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S’poreans not getting short-changed in financial sector, says Ong Ye Kung who warns against ‘us versus them’ mentality

SINGAPORE — Singaporeans are not getting short-changed of senior roles at banks, and there are ongoing efforts to create opportunities for locals, Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung said on Tuesday (Sept 1), as he warned against an “us versus them” mentality towards foreigners, which he said could affect Singapore’s standing as a financial centre.

S’poreans not getting short-changed in financial sector, says Ong Ye Kung who warns against ‘us versus them’ mentality

Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung said in Parliament on Tuesday that the absolute number of Singaporeans in senior roles in the financial sector has grown by more than 50 per cent in the last five years.

  • ​There are ongoing efforts to create opportunities for locals at banks, Mr Ong said
  • Number of Singaporeans in senior roles is up 50 per cent in the last five years
  • But he added more could be done and concerns about foreigners are valid
  • Singaporeans should guard against an “us versus them” perspective, he said

 

SINGAPORE — Singaporeans are not getting short-changed of senior roles at banks, and there are ongoing efforts to create opportunities for locals, Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung said on Tuesday (Sept 1), as he warned against an “us versus them” mentality towards foreigners, which he said could affect Singapore’s standing as a financial centre.

Mr Ong, who is also a member of the board of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), focused his speech, during the second day of a Parliamentary debate on the President’s Address, on the issue of foreign hiring in the financial sector.

The issue had come to the forefront after Mr Ravi Menon, the managing director of the MAS, said in a letter to the Straits Times forum page on Aug 19 that less than half of senior management positions in the financial sector were held by Singaporeans.

A week later, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) singled out the sector in its tightening of foreign worker policies, raising the qualifying salary for Employment Pass holders in finance from S$3,900 to S$5,000 — higher than the new S$4,500 qualifying salary set for other sectors.

In his speech on Tuesday, Mr Ong noted that the financial sector is one of Singapore’s most promising sectors, having created about 22,000 new jobs in the last five years, of which 15,000 had gone to Singaporeans.

Still, while there is no doubt that being a global financial hub has benefitted Singapore, Mr Ong acknowledged that concerns over foreign manpower in the sector should be taken seriously.

MORE SINGAPOREANS IN SENIOR ROLES

The financial sector, which makes up 13 per cent of Singapore’s economy, employs about 171,000 workers, Mr Ong said.

The MAS estimates that about 70 per cent of the workforce are Singaporeans, 14 per cent permanent residents (PRs) and 16 per cent work pass holders.

Singaporeans account for 44 per cent of senior roles, PRs 20 per cent and work pass holders 36 per cent, with these proportions remaining stable in recent years, said Mr Ong.

Non-Singaporeans in senior roles hail from over 50 countries, with the largest group from Europe and other “significant nationalities” from Asia and North America, he added.

While Mr Ong acknowledged concerns that 44 per cent of Singaporeans in senior positions could be “too low”, he attributed the figure to the international component of activities in the financial centre.

“Singapore has grown as a global financial centre as more financial institutions set up regional or global functions here. They have made us the hub for expertise, networking and oversight of operations in other markets.”

“And if you ask Singaporeans if this is a good thing for our country, I think most will also say yes,” said Mr Ong, adding that the sector brought in jobs and opportunities for Singapore.

The staff profile of regional and global activities in any leading financial centre also tends to be more internationally diverse, he noted.

For example, in 2019, Singaporeans accounted for about 70 per cent of senior management roles in retail banks’ local functions. However, the proportion was lower, at 40 per cent, for non-retail banks with more regional and global functions.

“But this does not mean that Singaporeans are getting the short end of the stick, because it’s not a zero-sum game,” said Mr Ong.

This was because the absolute number of Singaporeans in these roles has increased with the Republic expanding as a financial centre, said Mr Ong.

According to MAS’ estimates, the number of senior positions in Singapore’s financial sector grew from 3,900 to 5,900 from 2014 to 2019, while the absolute number of senior jobs taken by Singaporeans increased from 1,700 to 2,600.

This translates to an increase of more than 50 per cent in five years, or an additional 900 Singaporeans taking up senior roles, noted Mr Ong.

Moreover, Singaporeans have gained global and regional expertise through overseas assignments and exposure with such global functions based here, said Mr Ong.

Nevertheless, he acknowledged that MAS could do more to create opportunities for Singaporeans and said that it is working with the industry to groom leaders and specialists in the industry. 

For instance, there are initiatives such as the Finance Associate Management Scheme which supports financial institutions to groom Singaporeans through structured talent development programmes.

The MAS will also not condone unfair hiring practices in the financial services sector, said Mr Ong.

GUARDING AGAINST AN ‘US VERSUS THEM’ MENTALITY

But Mr Ong noted that in times of economic difficulty, nativism and an “us versus them” perspective may take hold among people, and warned that this is a dangerous phenomenon.

“We have seen how toxic the discussion can become in other countries, and how it can change the course of history. This is not a discourse Singaporeans deserve, nor do I think this is what most Singaporeans want,” said Mr Ong.

“The more widely held view, I think, understands the international character of our financial centre, but wants to see Singaporeans do better, with greater assurance of fair hiring practices that put us on a level playing field. These are valid concerns.”

But the fact is, he added, Singapore is emerging as one of the nerve centres in the global financial system, competing against places such as New York, London and Hong Kong, and with the largest chunk of jobs going to Singaporeans.

“We cannot take this position for granted. So this is not about growth at all costs, or accepting ‘trade-offs’ for the sake of growth, but about whether as a people we can strengthen our place in the financial world, hold our own, develop the expertise, seize the opportunities, to make Singaporean lives better,” said Mr Ong.

“We must continue to work in concert, to further strengthen this partnership (with financial institutions), grow this international financial centre in Asia, invest in and grow our Singaporean talents, and make lives better through the generations.”

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