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Who's afraid of the Lion City?

Published on Friday, 15 Jul 2011
Illustration: Bay Leung
Guy Day

The perennial rivalry between Hong Kong and Singapore acts as a spur and immediate point of reference for both cities. It extends, of course, from economic competition to governance, social and lifestyle issues, and a recent manifestation is found in a spot survey of banking and finance professionals.

The results show that job candidates in Hong Kong increasingly mention Singapore as the preferred destination for their next career move.

In a survey by recruitment firm Ambition, replies from more than 250 respondents typically mentioned pollution as well as cost and size of accommodation among their reasons, not just the usual motivators such as remuneration and assumed promotion prospects.

This feedback bears out other recent studies on the same theme. In general, it shows that finance professionals in Asia, with fewer concerns now about finding a job, are focusing more on work-life balance, living environment and children's school places.

"The air pollution in Hong Kong is still a big factor, especially for people with families," says Guy Day, Singapore-based chief executive of Ambition, which specialises in the banking and finance sector. "Rentals have gone up in both places, but you get more bang for your buck in Singapore and, if buying, can probably get double the space for the same money."

He is quick to note that wider initiatives at government or corporate level also influence people's thinking and the views expressed. For example, tax and other incentives to attract back-office banking operations and regional headquarters to Singapore are paying off. This certainly creates jobs but most new openings, except at senior levels, are basically for Singaporeans.

"The job seeker's category dictates what is possible," Day says. "It is unusual for companies to shift more than a couple of expats; they will populate most other positions with locals. Based on the records of people we place, if you're in Hong Kong, it's easier to secure a job there."

Peter Wong, executive director of the Lion Rock Institute, a leading independent think tank in Hong Kong, is calm about survey results hinting at dissatisfaction and possible exodus.

"I don't take too much notice if people in finance say they want to go somewhere else," he says. "At the end of the day, they all want to find the place that is most prosperous and where they can make most money. They can vote with their feet and move to Singapore if they want to, but in many cases, they get paid more here."

Wong does not underplay the pressing need for Hong Kong to address issues such as air pollution to maintain its competitive edge as a business centre. But he says that, in setting their own career goals, individuals have to realise that certain things cannot change overnight. So if you live next door to "the world's factory", there are enormous economic opportunities but also less desirable aspects - such as poor air quality - that come as a tradeoff.

"People know what is best for themselves and make their decisions accordingly," Wong says. "I am sure, though, that a significant number of finance people will be staying stay in Hong Kong."

Singapore swings

  • Its air is cleaner than HK's
  • Its homes have more living space for roughly the same cost of a Hong Kong flat
  • It offers competitive tax and other incentives
  • Has more international school places for expatriates' kids

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