Foreign talent are like infant trees

“First, Singapore discovered that some so-called foreign talent was not really very talented. Second, there was the discovery that, in some cases, when a foreign chief executive officer was hired, he or she discriminated against Singaporeans when hiring staff.”Tommy Koh

Ngiam Tong Dow: Foreign talent are like infant trees – they collapse at the first sight of a storm. We have to grow our own timber even though it may take longer

Source: The Straits Times  June 19, 2010

‘When I was at DBS, our colleagues and I believed in growing our own timber,’ Mr Ngiam, 73, told The Straits Times yesterday. ‘Foreign talent are like infant trees – they collapse at the first sight of a storm. We have to grow our own timber even though it may take longer.’ Mr Ngiam said a former economic adviser to Singapore, the late Dutch economist Albert Winsemius, once told him, in effect: You can teach a person how to repair or drive a car, but the person has to drive the car himself. In the same way, while Singapore companies may hire foreigners for technical jobs, Singaporeans should, as far as possible, run the businesses as CEOs, Mr Ngiam said.


DBS chief reignites debate on foreign talent

NEWLY installed DBS Group Holdingschairman Peter Seah has reignited a long-simmering debate on the use of foreign talent for top posts at leading Singapore companies.

Some say the success of companies like Keppel and Sembcorp, helmed by home-grown talent, proves that Singaporeans have what it takes to lead.

But others point out that an international hub like Singapore must look beyond its shores for the best talent for its rapidly globalising companies.

In his first interview as chairman, Mr Seah said that in a choice between a Singaporean and a foreigner for the post of chief executive, where both have the same qualifications, the job should go to the local.

This has nothing to do with nationality, he said, as there are ‘natural advantages for Singaporeans in terms of relationships with the business community, people, and with the Government’.

But he also emphasised that current DBS chief executive Piyush Gupta, born in India and a newly minted Singapore citizen, provides clear leadership.

Mr Gupta has lived and worked in Asia for many years and hence ‘understands the culture, the way business is done’.

DBS has not had a home-grown CEO since 1998, when American John Olds succeeded former civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow, who also relinquished his chairmanship.

Mr Seah, 63, also holds some significant government appointments. He is a member of the Temasek Advisory Panel and serves on the board of the Government of Singapore Investment Corp.
Bankers and other corporate observers contacted by The Straits Times yesterday noted that companies such as Keppel Corp, Singapore Airlines and Sembcorp Industries have done well under the charge of home-grown CEOs.

Surely, they argued, Singaporeans can take on more leadership posts.

‘When I was at DBS, our colleagues and I believed in growing our own timber,’ Mr Ngiam, 73, told The Straits Times yesterday. ‘Foreign talent are like infant trees – they collapse at the first sight of a storm. We have to grow our own timber even though it may take longer.’

Mr Ngiam said a former economic adviser to Singapore, the late Dutch economist Albert Winsemius, once told him, in effect: You can teach a person how to repair or drive a car, but the person has to drive the car himself.
In the same way, while Singapore companies may hire foreigners for technical jobs, Singaporeans should, as far as possible, run the businesses as CEOs, Mr Ngiam said.

However, Singapore International Chamber of Commerce chief executive Phillip Overmyer disagreed.
‘Today in Singapore, because it’s such an international location, you should be looking for the best skills and best characteristics, and not focus on the best passport they hold,’ he said.

‘I personally know many foreigners who stick to Singapore companies for a long time.
‘What we’re seeing now is that the difference between the Singaporean and foreigner is starting to blur. Good companies are looking at the person with the best collective skills.’
Foreign talent was a hot topic in the late 1990s, the time Singapore’s financial sector was liberalised.

In 1998, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong – then Deputy Prime Minister – said in a speech that local banks should attract the best professionals to their management teams, not just Singaporeans, but talent from the region and around the world.

‘The more cosmopolitan and less parochial our approach, the more successful our banks will be,’ said Mr Lee.
But as foreign CEOs streamed into Singapore, questions soon surfaced as to whether there was a flaw in the hunt for foreign talent.

Eyebrows were raised when some foreign bosses made sooner-than-expected departures.
Some of those interviewed yesterday highlighted the fact that having foreign CEOs has paid off for some Singapore companies.

OCBC Bank, for one, has been transformed into one of the best retail banks here after American David Conner, who has spent a significant part of his banking career in Asia, assumed the CEO seat in 2002.

Foreign CEOs have also led telecommunications companies like M1 and StarHub with success, they pointed out. The issue is not simple, they said, as there is often a dearth of suitable local talent.

Both Mr Conner and Mr Gupta’s appointments came after extensive five-month searches.
Banking industry veteran Wee Cho Yaw, chairman of United Overseas Bank (UOB), alluded to this earlier this month.

He was quoted as saying that the next UOB chairman should ideally be a Singaporean, given that it is a local bank. ‘It would be ideal to get a Singaporean to be CEO, to be chairman. Unless you cannot find one, then we have no choice but to go into the region,’ he said.

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