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HONG KONG VERSUS SINGAPORE – ETERNAL BUSINESS RIVALS?

A career in financial services can literally mean the world is your oyster, and, for those who are keen to spread their wings further afield, the financial centres of Hong Kong and Singapore both offer a tempting proposition.  These two ‘eastern giants’ were far less affected by the global financial crisis than London and New York.  What’s more, according to City think-tank Z/Yen’s Global Financial Services Index, both are challenging the leaders as the top global finance hubs, with Hong Kong in third place behind London and New York, and Singapore only eight points behind in fourth.

Andy Evans
Andy Evans

Two of the original ‘Four Asian Tigers’ of free and highly developed economies, alongside South Korea and Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore both possess strong links with the UK and China – historically, culturally and commercially – which means they share many features.  In terms of their financial services sectors, both have felt the impact of the uncertainty in the Eurozone, which has had a negative effect on hiring levels over the past few years, reflecting the key role that foreign financial institutions play in the Asia-Pacific market.  However, as Morgan McKinley’s 2013 Hong Kong and Singapore Hiring Market Reports show, global stabilisation is predicted to drive opportunities for financial services professionals over the course of the next twelve months.

So what are the opportunities for ambitious individuals looking to move to pastures new?  In 2013, the Hong Kong jobs market was described by China Daily as “resilient”.  Yet, despite being recognised for many years as the world’s top destination for new IPO listings, Hong Kong’s financial centre has been hit hard by a 68% year-on-year drop in the value of IPOs, which has put pressure on banks to reduce costs.  On the upside, corporates have pursued other methods of funding, resulting in a growing demand for debt products.  The key growth areas for hiring in Hong Kong are focused on regulatory reporting, operational risk and business management.  With a shortage of local qualified talent, opportunities are more plentiful for those experienced in controls and regulation, trade support and clearing, and business management.  Despite this, many Hong Kong hiring departments still face cost constraints, such as pay freezes, while many banks are looking to offshore certain functions.

However, this had a positive effect for junior Trade Support roles, as more hiring managers are willing to train up new starters to save costs.  Individuals who really want to enhance their ‘saleability’ in the Hong Kong banking operations sector are advised to undertake training in new regulations such as DFA, Basel III and FACTA, all of which will greatly increase the chances of landing an interesting and rewarding role.  Looking to the future, job opportunities are expected to also increase in the hedge fund and private equity sector, as the Hong Kong government’s plans for restructuring and tax exemption of fund products take effect, which should attract more funds to domicile in the state.

Richie Holliday
Richie Holliday

Recent moves by the Leadership of the People’s Republic of China to further liberalise their currency to create, ultimately, a fully convertible offshore RMB should also help drive Hong Kong’s money markets – especially as global organisations seek access to the powerful currency of the world’s 2nd largest economy.   Being strategically and politically and economically linked to (as well as being a close neighbour of) the mainland of China can give a significant boost to any corporation: be they local or multi-national.   In this regard Hong Kong will no doubt offer great opportunities, even though there are, of course, also close cultural ties between China and the island state of Singapore.

Similarly to Hong Kong, Singapore has not been totally immune to macroeconomic factors in the global economy.  Despite being hailed by Moody’s Investor Service report as “one of the world’s only top rated economies”, its dependence on global trade has left the island exposed to economic fluctuations.  However, on a positive note, sound regulation and a corruption-free trading environment have helped it retain a notably stable financial system.  The island has the world’s highest density of wealthy individuals, and a result, has emerged as a private banking hub.  It’s also looking to become a centre for precious metals trading to rival cities like London and Zurich.

Currently, many of Singapore’s core operations functions are being outsourced to countries with lower costs such as India, while organisational changes within many of the major financial institutions have resulted in pressure on recruitment budgets.  As in Hong Kong, the main employment growth areas in Singapore are in functions such as controls and regulations, customer care and onboarding, and trade support and clearing.  Over the past few years, the Singapore employment market has remained relatively static, with adequate local supply to fulfil vacancies.  However, according to Morgan McKinley’s most recent Global Banking Operations Trend Report, 2013 saw an uptick in demand for operations staff in financial services firms outside of the investment banks, such as asset management houses.  Those considering opportunities in Singapore are advised to focus on alternative investment funds, which continue to grow in the region, as well as brushing up on their knowledge of new regulations, compliance and controls.

If you do decide to relocate to the Far East, what differences can you expect between Hong Kong and Singapore in terms of culture and working life?  For expats working in either country, personal income tax is low (at least compared to the UK), with a maximum income tax of 20% in Singapore and 15% in Hong Kong.  According to the 2012 Mercer Quality of Living survey, Singapore ranks 25th and Hong Kong 70th out of 221 cities, and it has to be said that Singapore does offer a slightly more relaxed and green environment with plenty of open spaces, compared to Hong Kong’s polluted “urban jungle”.  However, culture vultures often prefer the latter’s historically fascinating and buzzing neighbourhoods.  Moreover, free spirits may find Singapore’s ‘nanny state’ tendencies – with numerous government regulations and restrictions – slightly too strict.  Language-wise, more English is spoken in Singapore than Hong Kong, as levels of spoken English have dropped in the latter since it was returned to China, which means that expats may find it marginally easier to integrate in Singapore.

Ultimately, both countries offer exciting opportunities for financial services professionals and what is attractive in a country for one person may be a complete turn-off for another.   Another important consideration is the rising cost of living in the region, which will continue to bite into salaries and may make a stint in the Far East much less lucrative than before.  It’s therefore worthwhile speaking to people on the ground to get a better idea of the pros and pitfalls.  In particular, team up with a reputable recruitment partner who has a good working knowledge of the region and can guide you through the process. Read below what our own employees have to say about living and working in Hong Kong and Singapore:

“I worked in HK from 1996-1999 and moved to Singapore four years ago.  I thoroughly enjoyed HK in my early twenties due in part to its vibrancy and authenticity.  However I must admit that the reputation of Singapore being the “sleepy sister” is dissipating given the number of global organisations choosing to make here their Asian hub.  This has resulted in a growing social scene to rival Hong Kong, particularly since the handover in 1997.  Both places offer fantastically low tax and frequent opportunities to explore Asia.”  Tricia Liverpool, Managing Director, Morgan McKinley Singapore

”Anecdotal evidence from a number of candidates we have relocated from Singapore to Hong Kong tend to explode the traditional myths of the Singapore and Hong Kong battle. For example, housing and pollution can be rolled into one, yes the air quality in Hong Kong on average will be slightly worse than Singapore and the volume of affordable housing is diminished on Hong Kong Island itself, many people who move from Singapore to Hong Kong will migrate to some of the other fantastic locations in the New Territories in which to house themselves and their families where the air quality can be significantly improved. A large proportion of the Hong Kong communities live ”Off the Island” and in the New Territories where village houses, national parks and even gardens are more common place. Many people moving from Singapore find the fast paced environment during the week and the slower pace of the New Territories at the weekend to be a perfect balance in their lifestyle.” Nick Lambe, Managing Director, Morgan McKinley Hong Kong

By Andrew Evans, COO, Morgan McKinley South Asia (based in Singapore) and Richie Holliday, COO, Morgan McKinley Asia Pacific (based in Hong Kong). 

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