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Courting talent: Will Singapore remain attractive to the world's best?

With top tech talent in short supply everywhere, will Singapore remain attractive to the world’s best?

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COURTING TALENT: With top tech talent in short supply everywhere, will Singapore remain attractive to the world’s best?

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COURTING TALENT: With top tech talent in short supply everywhere, will Singapore remain attractive to the world’s best?

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There are lots to celebrate when it comes to Singapore's advantages in attracting global talent: its cosmopolitan demographic, a stable economy, liveable nature, open recruitment policies, low personal taxations, high standard of living, and English-speaking environment.

A LOW voice intones: "THEY said we have nothing." Fishing village imagery and historical footage make way for flashes of ride-hailing app Grab, gaming brand Razer, the Formula 1 night race, and martial arts championships, until the video concludes: "There's a special place for those who love proving the world wrong." Titled Singapore: The Impossible Story, the video is part of a campaign by the Economic Development Board (EDB), portraying Singapore as the ideal place to start and grow a business. In line with the Passion Made Possible brand, Singapore is presenting an aspirational, inspirational face to the world, imagining itself as a city where anything can happen.

As EDB chairman Beh Swan Gin said when the video was launched last November: "This campaign is an invitation to like-minded individuals and companies all around the world to discover new possibilities in, and with, Singapore."

This charm offensive is one small part of the city-state's efforts to attract top global talent, entrepreneurs, and startups, not least in emerging areas of digital technology. Yet with such talent in short supply everywhere, how easy is it for Singapore to remain attractive to the world's best?

Talent search

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Singapore is far from alone in its quest for tech talent in particular. In a survey by the Association of Executive Search and Leadership Consultants (AESC), released in March, the executive roles most in demand this year were predicted to be in technology, analytics and cybersecurity.

"One of the biggest shortages of top-tier talent is tech-related skillsets, which run across industries," says Robert Walters Singapore manager for infrastructure and tech sales Muz Mohamed. Many specialities such as mobile app design only came into existence in the last decade, he notes.

The importance of tech talent - including from abroad - was recently highlighted by Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing. In a speech last month, he named "working with the global best" as one of the five prongs of Singapore's talent strategy.

The first and most important element of the strategy is cultivating and growing the Singaporean talent pool, said Mr Chan. Still, Singapore must welcome talent from abroad to complement the local workforce, he said.

Regional director of Hays in Singapore, Grant Torrens, says that Singapore is "still a premature market" for emerging tech areas such as cybersecurity, cloud computing and artificial intelligence (AI), "lacking local talent that is experienced enough to meet the current level of requirements".

While Singapore has a slew of efforts to cultivate local talent, from the tripartite TechSkills Accelerator to SG:Digital scholarships, it will take time for these to pay off. Besides, as Mr Chan noted, the need to stay open remains: "Singapore must continue to welcome global talent to work alongside Singaporeans and advance the frontiers of innovation together."

Besides talent, the need to court tech startups has been highlighted by EDB managing director Chng Kai Fong. Startups arguably require more than the conventional approach for attracting firms: if a startup is powered by just a few individuals, potential bases must be attractive not just for business reasons, but arguably to the entrepreneurs themselves.

Singapore is well-established as a place to do business. Its appeal on a personal, affective level - as presented by EDB's video campaign - is less clear-cut. One obstacle is its image as strait-laced or downright boring.

Happily, Singapore is "probably doing a bit better" on that front today, says residence and citizenship advisory firm Henley & Partners' managing partner and head for South-east Asia Dominic Volek. The issue of "not being seen as a vibrant, exciting place to be based" has been reduced, with recent developments lending a futuristic vibe: "Singapore is literally like the city of the future. And I think that obviously attracts a lot of people."

Singapore University of Social Sciences transport economist and Nominated Member of Parliament Walter Theseira observes that talent attraction has been associated with efforts to make the city more culturally vibrant, with government investments on the cultural front often "partially justified by their ability to attract international talent".

EDB's Mr Chng does not see much of a problem, either. "There's always something happening," he tells The Business Times, from exhibitions to festivals for everything from literature to food. Even the Crazy Rich Asians film was surprisingly helpful in putting Singapore in the limelight and "shaping impressions of what Singapore can be", he adds with a laugh.

