IN the 90s, Singapore had a large influx of skilled foreigners. Now – in its economic downturn – it is suffering a reversal, with large numbers leaving the city.
The influx was, in proportion to its population, one of the world’s largest over a decade. But during the past year as companies downsized, 27,000 foreigners had left, including bankers, senior managers and professionals, the worst exodus in 16 years.
It is not all economic. Cultural differences and uneven expectations, too, may have caused the failure of assimilating many highly-skilled foreigners in Singapore, especially in government-linked firms.
Others left because their presence had failed to work magic on the bottom line.
The latest to go prematurely was Neptune Orient Lines (NOL) president and chief executive officer Flemming Jacobs, 59. He left a year before his contract ended, receiving a payout of S$4.3mil. He was brought in three years ago to turn around the debt-laden and loss-making national shipping line.
Another was Danish football coach Jan Poulsen who made way for locals after Singapore was ignominiously beaten 0-4 by arch-rival Malaysia at the Tiger Cup tournament.
Was it a knee-jerk reaction? No, says nominated MP and law lecturer Simon Tay.
“Poulsen had time to get things right and did not,” said Tay. “Many have voiced concern that foreign talent has been given too much priority.”
Their departures are “a timely reassurance to Singaporeans of how foreign talent will be judged and dealt with, if found wanting,” he added.
Other “fallen” talent to leave the scene include: Phillip Paillart of DBS Bank, Barry White of Chartered Semiconductor and Tom Kloet of the Singapore Exchange.
In one year alone, DBS Bank lost some 10% of 135 highly-paid foreign officers and directors it had scoured the world to recruit for its venture into the region.
This quick spate of departures worries Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, who fears that it could give the country a bad image.
He said last week that he was concerned about the recent dismissal of senior foreign executives at some state-linked enterprises.
(The government has announced a worldwide media advertising campaign in the world’s top newspapers to emphasise Singapore’s continuing policy to attract world-class talent in many fields.)
The sackings had led to some speculation that state investment arm Temasek, which holds shares in many Singapore businesses including NOL and DBS, was managing its management teams more aggressively, a charge it has denied.
“I am, of course, a little unhappy about the coincidence of events. One after another, the government-linked companies have retired their CEO a bit prematurely,” Goh said.
“I am a bit unhappy as it creates the wrong impression that Singapore does not welcome them.”
At the top end of a declining market, thousands of accountants, financial experts and information technology professionals have left the city, many of them able to find opportunities elsewhere.
Between 10% and 20% of the expatriates are believed to have headed for China.
Singapore had courted global managers for many years, arguing that its small domestic pool was inadequate to produce enough skilled business people.
It forms a crucial strategy to restructure its economy toward higher skills and services.
Talented foreigners working for somebody else ultimately become competitors in a world where nations compete on ideas, Singapore believes.
It is not alone. Almost every developed economy, including the United States, has a policy to attract world-class talent.
Despite its vast manpower resources, Shanghai, too, is going all out to offer skilled foreigners permanent residency. So far, 7,000 have got it.
Many foreign businessmen and academics in Singapore actively participate in advisory boards that help formulate public policies.
Goh, however, said the government did not play a direct role in the recruitment of foreign executives, delegating that task to the boards of state-linked companies.
“As a government we support them in looking to the rest of the world to hire the best to run our companies,” he said.
But he said the boards “do not come to us to decide who they should hire and who should go.”
The main cause of the exodus, however, has been Singapore's worst downturn in four decades.
A record number of foreigners has left as companies cut staff numbers and generous expatriate packages evaporate.
“People are leaving and they are leaving in very big numbers,” said Bill Cain, managing director of Santa Fe Relocation Services.
The firm, which has clients in US and Europe, moved 800 families into Singapore in the 11 months to November. That compared with 1,400 for all of last year.
As of November, his group had moved 1,200 out of the city-state, nearly neck and neck with 1,300 last year.
The older expats with big allowances are leaving, said Cain. “There is a trend towards younger (workers) and singles, primarily Australians, who are coming up on cheaper packages.
According to official statistics, the number of foreigners living in Singapore for at least a year fell 3.4% to 785,400 between June 2001 and this year.
Singapore is home to numerous multinational companies. The Japanese are the biggest expatriate community with more than 20,000 and there are some 16,000 Americans in Singapore. Both numbers are said to have declined.
But some expect the expatriates to return eventually, depending on the region’s economic recovery as well as concerns over its security.
They are likely to continue to centre on terrorist threats in Indonesia and the Philippines, to which Singapore serves as a business hub. For an ageing population, wooing young foreigners is not an option but a necessity.
For survival, it needs to rejuvenate its population. Besides, it is losing its own people. Annually, between 700 and 800 Singaporeans give up their citizenship to settle elsewhere, half of them in Australia.
Singapore, however, grants permanent residency to about 6,500 foreigners every year. Both sets of figures are likely to rise in the future.
o Seah Chiang Nee is a veteran journalist and editor of the information website littlespeck.com (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org )
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