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Addressing the issue of foreign talent in Singapore

A recent headline from the UK’s The Telegraph reported, “Foreigners are taking our jobs” complain Singaporeans.

Jobs in the marketing industry in Singapore are particularly fiercely contested, given the popularity of media and advertising, without any added competition from “ang mohs”.

Marketing as an industry is driven by talent and great business minds which can come from anywhere – whether here in Singapore or from abroad. The more diverse and multi-cultural our companies are, the more they are able to deal with every client challenge.

Yet on online forums, “ang mohs” are widely considered to be the root cause of all employment evil as well as driving Singapore’s housing price index through the roof (pun intended, I was asked to write a light commentary!). Unfortunately the commentary in forums makes for less light reading.

“Foreign trash” is a frequent refrain, but is by no means the worst. However, despite all of the online anti-foreigner sentiment, this is far exceeded by even more digital vitriol directed towards PAP’s policies. This at least, recognises that the current infrastructure promotes foreign investment in Singapore making an increase in foreign talent inevitable.

When an international firm sets up shop in Singapore it’s expected that some talent will be imported, particularly at the executive level. It also makes sound business sense for any Singaporean outpost abroad to import Singaporean exec talent as they have the best understanding of that business.

Taking Singapore Post as an example of a thriving Singaporean business, sitting on the board is Aliza Knox, who originally hails from the US. Knox also currently heads Twitter’s digital APAC sales and used to head digital APAC sales at Google. Another director is Michael Murphy who is also the CEO and founder of a US postal technology group and brings a degree in nuclear engineering and connections to MIT’s graduate programme.

Arguably their international experience lends a diverse and competitive edge to SingPost. Nonetheless having highly experienced local execs at the helm must still form the bedrock of any Singapore business and in this case foreign directors at SingPost only total 25% of the board. Yet 38% of Singapore’s workforce are foreign – considerably more than 25%.

With foreigners making up 38% of Singapore’s workforce, on an island the size of Chicago and with a population of 5.47 million, we can perhaps see how “foreign trash Singapore” became a Google auto fill option.

It’s worth noting that 43% of the current foreign workforce consists of foreign domestic workers or construction workers and it’s a fairly safe assumption these lowest paid jobs aren’t the issue. A quote from the original Telegraph article supports this:

“What person with a degree, who has studied hard for years, wants to then get a low-paid job in a coffee shop? We want to get a graduate job, work in a bank or big company.”

So, excluding higher and lower-end roles, this leaves the middle income jobs. Data from a recent APAC consumer survey, CCS (consumer connection system), shows the main bulk of these middle income workers are Generation Y, born in the 1980s to 1990s.

CCS also shows that agreement to career and ambition-related attitudes among Singaporean Gen Ys, for example, “Seize every opportunity as it arises” and “I like to challenge myself and be the best I can”, are no different to the national average.

However, agreement to the same statements among Gen Y in other APAC markets are 34% higher on average versus Singaporeans.

Gen Ys are almost twice as likely to comment on forums versus the rest of Singapore’s online population. So potentially it may be that only a few, albeit more vocal individuals, are driving commentary on forums.

As a foreign employer working in Singapore who interviews and hires middle income local talent many times over within the marketing industry, I can honestly say we always choose the best candidate based on merit.

Any Singaporean who is both at the top of their game and ready for a new role should inherently represent the best of the best. A passion for the role, relevant experience plus a curiosity to learn will always gain results and an appreciation of the benefits of business diversity.

In conclusion, just like Foreigner sang: “I want to know what love is” …

No seriously – Singapore is a fantastically diverse, multicultural marketing business hub that continues to grow and develop as a result of diversity and harmony. If a company or government regulates recruitment to limit social and, therefore, business diversity in the workplace, then in the longer term it will adversely affect business success in Singapore.

The writer is Marie Gruy (pictured), regional director of Carat Asia Pacific.

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