Two Cents: Why are there so few Singaporean CEOs?

Singaporean managers are seen as competent, honest and hardworking – but aren’t stepping up to more senior roles.
By: | December 4, 2019
high-potential leader

Singapore has a diverse and exciting jobs market and is in a strong position economically. Companies all over the world see opportunity here and investment is flowing into the city state. New offices, manufacturing plants and startups are regularly being set up in Singapore.

With many companies looking for Singaporean workers, you’d expect to see more Singaporean CEOs and leaders but sadly that’s not the case. To find out why I spoke to Chng Kai Fong, managing director at the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB).

The EDB is doing plenty of good work in this area, along with other agencies such as the SkillsFuture Leadership Development Initiative (LDI). LDI is where government partners with companies to develop Singaporean talent through training programmes and overseas assignments. EDB also works directly through companies, along with partners like Singapore Management University (SMU) and the Human Capital Leadership Institute (HCLI).

‘’Companies value Singaporean managers because we are regarded as competent, honest, and we have a responsible work ethic,’’ said Chng. In his many conversations with CEOs and Singaporean workers, he has gained valuable feedback which he shares below:

Be adventurous

Managers have to be more adventurous and take on more overseas assignments, particularly in emerging markets. Many are reluctant to do so. One CEO in the hospitality trade told Chng that Singaporeans only want to be posted to first-tier cities. In contrast, Spanish and Italian graduates are knocking on his doors offering to go to second and third tier cities.

‘’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,’’ added Chng.

Work in cross-cultural places

Working in Singapore is completely different from working in emerging markets. For example, in the Singaporean work context, people believe that keeping their head down and letting their 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,’’ Chng said.

Think beyond Singapore

Singapore is a small country, which often means jobs come with a small scope. This is in stark contrast to substantially larger markets like the US and China. ‘’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,’’ explained Chng. The EDB is working hard to bring the best jobs to Singapore.