Ravi Menon

Last Saturday (15 Aug), retired Singaporean banker Raymond Koh Bock Swi wrote to ST Forum urging the government to examine the workforce composition in banks operating in Singapore (‘Retired banker: Common market knowledge that some banks sideline SG talents‘).

He wrote to ST Forum in the midst of a public uproar over a recent finding by the Manpower Ministry (MOM) that 30 of the 47 companies put on watchlist for suspected discriminatory hiring practices, came from the financial and professional services sectors. The 30 were found to have a “high concentration of PMETs from single nationalities” (‘SG banker: My trading floor full of staff from “a particular Asian country” with family members too‘).

“As a retired senior banker, I can say categorically that in the past two decades, many foreigners hired in Singapore’s finance sector have been for upper-middle to senior management positions,” Mr Koh wrote.

“It has been common market knowledge that certain big, long established foreign banks have been sidelining Singaporean talent in favour of foreign hires, and I strongly urge the authorities to more closely scrutinise the situation in our finance industry.”

Mr Koh, whose last position before his retirement was Vice President and Vice Chairman of the Credit Committee in Arab Bank, is a living proof that Singapore does have its own talents and that Singaporean talents are more than capable to hold senior management positions in the banks in Singapore.

Menon: 43 per cent of senior management positions held by S’poreans in banking industry

Thanks to Mr Koh’s letter, the Managing Director of Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), Ravi Menon, replied on ST Forum today (19 Aug) confirming that the majority of senior management positions in the banking industry are held by foreigners (‘Forum: 70% of senior roles in retail banks’ local functions held by Singaporeans‘).

In fact, ST even deliberately chose a “nice sounding” title for Menon’s letter in its attempt to “downplay” Menon’s confirmation that majority of senior management positions in banking are held by foreigners.

“MAS closely monitors these FIs’ (financial institutions) workforce profile by locals (citizens and PRs separately) and foreigners, broken down by seniority, business function, qualifications, and so on,” Menon said.

However, despite MAS’ “close monitoring”, majority of senior management positions in the banking sector are still held by foreigners.

Menon revealed, “MAS estimates that Singapore citizens account for about 70 per cent of senior management roles in retail banks’ local functions. Across the entire sector, the proportion is about 43 per cent, reflecting Singapore’s role as an international financial centre.”

That is to say, Singaporeans only occupied 43 per cent of the senior management positions in the entire banking sector. In other words, foreigners held the other 57 per cent. Out of 10 senior bankers in Singapore, one would expect 6 to be foreigners.

Menon tried to explain that because Singapore attracts more regional and global HQ functions in the financial sector, it also means a higher proportion of foreigners in senior management positions as these financial institutions will “draw from a global talent pool” to fill them. But they create “more good jobs and opportunities for Singaporeans”, Menon added.

MAS continues to talk about developing Singaporean core

Menon shared that MAS has established a $125 million package earlier this year to encourage the financial institutions to “retain, train and hire Singaporeans”.

“We want to see a strong Singaporean core complemented by high-quality and diverse foreign talent in every major FI,” he said. “MAS engages FIs’ senior management on their workforce profiles and plans to grow the Singaporean core. We will intensify these engagements.”

It is noted that the MAS has been talking about developing a Singaporean core in the financial industry 7 years ago, when then DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam revealed at the time that MAS together with MOM had started “very active discussions” with the financial institutions in Singapore about their plans to develop a “Singaporean core” (‘MAS has to urge banks to build up Singaporean core 7 years after Tharman’s call in 2013‘). Today, MAS is still talking about developing Singaporean core.

Notwithstanding that majority of senior management positions are held by foreigners in the banking industry, Menon also took the opportunity to share that, overall, Singaporeans make up 70 per cent in the financial sector, with PRs making up another 14 per cent.

Nevertheless, Menon assured, “MAS has been working with FIs to develop a strong local leadership pipeline, and the industry is making progress.”

“My colleagues and I are committed to growing the Singaporean core in the financial sector. We do this by working with our FIs to develop Singaporeans: building critical skills, broadening capabilities, gaining international exposure, and ensuring equal opportunity to take on the many good jobs and leadership roles that our financial centre will continue to create,” he promised.

Menon even said he has asked his team to reach out to the retired Singaporean banker Mr Koh, who wrote the scalding ST Forum letter, for his views and suggestions, in an attempt to show MAS’ commitment to grow the Singaporean core.

By 2025 GE, the Singaporean voters would have a chance to ascertain if Menon has, indeed, succeeded this time to grow the Singaporean core.

Hiring own kinds

One of the dangers of having too many foreigners holding senior management positions is that they will have the power to hire. The manager may just end up hiring too many of their “own kinds”.

As far back as 2013, then DPM Tharman told the media that the government had already noticed in the different “hiring mixes” among the banks in Singapore (‘Labour chief now suggests to tighten EP policies after being voted out as MP in GE2020‘).

Singaporeans were found to have been sidelined in favour of hiring foreigners from the “same nationality”. Things became so bad that then DPM Tharman and Manpower Minister Tan Chuan Jin had to call up the banks to ask them stop the practice of “hiring their own kinds”. This was revealed by Minister Tan in Parliament in 2013.

Minister Tan did not name the banks nor the nationality of the hiring managers but many netizens have pointed out that they were Indian nationals.

In fact, prior to 2013, complaints and concerns about high numbers of foreigners in the financial sector have already been raised by Singaporeans. The high numbers were gradually built-up since Singapore signed the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) with India in 2005.

In the recent public uproar over the findings by MOM that 47 firms were put on watchlist for suspected discriminatory hiring practices, one is a financial institution with almost three-quarters of their PMETs coming from the “same nationality” and another, a bank with two-thirds of its PMETs also of the “same nationality”.


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