Wednesday 17 June 2015

Hire bankers on merit, not nationality

Good to have push for locals, veteran says; they must prove their worth too
By Rachael Boon, The Straits Times, 15 Jun 2015

A TOP banker has some advice for Singaporeans on the thorny question of hiring locals versus foreigners in the highly competitive financial sector.

UBS Singapore country head Edmund Koh notes that at one time, foreigners were preferred when the Republic was developing as a financial centre.

Now, the push is firmly on to develop a strong pool of local talent.

But locals should prove their worth when seeking positions in the sector that is still dominated by foreigners at senior levels, Mr Koh, 55, said.

"If you go up the hierarchy or seniority, the percentages of foreigners will likely increase...

"But as a financial centre, let's not get too carried away about not hiring foreigners. I'm a Singaporean, and you've got to earn it."

He firmly believes that ability comes before nationality in filling these positions.

"We (UBS) have come to the state of development in Singapore where we should understand and appreciate meritocracy, so an available position should be open to the most able person," said Mr Koh.

He also feels strongly about grooming a new batch of Singaporean bankers who can helm the top jobs.

As newly minted Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say said recently, one of the key areas in his new role is to nurture a core group of Singaporean workers.

Mr Koh added: "Local banks should, if possible, grow their own talent because it is of strategic interest to Singapore, and is important to groom the future generation that will take Singapore's interests far beyond where we are today."

Addressing the perennial issue of foreign talent in an exclusive interview with The Straits Times, Mr Koh recalled the "foreign talent" policy launched in 1997 to bring in those with expertise.

It was a necessary move as Singapore was building its reputation as a financial hub.

The circumstances may have changed today but "we should always have the confidence to hire the best... so long as they're here and can contribute to our society and the development of Singapore as a financial centre", said Mr Koh.

The financial sector makes up about 12 per cent of Singapore's economic output, with more than 1,000 financial institutions and about 190,000 employees, of whom about 70 per cent are Singaporeans.

Mr Koh was a marketing and public affairs manager at HSBC who moved up the ranks to become DBS Bank's regional head of consumer banking.

He was president of Ta Chong Bank for 31/2 years, where he was credited with making the Taiwanese bank profitable, before being appointed to his current post with UBS in 2012.

But Mr Koh wants to give credit where it is due.

He notes that gross domestic product per capita was $46,000 in 2004, rising to $71,000 last year.

In 2004, the foreign labour force was about 26 per cent.

Last year, it was about 38 per cent.

The labour force grew by about 1.19 million people in that decade, to 3.53 million people, according to Ministry of Manpower figures.

"Look at the GDP and the number of foreigners," said Mr Koh.

"The net sum is that they contributed to our growth.

"Let's understand that where we are weak, we learn. If we have to import, we import. But where we are strong, (we) let that grow."

And UBS has grown its own base of Singapore leaders, such as Ms Tan Min Lan, head of Asia-Pacific chief investment office at UBS wealth management; Mr Kelvin Tay, regional chief investment officer for southern Asia-Pacific; and Mr Gan Seow Ann, vice-chairman of UBS wealth management South-east Asia.

Last week, UBS held a two-day programme for 50 pre-university students in a bid to educate them on banking and finance careers.

At Standard Chartered Bank in Singapore, head of human resources Cara Ang noted that the bank has about 7,000 staff based here, including in country and global roles.

About 7 per cent hold senior management posts - compared with about 6 per cent last year - and of those, more than a fifth are Singaporeans.

Figures at other banks also remained stable over the past year.

At Citi, more than 30 per cent of its Asean management committee members are Singaporeans.

Ms Evangeline Chua, Citi Singapore's human resources head, said the bank works closely with universities to train and groom future bankers.

In Singapore, about 60 per cent of ABN Amro's senior management team are Singaporeans holding regional roles, and the bank's Singapore deputy country executive Daniel Teo believes more Singaporeans will hold senior management positions on a global level over time.

It has often been said that Singaporeans lack the gift of the gab, and Mr Koh concurs.

"Singaporeans are quite shy and not necessarily the best communicators, so sometimes we fail to impress," he said.

"It's important that Singaporeans learn the art of communication as well."

Mr Koh stresses the need to encourage creativity and innovation because even in banking, just relying on the balance sheet is not going to work.

"It's going to take a different educational curriculum and diet that would celebrate in failure sometimes, and understand that is part of learning."

Mr Koh noted that top bankers, such as DBS Group Holdings chairman Peter Seah, DBS' former senior managing director Tan Soo Nan and CapitaLand chairman Ng Kee Choe, are "very strong examples of very solid bankers that Singapore has developed".

He said it takes some 20 years to develop good bankers, and they need international exposure from a young age to learn from the best.

"I think they should at least spend six to nine years, at some point in their career, in a sporadic manner overseas," added Mr Koh.

They must go to powerhouse countries such as China and the United States, work in New York's Wall Street, and have short stints in regional countries or emerging markets like Brazil or Myanmar "where you'll understand the growing stages of development".

"When you go to these countries, you don't just learn the technical skills or understand the culture," said Mr Koh. "You also go there to broaden your circle of influence and network."

Mr Koh is confident that Singapore bankers will do well, with many opportunities in the sector.

"The thing is, they must stay the course to be trained and really go through the cycles.

"It's not always about (dealing with clients) but also the discipline in credit risk, operations and technology."

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