Date: 04/10/16 | Duration: 00:18:20

The world of work is changing fast, and nowhere more so than in Singapore. Today, Singapore enjoys low unemployment, access to good jobs and salaries, and strong incentives for academic excellence. But on the horizon new industries are emerging and old ones waning, the workforce is aging, and migration remains a contentious issue. Many of these issues are pertinent not only in Singapore but in the UK and many other countries worldwide.

In this episode we’ll be talking to Foo Chek Wee, Regional HR Director at Zalora, Clarence Hoe, Group Director, Human Resource Group, International Enterprise (IE) Singapore and Su-Yen Wong, Chief Executive Officer, Human Capital Leadership Institute about how they’re planning for the future of Talent in Singapore.

How is your organisation planning for the future of talent? Join in the discussion on Twitter @CIPD using the hashtag #cipdpodcasts.

Access the Future of Talent in Singapore here.

View the full podcast transcript

Philippa Lamb: Welcome back. This month we’re heading overseas.

Foo Chek Wee: Testing one, two, three.

PL: Oh hi Singapore are you there?

FCW: Yes this is Chek Wee here.

PL: Oh Chek Wee hello this is Philippa Lamb, I'm the one asking the questions. Well I say overseas in fact I'm in a studio talking across the airwaves to three people in Singapore about how the HR picture looks over there. Why Singapore? Well the CIPD has just arrived there with an Asia hub opened earlier this year. On top of that in a post Brexit world the UK needs to make new trade friends and Singapore may well be one of them and there are interesting parallels between the two nations. Singapore like us has had its own contentious and long running migrant worker dispute. And now by popular demand has quotas for overseas workers. Other challenges are coming thick and fast and the world of work there is changing to meet them at speed.

FCW: No one in the office has a room for him or herself.

PL: So you're open plan?

FCW: Yeah.

PL: And do people find that difficult?

FCW: Honestly even personally I find it difficult. I myself took some time to get used to communicating through Skype, sending instant messages, but after a while it becomes fun or in fact it becomes addictive.

PL: That was Foo Chek Wee, group HR director at Zalora, an ecommerce fashion business selling clothes across Asia and Australasia, Chek’s response to his own shift from a traditional compartmentalised workplace to an open plan start up reflects what’s happening right across Singapore. Paint us a little picture of Singapore on the work front, population sites, key employers, what are the big issues there?

FCW: Well Singapore’s population has grown by a fifth in ten, 15 years and that’s a massive growth by any measure.

PL: Wilson Wong is head of insight and futures at the CIPD and co-author of a report called The Future of Talent in Singapore 2030. It explores the drivers shaping the workforce there in the next decade and a half. Wilson Wong: I think Singapore is a very useful barometer of how city states or large cities like London, New York, Shanghai, Hong Kong will go.

PL: Yes I mean there are some marked similarities and dissimilarities aren’t there? You've got a highly educated and aging workforce in Singapore, but the culture there, my sense is, that on the business and commerce front, on the general employment front, more risk averse?

WW: It is culturally a more conservative society.

PL: Small ‘c’ conservative?

WW: Yes. And the reliance on government and central planning is quite strong so I think that's where the risk averse comes in.

PL: And the government’s a huge employer.

WW: It is. There's a huge part of the Singapore landscape, so you’re talking about Singapore Airlines, Singtel, all these large multinationals they are huge players in such a small economy.

PL: Singapore has long been a hub for international workers of course but immigration is a controversial issue. The Peoples’ Action Party who have been in power for over 40 years lost key seats by failing to respond to it and when they later unveiled a budget reducing dependence on foreign workers they won those seats back.

WW: So there is a tension between this policy of trying to promote local talent, which is home-grown in a particular environment, and the interaction that has with a messier international talent base. So whilst you want to promote your talent you also need to look at what the costs are in terms of cutting off some of that international messiness and diversity.

PL: Clarence Hoe Yin Wei is group director human resource group at International Enterprise Singapore. That's the government agency charged with driving Singapore's external economy.

Clarence Hoe: Our main aim is to help companies to go global, helping them to expand overseas and so as to help make Singapore a global trading hub.

PL: Okay so you’re obviously spending a lot of time talking to corporations at home and abroad. How would you characterise workplace culture in Singapore?

CH: Well workplace culture in Singapore is generally quite Asian culture. What I mean by that is there is a somewhat hierarchical respect and therefore there is positional authority and hence in the types of interaction or team dynamics you observe such culture. I guess when you compare the kind of expectations of dynamics you see a slight difference between those we see in Asia, those we see in Singapore and of course those we see in the Western hemisphere.