Another potential blot on Singapore's image is how it manages political participation and speech, says Associate Professor Theseira: "We manage it very tightly... This is not something everybody agrees with."

Says Mr Volek: "It's always a bit of a stigma: 'Oh, Singapore has too many rules.' " Yet this could also be an advantage: "For me, I think it's great. I'm raising a family here, I don't mind that nothing really happens that needs to concern me. It's safe, it's secure."

In investment migration, Singapore is consistently a target country for clients who want to relocate, he adds. From education and healthcare to transport and tax-friendliness, "Singapore ticks all of those boxes".

Singapore's familiar advantages remain effective. Its stable economy, liveable nature, open recruitment policies, low personal taxations, high standard of living, and English-speaking environment are among its draws, says Mr Muz. Its "cosmopolitan demographic and culture" is also attractive to those looking to easily adapt in a new country, adds Mr Torrens.

In HSBC's Expat Explorer report, Singapore recently lost its top spot to Switzerland, but stayed first for family-related indicators. "One of the biggest draws of Singapore for expat families is its safety and clean environment," says HSBC Singapore head of wealth and international Ian Yim. Singapore also scored well for its "excellent education system" and being "a good place to raise children".

Singapore is "one of the easier locations in Asia" to attract top talent, even compared to cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, sums up AESC Asean chair Fabrice Desmarescaux.

It seems that global talent is still willing to knock on Singapore's door. Given how foreign talent has been a hot-button issue before, a question arises: just how open is that door?

Welcome to Singapore?

First, there is a difference between official openness and on-the-ground attitudes. In the 2019 Global Talent Competitiveness Index, published by INSEAD in partnership with the Adecco Group and Tata Communications, Singapore was the top country in the Asia-Pacific and second worldwide for talent competitiveness, though lagging at 17th in the city ranking.

At the country level, Singapore did well in predictable areas such as government effectiveness, business-government relations and regulatory quality. In attracting talent, however, one area it fell down was in tolerance of immigrants, where it ranked 44th. In 2011 general election, anti-immigration sentiment was widely seen as contributing to the ruling party's worst showing since Independence.

In the early days of industrialisation, foreign talent were welcomed on the premise that they would engage in tech transfer and eventually leave. Yet over time, Singapore - as a global city - has come to accept "a permanent percentage of the population as global expats", says Prof Theseira.

Alongside growth in new citizens, a cultural conflict has arisen. Even as the government upholds a model of Singaporeanness based on shared civic ideals, there has been "pushback" from those who think that Singaporeans must be from certain ethnic backgrounds or have local links. This is "not too attractive to at least some expats who might think of settling here in the long term", who venture beyond expat bubbles only to meet with resentment, says Prof Theseira.

As a city-state, Singapore is disadvantaged vis-a-vis its metropolitan competitors in managing citizens' feelings towards new entrants, he adds: "People who don't like what New York or London have become can move (to elsewhere in the country). Singaporeans ca`nnot."

Second, official attempts to attract talent may be stymied by other official policies. What is "increasingly an issue", says Prof Theseira, is when top talent face "practical difficulties" in bringing legally wedded same-sex spouses or their children, who may not have legal status here.

Mr Desmarescaux, who is also managing partner at executive search firm Eric Salmon & Partners, says that the main issues that arise "are related to moving families to Singapore": specifically, spouses. In addition to same-sex marriages, another issue is de facto relationships.

"Increasingly, people who move from the West in particular are not necessarily married," he says. De facto "spouses" cannot get Dependant's Passes and thus need a job in Singapore, which worries potential expats: "They fear that their partner will not be able to find a job quickly enough."

Third, it may not suffice to ensure ease of entry at the top alone - especially in attracting startups and entrepreneurs. Says Hays' Mr Torrens: "The eligibility of candidates for a working visa is also a continuing problem for smaller companies like startups."

While it may be easy to get "the top folks" into Singapore, "you cannot have the boss if you don't have the young engineer", says Mr Desmarescaux. Startups must feel able to bring fresh graduates from around the world straight into Singapore.

EDB's Mr Chng acknowledges this common worry among firms: "The key question they always ask me is: 'Are you sure I can recruit?' "

In the startup and tech space, one complaint Prof Theseira has heard is that "we have a lack of openness in one area: on what grounds people can or cannot come to Singapore".

