Parliament: Singaporeans in senior roles in financial services grew more than 50% from 2014 to 2019, says Ong Ye Kung

Transport Minister and Monetary Authority of Singapore board member Ong Ye Kung rebuffed suggestions that Singaporeans are getting the short end of the stick "because this is not a zero-sum game". PHOTO: GOV.SG

SINGAPORE - The number of Singaporeans holding senior jobs in the financial sector increased by more than 50 per cent from 2014 to last year, said Transport Minister and Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) board member Ong Ye Kung.

In 2014, there were 1,700 Singaporeans holding such top-level positions - from managing director and above.

The number grew to 2,600 last year, said Mr Ong.

"That is more than a 50 per cent increase in five years, or an additional 900 Singaporeans taking up senior roles, embarking on a new and fulfilling stage in their careers," he said.

Speaking in Parliament on the second day of the debate on the President's Address on Tuesday (Sept 1), Mr Ong addressed concerns about the share of foreign manpower in the financial services sector.

According to MAS estimates, Mr Ong said the total number of senior positions in the financial services sector grew from 3,900 in 2014 to 5,900 last year.

While the proportion of Singaporeans in these roles has held steady - at about 44 per cent - their absolute numbers have increased, he added.

"This is because we have grown as a financial centre, the base has expanded significantly. So same share, but of a growing base," he said.

Mr Ong rebuffed suggestions that Singaporeans are getting the short end of the stick "because this is not a zero-sum game".

Last year, Singaporeans accounted for about 70 per cent of senior management roles in retail banks' local functions. In non-retail banks, where there is a higher concentration of regional and global functions, the proportion is lower, at about 40 per cent, he said.

When banks bring their functions over here, Singaporeans also gain precious global and regional expertise, which "complements overseas assignments and exposure, which are key to preparing Singaporeans to assume senior management roles in global firms".

Mr Ong made clear that there is no place for unfair hiring practices in the sector.

"MAS holds our financial institutions to high standards and will not condone firms that fall short of fair hiring practices," he said.

Another concern, Mr Ong said, was the high concentration of one nationality in the technology departments of financial institutions.

There was an "explosion of demand" for these professionals and these posts could not be filled domestically. The local talent pipeline is being grown - through mid-career skills upgrading and expanding computer science positions in universities - but this is unlikely to meet the demand, he said.

However, the concern remains and an over-reliance on a single source leaves Singapore more susceptible to unexpected disruptions, he said.

The MAS has stepped up engagements with the top leadership of key financial institutions on the need to maintain "robust HR practices that are merit-based and support workplace diversity", he added.

The financial services sector employs about 171,000 workers and forms 13 per cent of Singapore's economy.

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

For senior roles, Singaporeans form 44 per cent, permanent residents 20 per cent, and work pass holders 36 per cent, said Mr Ong. These proportions have remained stable in recent years.

Acknowledging concerns over whether 44 per cent might be too low, he said the higher share of foreigners in senior roles is mainly due to the large international component of the activities that are now in Singapore's financial centre.

"This is an enviable position. And if you ask Singaporeans if this is a good thing for our country, I think most would say yes.

"These functions tap on growth outside Singapore, and support the region's development. In so doing, they bring opportunities and jobs here."

Financial institutions siting their operations here is also a concrete show of confidence in Singapore, raising the stakes the world has in the country. "That makes us safer and more secure," he added.

There are also many more Singaporeans working overseas in the financial sector, he said.

The MAS and Economic Development Board are in touch with about 2,000 such Singaporeans. About 120 are C-suite executives, another 750 hold positions of director or vice-president and above.

Still, there is more that can be done to create opportunities for Singaporeans, he said. The MAS is working with the industry to groom Singaporeans to be leaders and specialists in financial services through various schemes.

In his speech, Mr Ong traced Singapore's journey of becoming a global financial hub, from bringing in new activities, developing new capabilities, and where necessary, injecting into the sector foreign expertise - people with track records in the area.

But over time, when Singaporeans gain the expertise, they can take on more roles in multinational teams, in Singapore as well as abroad. The same approach is now being used to developing Fintech and Green Finance.

As a result, the sector continues to create new jobs, said Mr Ong. About 22,000 financial sector jobs were created over the past five years, with 15,000 going to Singaporeans.

There are also positive spillovers, he said, contributing to jobs in the legal and accountancy fields, many of which go to Singaporeans.

Mr Ong said Singapore is now emerging as one of the nerve centres in the global financial system - sharing a stage with places such as New York, London, and Hong Kong - but it is a position that cannot be taken for granted.

He said: "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."

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