The media reported today (24 Sep) that despite more Singaporeans being appointed regional heads and senior managers at international banks both in Singapore and abroad, not many go on to take on top positions.

In June 2014, for example, Mr Shee Tse Koon, 44, was appointed Standard Chartered’s chief executive for Indonesia. The same month, Mr Tan Kock Kheng, 54, was appointed Citi’s global head of local markets risk treasury.

Senior bank executives say that while such appointments are encouraging, more can be done to help nurture a more globally competitive workforce here.

Speaking at the 40th anniversary dinner of the Institute of Banking and Finance (IBF) in June this year, DPM and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam told the audience that the government wants to groom more Singaporeans for leadership positions in the financial industry.

“We must ensure we are well prepared with the skills, depth of expertise and innovative capabilities to stay relevant and competitive. We have to continue to build globally competitive teams in Singapore, by proactively developing our Singaporean core while remaining open to foreign professionals with needed specialised experience and skill sets,” he said.

He emphasised the need to develop Singaporeans for positions of leadership in tomorrow’s financial world.

Putting global positions aside, even within the international banks in Singapore, Singaporeans are a minority among the management positions in these banks.

At Citi, Singaporeans make up only about 30% of its Asean Management Committee, which means 70% are “foreign talents”.

In StanChart, about 420 or 6% of its 7,000 staff based in Singapore hold senior management positions. Only about 20% of them are Singaporeans. The rest are, of course, “foreign talents”, approved to work in Singapore by the government.

At ABN Amro, the situation is slightly better. About 60% of its senior management team are Singaporeans.

In fact, the situation was so bad that last year, DPM Tharman had to voice the need to develop a Singaporean core in the financial industry. He and Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin were concerned that banks in Singapore were recruiting FTs and bypassing Singaporeans altogether.

They had to have a “friendly chat” with the people in financial industry. Mr Tan told Parliament last year that he and DPM Tharman met up with senior members of the financial industry to urge them develop a local talent pipeline. Mr Tan said, without going into specifics, that there had been complaints of foreign managers preferring to hire their countrymen and his ministry was investigating the matter.

It is not known if the Ministry of Manpower will also investigate complaints from Singaporeans that they have been bypassed for promotion due to bias exhibited by their foreign bosses.

In general, the work ethic of Singaporeans is “highly respected by many”, StanChart’s Mr Shee disclosed in a media interview. He said Singaporeans are now more willing to travel and work abroad.

Mr Shee has had various regional and overseas appointments, and said that in meeting colleagues, clients, government or central bank officials overseas, “they often expressed interest in understanding how Singapore has become so successful as a nation”.

“Singaporeans are often under-rated, perhaps because culturally, we are relatively modest, and sometimes over-modest… We must believe that we are as good, if not better, and find an elegant way to better ‘market’ ourselves,” he added.

Creating an instant Singaporean core in the financial industry

There is a short-cut method to “grooming” Singaporeans to head top positions in banks and to “increase” the Singaporean core in the management teams of the banks.

That is, hire foreigners and give them instant Singapore citizenship, much like the way we develop our “world class” national table tennis team.

A good example is DBS Bank’s CEO Piyush Gupta. He was an Indian national originally.

Mr Gupta began his career with Citibank in India in 1982 and over the years, held various senior management roles across Citi’s corporate and consumer banking businesses, including Head of Strategic Planning for Emerging Markets and Regional Director for Global Transaction Services for Asia Pacific. He has also served as Citi’s Country Officer for Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore respectively. In 2007, he served as Head of Asean Markets & Banking at Citigroup Inc. He was also Citigroup’s Chief Executive Officer for South East Asia & Pacific regions in 2008.

In 2009, he joined DBS Bank as its CEO. He became a Singaporean the same year that he joined DBS [Link].

PRC Li Jiawei was given Singapore citizenship in order to represent Singapore in table tennis. Thanks to her and her compatriots, Singapore won a silver medal in the 2008 Olympics. In 2012, she retired from the sport and went back to China where she now resides with her PRC husband and son.

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