PL: So a conservative society with a big government presence but Singapore is in a period of rapid growth. Su-Yen Wong.

Su-Yen Wong: Businesses in Singapore are facing probably the biggest challenge which is around disruption and disruption comes in many forms. On the one hand you think about driverless vehicles but on the other end of the spectrum it’s also artificial intelligence taking over knowledge workers so there are now robots that can actually do the job of lawyers or accountants or even investment bankers. What used to take hours and hours could take minutes. So I think when you think about the talent pool the biggest challenge is really around how do we actually evolve the talent pool to be ready for these challenges. That's going to take a very, very dramatic shift in skillsets and mindsets to be able to make that happen.

PL: So on the one hand there are hierarchical, somewhat risk averse employers and labour practises that might seem outdated by contemporary western standards but on the other because Singapore is so small and compact it’s proving both ready and adept at being a very early adopter of the sort of tech we know will soon change the face of work and employment here in the UK. So what are the key recruitment challenges facing Singapore right now? Well, all our guests agreed with Foo Chek Wee’s analysis on that one.

FCW: The biggest change is really about finding, attracting, building and retaining quality workforce ((0:06:40?))

PL: So it’s a competitive market. On the talent front there's been something of a tension between home-grown talent and overseas talent. Thinking about the business you're in, that's a global business, a very competitive business, what are you looking for?

FCW: There are three things that we look for. First of all it has to be the technical competencies. Technical competencies in this part of the world it’s rather limiting, ecommerce business it’s at its infancy in this part of the world. Number two is finding people who are willing to go the extra 110%. It’s not easy. I think the last criteria that we look for when it comes to finding good talents to join our ventures, technical fit, cultural fit, the last piece is the X factor, the people who have this strong interest to make a big difference not only for their career but also for the company that they serve.

PL: And as you say you’re in a new sector, it’s particularly new where you are geographically, Singapore it’s been and possibly I think it would be fair to say still is a small ‘c’ conservative employer and career path employer, the sort of business you’re in doesn’t work like that at all does it? So in terms of cultural acceptance, getting high quality people to accept they’re coming into a sector that's by no means as predictable are you struggling with that?

FCW: Interestingly it’s like three years ago when we go about asking, “Hey would you be interested to join a start-up or would you be interested to join an ecommerce company who is going to change the way people shop?” it was tough but three years later we have the government strongly support this whole industry. In fact the funny thing is that when people talk about, “Hey I'm a data scientist, I'm an entrepreneur, I'm a co-founder of a company,” it becomes glamorous.

PL: Entrepreneurial spirit is on the rise in Singapore but the government still looms large. It means a great deal to Chek Wee that the government backs his industry for instance and when it comes to tackling thorny problems such as the aging workforce Singaporeans tend to look first and foremost to the government for answers.

FCW: And in Singapore I'm very fortunate to see or observe that our Singapore government has been really supportive in really recognising that this issue will have an implication on productivity and how can we continue to grow as fast.

PL: Su-Yen Wong has seen a similar move away from young people automatically following the career paths their parents took. S-YW: Ten years ago when I go on to university campuses and talk to students who were graduating everybody wanted to work for a big name multinational company and very few of them would have wanted to start their own business or go down an entrepreneurial route. But ten years on now it’s almost the reverse and everybody wants to start up the next start-up company, to become the next Unicorn and so forth. And the balance is somewhere in between. But the point being that I think if you look out into the future I think we’ll see a lot of people taking unconventional paths.

PL: As a result the definition of what constitutes talent is evolving.

FCW: Right now I guess we are in the time of rapid change, the global economy is now having new technology, sharing economy, the world is becoming flatter.

PL: Is there a sense now amongst employers there that they’re having to think perhaps more creatively about what talent will actually be in terms of needing perhaps more agile thinkers, less hierarchical thinkers?

FCW: Exactly if previously under the previous old economy being strong functionally is talent. Then now given the rapid change the ability to deal with it, the ability to think of creative ideas to stay relevant but also I guess the ability to think deep and analyse the building blocks of assumptions that are behind or previously the trend.

PL: That long-standing belief that strong educational achievers were your talent has given Singapore a highly qualified workforce but the sense that agility is what’s needed now is spreading.

S-YW: We’re all living longer so if somebody is living a hundred years which you understand babies that are being born today will live to 100 they could possibly be thinking about a 60 year career so think about what could happen in that time and clearly one’s going to have to go through multiple reinventions of oneself. So yes indeed I think we’ll be looking at talent that can reinvent itself, at organisations that can likewise reinvent themselves and obviously the challenge is how to make sure that those two synchronise together.

