'Poor technology and expats get all the promotions': What bugs bankers in Hong Kong and Singapore

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Mediocre expats and terrible tech: why bankers in Asia dislike their jobs

Banks may be marketing themselves as tech-focused and egalitarian, but their employees in Asia don’t seem to be buying into the hype.

As we reported previously, Hong Kong and Singapore finance professionals who took part in a recent eFinancialCareers survey are less satisfied with their lives than their counterparts in New York, London and Continental Europe are. 

What’s bugging them? In the workplace at least, it’s not what you might expect. When asked to comment on why they are (or aren't) feeling fulfilled at work, some Asia-based respondents did mention predictable banker gripes such as bad bonuses, chronic stress and long working hours. More surprisingly, several others complained that their bank still has antiquated IT, despite the billions of dollars being poured into technology projects in the finance sector. 

One Hong Kong-based survey respondent – who works in prime brokerage, a tech-dependent function – complains of “poor IT infrastructure” at his firm. Similarly, a futures salesperson says senior management lack “vision” around technology strategy and are too focused on processes at the expense of taking an “entrepreneurial” approach.

“It is mentally exhausting to move things. The tech industry is moving at such a fast pace and banking still sticks to age-old techniques,” says a banker in Singapore who participated in our survey of 1,650 finance professionals globally. Another respondent in the Republic says his bank is “slow” to upgrade its systems.

While these comments are, of course, anecdotal they do reflect wider fears in the industry. Over the past year, banks in Singapore and Hong Kong have lost a growing number of employees – both technologists and bankers – to the likes of Alibaba, Amazon, Google, and Grab. In-house recruiters at banks in both cities have told us that they are struggling to recruit and retain people in the face of competition from tech firms. This is despite the increased use of emerging tech like machine learning at banks.

It’s not just about tech, though. Some financial professionals in Singapore and Hong Kong are also grumbling about being shut out of promotions and projects because they perceive that management unfairly favours another group of employees – expatriates from Western countries and South Asia, in particular. A Hong Kong-based research analyst says her bank “protects and embraces too many mediocre white men”, for example.

A banker in Singapore cites a “lack of opportunity offered to local employees”. “Foreign companies in Singapore tend to side with the foreigners, and locals have a hard time trying to achieve a similar standing as people who were transferred from headquarters or other branches,” he adds.

Another banker in the city state mentions “tribalism and favouritism, especially to non-Singaporeans”, while a third banker says there is “nepotism and cronyism” in his workplace, which is dominated by overseas nationals.

Such remarks don’t necessarily reflect the thoughts of the majority of Singaporean citizens working in finance. But they do suggest some degree of resentment that the top ranks in banking are perceived to be dominated by expatriates, despite recent government efforts (beginning with the Fair Consideration Framework in 2013) to encourage banks to promote more local staff.

Have a confidential story, tip, or comment you’d like to share? Contact: smortlock@efinancialcareers.com

Image credit: kieferpix, Getty

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