Going the other way: Some Singaporeans thrive in Malaysia

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 25, 2013

OVER the years, as thousands of Malaysians head across the Causeway to Singapore for work, dozens of Singaporeans have gone the other way.

Those who bucked the trend have found a sweet spot.

Mr Chay Wai Leong was a self-described "suitcase banker" on a business trip to Malaysia during the 1993 super bull run, which doubled the value of the country's stock exchange within a year.

That was enough to convince him to take up a post in the country three years later. He has stayed ever since.

Today, at 49, he is managing director of the country's only stand-alone investment bank, Kenanga Investment Bank, competing with larger banking rivals such as CIMB Group and Maybank.

Mr Chay, who graduated from the National University of Singapore (NUS) with a degree in business administration, got asked a lot about why he chose Malaysia, instead of financial centres such as Singapore or Hong Kong, where the deals are larger and sexier.

"It's not the chasing of deals that I am after," a boyish-looking Mr Chay tells The Straits Times. "For me, I get a kick out of building something from scratch."

There are some 400,000 Malaysians working in Singapore, according to the World Bank. But statistics on how many have gone the other way are scarce.

Salaries in Singapore are far higher than in Malaysia, said Ms Jenny Wong, a consultant with headhunter Korn/Ferry.

As such, Singaporeans who are headhunted tend to be sought out for a niche expertise that some Malaysian companies are willing to pay a premium for, she said.

JobsDB, a recruiter, said out of more than one million applications the agency receives for jobs in Malaysia each year, only about 3,500 are from Singaporeans.

Besides Mr Chay, other Singaporean corporate high-fliers in Malaysia include Affin Investment Bank's managing director Maimoonah Hussain, Alliance Banking Group's chief executive Sng Seow Wah, and Mr Ravi Manchanda, chief executive of Maju Holdings, a property development and construction company.

Ms Maimoonah, 55, said she was headhunted to join Affin in 2006. "It was a very natural decision for me to move to Malaysia as this market is my area of expertise when I was a banker in Singapore."

Many more are in middle management in companies. One of them is Mr Jeffrey Tan, a general manager in Bursa Malaysia, who has worked here for three years.

Mr Tan, 51, an actuarial science graduate of NUS, said he was driven by "an element of adventure", as it was an opportunity to work in a different environment and culture, yet without being too far away from the family. He thinks he is not alone.

It was easy, he said, to ease into Malaysian life, since the two countries have similar food and languages. He also has Malaysian relatives.

He admits that he does get frustrated with the traffic jams in his adopted city, especially during flash floods.

Then there are the differences in work culture, said Mr Sng of Alliance.

"At the workplace, Singaporeans are more goal-oriented, independent and aggressive. It makes it easier to build a performance-based culture and rewards system," said the 55-year-old NUS accounting graduate.

"Malaysians, on the other hand, are friendlier, warmer and more optimistic. So businesses are more opportunistic and there is a high entrepreneurial spirit."

But contrary to popular belief, Malaysia is not necessarily more laid-back than Singapore.

Mr Chay said Malaysia has a competitive landscape too. And being a foreigner to the country, a lot of time is spent building contacts and getting to know the people he is doing business with.

"As you can see, one of my competitors is CIMB and when you put that into perspective, it is not easy at all to get business, especially when the big boys are also going after the same deals."

Not only did he thrive as a banker here, but he has also recently added a feather in his cap by becoming the first foreigner to sit on the board of Malaysia's stock exchange, Bursa Malaysia. He also advises the Securities Commission on developing its capital markets.

Mr Chay is married to a Singaporean, a housewife, and they have two sons.

"My parents used to say I was crazy for taking the more unconventional route," he said. "But I didn't want to be just a digit in an organisation."

And that, he said, put paid to it.

For now, he said, he has no plans to move back to Singapore.

But the banker in him is constantly looking out for places with less developed markets because "you'll never know what value the place will have in the next 10 to 15 years".

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 25, 2013

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