PL: And aging workforce, another parallel with the UK but in Singapore, unlike here, unemployment is very low with no shortage of good roles on offer. In the sense of shifting the culture away to perhaps a more alternative view with fresh thought as we’ve just been talking about, about what’s going to be needed in future for roles we haven’t even thought about, are you seeing organisations getting their arms around that sort of idea and preparing for it or are they still pretty much continuing in the way that they have done?

S-YW: Yes one on the things that we’re certainly observing is the need for much more international and global experience. So for us at the Human Capital Leadership Institute our mandate has always been about how do you develop the next generation of leaders for Asia and that means that whether somebody comes from Singapore, from Japan or from Thailand or Indonesia, how do you prepare somebody to take on a regional role or a global role? And fundamental to that, and all the research that we’ve done suggests that this is really important, is the opportunity to actually have had stints in environments that are foreign to one’s own.

PL: And is there a willingness amongst people at the beginning of their careers to do that?

S-YW: We do see an increase in interest from young talent in going out there and trying out new experiences. Is it enough? No I think a lot more needs to be done and judging by the feedback that we get from our clients I think they would wish that more Singaporeans and indeed Asians would venture out.

PL: Would it be fair to say there's a need for perhaps attitudinal change on the part of young workers coming in at the start of their careers now, because obviously you have very low unemployment, there hasn’t been much need for the brightest and the best to go overseas to find work if they didn’t choose to do so, and as I understand it a lot of them haven’t chosen to do that?

CH: I do have to agree in part there are probably I feel general difficulties in finding people to go overseas to be based overseas. So we have started to actually look at shorter term deployments, for example, going there for two months, coming back for one month.

PL: Here a stint working abroad is seen as a strong point and great for your resumé, not so in Singapore where it’s not been popular, partly due to a good choice of job roles at home but also due to the cultural importance attached to family ties. But that may be changing as another global trend starts to impact on Singaporeans.

S-YW: You know that search for purpose or meaning in one’s job is something that's on the uptrend and some of this obviously is also I think a bit of a counterbalance or a counterweight to some of the forces that are at play. So the more you see work becoming fragmented or disintermediated into projects or gig-economy, or taken over by robots and whatnot, I think the more there is an inherent human desire to ensure that there is, why are we living and why are we working, what’s the purpose of that?

PL: I think that must be true but in cultural terms that's perhaps a bigger shift for Singapore even than it is for us here in Britain in the sense that before when people thought about a good career there it would have been perhaps much more about hierarchical, staged progression from A to B and much longer times in roles, more that sort of way of working and it’s very different isn’t it?

S-YW: Absolutely. And that's probably the biggest shift when you think about the workforce as a whole. I think it becomes incumbent on organisations to think about how they’re going to evolve their talent. How do you help the people that you have adjust so that they can likewise evolve with your needs?

PL: Short-termism always pops up in conversations about the fundamental problems with British commerce and productivity but Singapore’s outlook is pretty well the polar opposite. There the government works to a 50 year labour force plan.

WW: In Singapore’s labour development plan they follow quite a traditional path of looking at growth sectors and then preparing the labour for those particular skills. What the report questions is whether having the traditional single-minded focus is enough to hedge against some of the more chaotic developments that they’re likely to face in the future.

PL: This is the nub of that isn’t it, agility?

WW: Agility and a celebration of greater diversity.

PL: A move to less traditional career paths, the rise of an entrepreneurial spirit, the search for meaning and purpose at work amongst millennials and the focus on finding and growing local talent, according the Su-Yen these seismic shifts in Singapore's working culture translate into a fascinating opportunity for HR.

S-YW: I suppose we would see organisations have a much more flexible approach to hiring and developing talent. So by that I mean that it’s pretty common for many organisations to sort of say, “Well I have a role that I need to fill and I want somebody who looks exactly with these parameters, who have done exactly this job before and can do this job right away.” But I think moving forward the types of jobs that we’ll be thinking of in future might require a bit more of a flexible skillset. So it’s really looking at how do you hire and develop for potential.

PL: My thanks to Foo Chek Wee, Clarence Ho Yin Wei and Su-Yen Wong. And now that the CIPD is established in Asia we’ll be dropping in from time to time to see how the HR landscape is evolving. Meanwhile next month trade unions. With ongoing industrial action by doctors, rail, tube and postal workers, to name just a few, why are we seeing such troubled labour relations this year and what can you do to avoid them in your own organisation? Join me then.

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