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Commentary: Why aren’t there more Singaporean CEOs?

Companies regard Singaporean managers as competent, honest, and hardworking – but Singaporeans need to step up, says EDB’s Chng Kai Fong.

Commentary: Why aren’t there more Singaporean CEOs?

People walking along Singapore's Central Business District area. (File photo: Ngau Kai Yan)

SINGAPORE: In the last 10 years, we have created a vibrant economy of good jobs and opportunities.

Graduates enter a diverse and exciting job market, with many pathways catering to different interests and skills. We now have jobs that didn’t exist 20 years ago, such as user experience and user interface designers and biotech scientists.

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Companies are hiring workers with diverse experiences. It is not just grades that get you through the door. More companies offer internships and eventually hire interns into their teams.

Amidst the dampened global mood, Singapore is in good position. Southeast Asia is on the rise, with the fastest growing middle class in the world drinking more cappuccinos and buying Korean cosmetics.

Companies all over the world see opportunity. That’s why our investment numbers are holding up. New HQs, new manufacturing plants and start-ups are setting up in Singapore.

With many jobs and companies looking for Singaporean workers, and a disproportionate share of regional HQs, we should be seeing more Singapore corporate leaders. But the numbers have been few. Why?

READ: Commentary: Expats have an edge over locals. Here's why


One reason is that we are a small population. By the law of numbers, we should expect small numbers.

Office workers in the central business district of Singapore. (Photo: Try Sutrisno Foo)

But the Swiss and Malaysian Chinese defy the trend. They are well represented in corporate leadership in MNCs.

So we can do better.  We should use our advantage in hosting many regional HQs here to help Singaporeans succeed.

That is why we have the SkillsFuture Leadership Development Initiative (LDI). LDI is where Government partners companies to develop Singaporean talent through training programmes and overseas assignments. We work directly through companies, as well as with partners like SMU and the Human Capital Leadership Institute.

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For example, SMU ran the Asean Retail Leaders Programme for LDI recipients in the retail sector, which includes travelling to Korea to engage with the most advanced retailers.

LDI is part of our efforts to equip Singaporeans to do well in the corporate world. Unlike some countries, we do not use affirmative action. We do not impose quotas to compel companies to appoint Singaporean managers. Doing that will backfire.


At the top, competition is global. If we want the good jobs, we have to compete for them. Otherwise, companies will think twice about investing in Singapore. The person who was appointed by fiat will also be undermined.

While it will not be easy to compete with the Ronaldos of the corporate world, we have a head start.

Several teammates have a project discussion together. (Photo: Unsplash/Stefan Stefancik)

The jobs and HQs are here. Our education system is rigourous. Our people are internationally exposed. 

We have grown up in a multicultural setting so we are comfortable with all kinds of people. Companies value Singaporean managers because we are regarded as competent, honest, and we have a responsible work ethic.

But in my conversations with CEOs and Singaporean workers, they have given me some feedback on the Singaporean worker and how we can be better.

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I want to start with a caveat, because I am after all a civil servant and I have no skin in the game. But I want to reflect accurately the feedback I have received, so that we can start a discussion on how we can support each other.


First, we have to be more adventurous and take on more overseas assignments, particularly in emerging markets.

Many of us are reluctant to do so. One CEO in the hospitality trade told me that Singaporeans only want to be posted to the first-tier cities. In contrast, Spanish and Italian graduates are knocking on his doors offering to go to second- and third-tier cities.

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We all know how important it is in business to have international experience. As Singaporeans, we have an advantage in connecting to ASEAN, China and India – regions who will contribute the majority of global growth in the future.

We are trying to start young. Our schools send students out on immersion trips as early as primary school. Under the Global Innovation Alliance programme, many of our students do internships overseas. I hope this sense of adventure will grow.


Second, we have to learn to work in cross-cultural environments.

Working in Singapore is completely different from working in emerging markets. We take a lot of things for granted. A lot of soft skills have to be relearned.

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For example, in the Singaporean work context, we believe that keeping our head down and letting our work speak for itself is good enough. In my short experience at an MNC, I soon discovered in a multi-cultural context, if I did not speak up and tell people what I have been doing, I cannot expect others to know.

At the heart of it is whether we are comfortable adapting and traversing across different environments. Perhaps that’s why the Swiss are so successful. 

It’s a function of their history of neutrality, and that within Switzerland, they are able to speak multiple languages and connect easily with different cultures.


Third, we have to think beyond Singapore and create for the world.

A view of HDB blocks against the Singapore skyline. (File photo: Jeremy Long)

We are a small country. Being trained in a small country with jobs with a small scope means we are not stretched.

Take for example programmers. Our fresh graduates may be as good as those from Chinese and American universities when they graduate. 

But once the Chinese and American graduates work on projects that serves hundreds of millions of users, the complexity and scale of the problem stretches and develops them. Five years out of college, they are way ahead even though the starting point may be similar.

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That is why we are working hard to bring the best jobs to Singapore, whether it is an engineering centre from Stripe and, to regional HQs of MNCs running global product lines out of Singapore.

If you examine the record of Singaporeans who have done well in the corporate world, many of them started out by working on bigger projects and markets first, fresh out of university. The first ten years of work count.


Fourth, we are too concerned about achieving the results, and less concerned about understanding the bigger picture and how things work.

One senior engineering manager observed that Singaporeans are good at specific tasks but not good at dealing with ambiguity. He called it the “ten-year series” approach, where we excel at patterns and repeatable tasks and “pass up homework”.

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Yet all these could be turned into algorithms. Instead, companies are looking for leaders who can connect the dots of what they do to the larger strategic picture, and who understand deeply how things work.


So in a nutshell, my advice to my 25-year old self would be this.

Woman speaking to a colleague in the office. (Photo: Unsplash/Mimi Thian)

First, be more adventurous.

Travel and see the world. Better still, intern at a start-up in an emerging economy. Go to where the opportunities are and learn the market.

READ: Commentary: Having trouble finding that first job? Try an internship after graduation

Second, practise communication, through writing and speaking.

Write a journal every day. Make yourself uncomfortable by speaking publicly; record it, and force yourself to watch yourself and get feedback from others. Then, you will be more confident to exchange views with others.

READ: Commentary: How to get over your fear and learn to speak up

Third, set your eyes on the bigger picture and the world.

Find global problems to solve. Read widely. Take an interest in history and literature.

One of the best advice I had is from Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert comics. He said that if you want to do something extraordinary, there are two paths. Either become the best at one specific thing, or become very good (top 25 per cent) at two or more things.

Team dynamics can also impact personal motivation. (Photo: Pixabay)

The first strategy is near impossible, because very few will ever be Joseph Schooling.

But the second strategy is fairly easy, because everyone has a few areas in which they could be in the top 25 per cent with some effort.  And so if you are a good public speaker, which will come with practice, and you combine it with another two skills, you will be unique.

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And because capitalism rewards things that are rare and valuable, you will be rewarded.

I hope to see many Singaporeans succeed in the corporate world. Then we will create a virtuous cycle, where we will have more opportunities for Singaporeans in Singapore and in the world.

Chng Kai Fong is managing director at the Singapore Economic Development Board. This commentary is adapted from a speech at the Leadership Development Initiative Networking event in Singapore on Nov 13.

Source: CNA/el(sl)


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