A startup may find that some applications for foreign hires succeed while others take very long, and not know why, he adds. A single firm's horror story - "My lead programmer was delayed for three months", say - can easily spread and cause doubt.

One recent move might ameliorate this. On July 30, the EDB and Enterprise Singapore announced the pilot Tech@SG scheme, expected to begin in the fourth quarter, under which qualifying "high-potential" tech firms may enjoy greater flexibility in their Employment Pass applications.

This is expected to further attract tech startups and IT talent into Singapore, says Adecco Group Asia-Pacific chief executive officer Ian Lee.

An image of its own

A day before the Tech@SG news, Trade & Industry Minister Chan highlighted fast-track visa programmes in other countries, adding that Singapore would have to step up to the competition.

Who is Singapore's competition? On one side are top destinations such as Silicon Valley, and on the other, rising tech hubs in China and Asean.

Says Mr Desmarescaux: "It is still difficult to claim that Singapore has reached the top 10 in the world in terms of its tech ecosystem."

Singapore needs a stronger venture capital presence, he adds. And what about institutes that feed the talent pipeline? "Could we have MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) or Stanford representation in Singapore?" he suggests.

"Singapore will never be a Silicon Valley," he cautions. Nor should Singapore necessarily see itself in direct competition with it: "All these hubs are interconnected. Singapore can play an important role in the future as one of these interconnected hubs."

"Silicon Valley is not the universal model," adds Insead executive director of global indices and Global Talent Competitiveness Index co-author Bruno Lanvin. Singapore's ecosystem is vibrant in its own right, he says, for instance with its tech incubators: "It's really a place where you see young people getting five ideas a minute."

Yet our neighbours, too, have a growing reputation for youth and vibrancy. One selling point has been that Singapore is both friendly to business and "very accessible to where the real money is" - that is, the region, says Prof Theseira. "In Singapore, what we're betting on is that whatever you develop here, you're tapping on the regional market."

The threat is that other cities may eventually be able to claim the same, with Jakarta and Ho Chi Minh City among those with thriving startup scenes. "It is a concern that the advantage we have, in terms of infrastructure, business quality and so on, is narrowing year on year."

Mr Desmarescaux, however, thinks this might be overstated. While Jakarta has a vibrant scene, firms there are focused on the domestic market. Vietnam produces good software engineers, so firms host their development centres there - not quite in direct competition with Singapore.

For EDB's Mr Chng, the biggest obstacle in getting startups and tech talent - including overseas Singaporeans - is a perceived lack of opportunities: "The Singaporeans tell me that if you want opportunity, Silicon Valley is still the place to go. Nowhere else."

While it is true that the scale of opportunities is vastly different, there are good reasons not to discount Singapore, he says. One is the draw of the rising Asean market, both for tech and other industries. Another is that Singapore does have "pockets of excellence" in research and innovation. And talent attracts more talent: "Usually when engineers tell me that they want to come, it's because they want to work with top-tier talent."

Besides, Silicon Valley is already quite developed, producing fewer new firms, he adds. Singapore and Asean, in contrast, are still ripe for exploration. Ultimately, for Mr Chng, a sense of possibility is paramount: "It has to start with opportunity."

Perhaps, rather than trying to beat other destinations on their terms, Singapore might do better to cultivate its own alternative offering. A reputation for being staid could be reinvented as one of secure, well-founded optimism - a worthy attribute in a turbulent world.

Dr Lanvin puts it simply: "It's important to be optimistic." In Europe, cities such as Paris, Frankfurt, Brussels, and Geneva are positioning themselves as safer bets in relation to London and Brexit, he observes. Singapore can do the same as a beacon of stability in its own region.

Marcus Loh, president of the Institute of Public Relations of Singapore, sees this mood in the EDB's video campaign. "There's a lot of talk about how Singapore needs to be an Asia and global node," he notes. Yet this is not just about physical connectivity: Singapore can stand out as a bright spot "in a sea of grey and gloom".

What is notable about The Impossible Story, he says, is that it showcases a local point-of-view. Singapore is not adhering to existing external views, but pushing its own self-narrative: "What we ourselves say we are."

This is a story of "possibilities, optimism", he concludes. Startups and talent alike, after all, do come to Singapore because they believe the city can be "a launchpad of their dreams".