Nov 14, 2008


Desperately seeking a SAFE HAVEN

More executives based in US, Europe seeking bank jobs in Singapore

By Radha Basu & Cassandra Chew

WHEN trader Ardi Suroso, 26, was given the pink slip at his New York bank last week, he began calling recruiters halfway across the world - in Singapore.

And when analyst Jessica Tan, 27, was told she was being let go by her employer - an American investment bank - late last month, the Hong Kong-based Singaporean did the same thing.

Both have joined the long line of out-of-work bank executives, dubbed 'banker refugees', hoping to give their sagging careers a new lease of life here.

Enquiries from jittery overseas-based bank executives who wish to relocate to Singapore have reached record highs, according to checks with a dozen recruiters here.

Some, like Robert Walters, are reporting 500 to 700 enquiries a week, up from 150 to 200 weekly a year ago. Its front-office banking division alone has seen a fourfold rise in applications from executives based in the United States or Europe, to about 200 a week now.

In the face of soaring unemployment and a shrinking economy elsewhere, Singapore is seen as a relatively 'safer haven', say recruiters and job seekers alike.

'America is in decline. The future is clearly in Asia,' Mr Suroso, an Indonesian who studied here, told The Straits Times over the phone from New York.

Mr Gary Lai, a front-office banking manager at Robert Walters, said just over half the resumes he received from the US and Western Europe are from Asian employees looking to 'return to their roots'.

The rest come from Europe- and America-born bank employees looking to relocate. Enquiries from Americans, in particular, have surged - from single-digit levels a year ago to about 40 a week now.

These are mostly from freshly laid-off Americans in their early 40s, who held senior positions in trading and investment banking. They are usually married with children and are even willing to consider pay cuts of up to 25 per cent, said Mr Lai. Most of them have never worked overseas before.

Recruitment firm Amrop Hever has also seen a 20 per cent increase in enquiries from bank employees in the US and Europe, to about 200 a week now, for senior positions here.

'We are getting enquiries from people who would not normally write in, but wait for phone calls from headhunters,' said the firm's director, Mr Bob Gattie.

Bank executives agree.

Ms Tan said: 'A year ago, we could easily land a few interview offers every week, even if we weren't looking to switch.'

Despite being on the lookout for jobs since the financial meltdown started in September, she has secured only two interviews here so far.

For other Asians, heading East is no longer a matter of family or cultural familiarity but a hard-nosed career calculation.

When fixed-income executive Gina Cheung's New York bank began laying off staff last month, the 26-year-old grabbed a job offer in Singapore.

The London-educated Hong Kong national was not on the list of those being laid off - yet - but she decided not to take any chances.

'As someone who did not grow up in the US, it will be harder for me to compete with people who did,' said Ms Cheung, a London School of Economics graduate who moved to New York in 2006 after working for a British bank in London for 18 months.

Despite getting at least one offer to return to London, Ms Cheung has decided to wait out the turmoil here.

'The opportunities for me are greater in Singapore,' she said. Despite a 10 per cent pay cut, she reckoned she will 'make more money' here, because of lower taxes here than in New York or London.

Similarly, droves of bank employees in New York, London and Hong Kong, fearing for their jobs, are eyeing Singapore as the last safe haven.

The latest Contact Singapore finance career fair held last month in New York, which is open to anyone interested in working in Singapore, was packed to the gills, with 'standing room only' for participants.

As a result, former Lehman Brothers employee Ravi Sharma, 35, who is based here, said that although Singapore is possibly the 'safest haven for bank deposits', job security here is now 'fast declining'.

'With Western talent hoping to move here, the competition can only intensify,' he said.

The week after Lehman filed for bankruptcy on Sept 16, he snagged interviews with three major banks from Britain, US and Australia.

'But within days, all three banks were themselves in trouble and I never heard back from them again.

'Whatever your field, if you are in a bank, job security has changed forever.'

That sentiment is echoed by financial services recruiters here, despite the fact that their phones are now ringing off the hook. They say all the international interest is unlikely to translate into actual relocation, with banks here starting to trim fat too.

Most recruiting companies polled by The Straits Times have managed to place and move only a couple of people each in the past couple of months.

'Employers here have a preference for candidates with experience within Asia-Pacific,' said consulting manager of BTI Consultants Jasmine Tan.

That is because 'locals may still know local fiscal regulations best', said Mr Tim Hird, managing director of Robert Half.

But top-notch professionals from overseas looking to move here will continue to be welcome, said country manager Tay Kok Choon from job portal

'The safest haven is ultimately your ability.'

[email protected]

[email protected]

The names of all bank employees in this story have been changed at their request.