The Managing Director of Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) Chng Kai Fong gave a speech at the Leadership Development Initiative Networking event two weeks ago (13 Nov). His speech was edited as a commentary and published on CNA today (‘Commentary: Why aren’t there more Singaporean CEOs?‘, 1 Dec).
He said that Singaporeans need to “step up” to become Singapore corporate leaders.
“With many jobs and companies looking for Singaporean workers, and a disproportionate share of regional HQs, we should be seeing more Singapore corporate leaders. But the numbers have been few. Why?” Chng asked.
He then talked about the government’s SkillsFuture Leadership Development Initiative (LDI), where Government partners companies to develop Singaporean talent through training programmes and overseas assignments. “We work directly through companies, as well as with partners like SMU and the Human Capital Leadership Institute,” Chng explained.
“At the top, competition is global. If we want the good jobs, we have to compete for them. Otherwise, companies will think twice about investing in Singapore. The person who was appointed by fiat will also be undermined.”
Chng who had served in various Public Service appointments including as the Principal Private Secretary to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, said he has received feedback on how Singaporeans can be better. He listed the followings:
Chng said Singaporeans need to be more “adventurous” and take on more overseas assignments, particularly in emerging markets.
“Many of us are reluctant to do so. One CEO in the hospitality trade told me that Singaporeans only want to be posted to the first-tier cities. In contrast, Spanish and Italian graduates are knocking on his doors offering to go to second- and third-tier cities,” he said.
“We all know how important it is in business to have international experience. As Singaporeans, we have an advantage in connecting to ASEAN, China and India – regions who will contribute the majority of global growth in the future.”
Next, Chng said that Singaporeans need to learn to work in cross-cultural environments. He said working in Singapore is different from working in emerging markets and Singaporeans tend to take a lot of things for granted. A lot of soft skills have to be relearned, he added.
“For example, in the Singaporean work context, we believe that keeping our head down and letting our work speak for itself is good enough. In my short experience at an MNC, I soon discovered in a multi-cultural context, if I did not speak up and tell people what I have been doing, I cannot expect others to know,” he explained.
He said the Swiss are successful because they are comfortable adapting and traversing across different environments.
“It’s a function of their history of neutrality, and that within Switzerland, they are able to speak multiple languages and connect easily with different cultures,” he said.
Chng also advised Singaporeans to think beyond Singapore and create for the world.
“Take for example programmers. Our fresh graduates may be as good as those from Chinese and American universities when they graduate,” he observed.
“But once the Chinese and American graduates work on projects that serves hundreds of millions of users, the complexity and scale of the problem stretches and develops them. Five years out of college, they are way ahead even though the starting point may be similar.”
He said that Singaporeans who have done well in the corporate world are many who started out by working on bigger projects and markets first.
Finally, Chng criticised Singaporeans for being too concerned about achieving the results, and less concerned about understanding the bigger picture and how things work.
He shared, “One senior engineering manager observed that Singaporeans are good at specific tasks but not good at dealing with ambiguity. He called it the ‘ten-year series’ approach, where we excel at patterns and repeatable tasks and ‘pass up homework’.”
He said companies are looking for leaders who can connect the dots of what they do to the larger strategic picture, and who understand deeply how things work.
EDB Chief gives advice for 25-year-olds
“So in a nutshell, my advice to my 25-year old self would be this. First, be more adventurous. Travel and see the world,” he advised. “Go to where the opportunities are and learn the market.”
Next, practise communication, through writing and speaking. Set eyes on the bigger picture and the world.
“Find global problems to solve. Read widely. Take an interest in history and literature,” he said. “So, if you are a good public speaker, which will come with practice, and you combine it with another two skills, you will be unique.”
He hopes to see many Singaporeans succeed in the corporate world, he said.
Singaporeans continue to be discriminated inside their own country
However, as Singapore government continues to import foreign PMETs into Singapore with many of them helming positions that allow them to hire, new situations have arisen where the foreigners would only hire their own kind, depriving Singaporean PMETs chances to have a shot at important corporate positions.
In a Parliamentary speech in 2013, then Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin revealed that there had been companies practising “Hiring-own-Kind” in their company thereby weakening the process of developing a Singaporean core in the industries.
He said, “For example, DPM Tharman and I have met up with the senior management of a number of financial institutions on a few occasions to stress the point that financial industry players should make a more concerted effort to develop a local talent pipeline.”
“The management have been quite honest to reflect that they will be more mindful of the need to ensure that discriminatory hiring practices are not entrenched in their industry. Some were quite candid – they honestly said they recognised that they had not paid enough attention to how hiring was done and that unhealthy enclaves had been formed. Others acknowledged that they would need to be conscious of diversity and clustering in their make-up,” Mr Tan added.
Six years on and Singaporeans are still continually being discriminated inside their own country. For example, it was reported last month (Nov 2019) that TAFEP investigated a metal fabrication firm that applied for an EP for an Engineer role. Apparently, the employer disregarded a local candidate who has a Masters degree in Mechanical and Materials Engineering, and provided false information to TAFEP by claiming to have interviewed three other candidates. In fact, they had already pre-selected the foreigner and did not interview anyone else. MOM merely debarred the employer from hiring foreigners for six months.
In any case, Mr Tan is no longer in the Cabinet as the Manpower Minister. He has been taken out to assume the role of Speaker of Parliament.

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