaporeans in Finance (OSF), a new initiative backed by MAS, the government’s Overseas Singaporean Unit, and the Institute of Banking and Finance. OSF is developing a community of expat Singaporeans and keeps in touch with them via a LinkedIn group, which updates them on local industry trends, allows them to network with each other, and links them to a panel of recruiters if they are searching for work in Singapore.
“It’s not just about helping people get jobs in the short term; it’s about connecting them to each other while they’re still overseas and may not even be thinking about coming home,” says Lim. “If they eventually want to return, they’ll be better informed about the market and will know where to get advice. OSF can also tap the wider resources of the government and provide advice about non-career aspects of returning to Singapore – from housing to schooling
A “sizable number” of Singaporean finance professionals are working abroad, mainly in Hong Kong, China, the US and UK, says Lim. So far about 500 of them are involved in OFS and the numbers continue to grow. While some of them will stay away permanently, Lim believes the long-term benefits of having a large pool of Singaporeans with overseas experience far outweigh the risks of a brain drain.
“If they can, I’d encourage more Singaporean finance professionals to work in places such as New York, London, Hong Kong and Shanghai, especially in their early careers,” says Lim. “You can obtain a wide range of skillsets in a diverse environment, and becoming successful in someone else’s country also makes you more resilient. There’s no safety net when you’re overseas and you’ll probably take on tougher assignments and test yourself against the best people in your field globally.”
Lim says overseas Singaporeans are exactly the type of people who could bring global perspectives and skills into leadership roles if they return. “We need to continue to build the Singaporean core both locally and from returnees to meet the talent needs of the finance sector as Singapore banking continues to grow at a significant pace.”
But why would you return to Singapore if you were making it big on Wall Street? Lim says while many people move back primarily for family reasons, others want to take advantage of a comparatively buoyant job market. “To give just one example, data scientists are in high demand and short supply at banks in Singapore. If you have those skills and overseas experience, chances are there will be a more senior position waiting for you here,” says Lim.
The finance sector in Singapore is also becoming more dynamic, he adds. “When I left Singapore in the late 90s, the financial services industry wasn’t as developed as it is today, but now Singapore is in the top-five financial centres in the world. While I was away, I hadn’t kept in touch with some of the big developments in the country, such as the rise of wealth management, so I was surprised by the extent of the changes that had occurred. With the OSF group, we want to help overseas Singaporeans from falling into this blind-spot by keeping them connected to what’s happening in Singapore.”
Singapore “reinvents” itself as a financial hub about every five years, says Lim. “Unlike some other cities, it never stays static, which is another reason to consider coming home. Who would’ve thought a few years ago, for example, that our financial regulator would be talking about fintech so much. There’s more breadth and depth to the markets here now than there’s ever been.”
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