For 26-year-old Ling Qing, life in Singapore is tougher than it was in her native Fujian province. At home, she did admin work at a courier company. In Singapore, she clocks in overtime as a waitress in a hotel restaurant.
“At home, I worked in the office and used the computer every day,” she said. “Here, it’s hectic and fast-paced.”
Ling is one of thousands of Chinese nationals who have made Singapore their home. Although official statistics on the number of Chinese working in Singapore aren’t divulged, it is almost impossible for a visitor to the island-state to fail to come into contact with Chinese nationals. They occupy jobs across the occupational spectrum, from hotel waitresses to staffing research labs.
Chinese are usually compensated well for moving to Singapore. Ling, for example, now earns S$1,300 a month (US$940), about three times the amount she used to get in Fujian. “The difference in salary is very big,” she said.
Singapore and China naturally complement each other when it comes to labor issues. The city-state has been growing its workforce and population through immigration. Indeed, of the more than 236,000 new jobs created in Singapore in 2007, two-thirds were filled by foreigners. Government planners say the country’s population could rise by 44%, hitting 6.5 million people, in the next 40-50 years. China, on the other hand, has labor to spare. Its population is also diverse enough to supply Singapore with the different skills – be they menial or sophisticated – it needs.
At the high end of the labor value chain is Contact Singapore, an organization tasked with enticing high-value foreigners to move to Singapore. Traditionally, it has targeted professionals in the US, Europe and other developed markets. More recently, however, China has become an important market for them.
“China has been attracting a lot of multinational corporations, foreign investment. What does that mean for China? International exposure. With that kind of international exposure, it’s a very good market for Singapore,” said Chia Choong Yeen, one of Contact Singapore’s two China area directors.
Chia says her organization, which is overseen by the Singapore Economic Development Board and Ministry of Manpower, looks to China for its electronics engineering talent. China is also seen as a source for biomedical researchers and interactive digital media personnel, among others.
Contact Singapore provides information through its website and events it organizes, focusing on China’s top universities. One of their key events is a study trip to Singapore for 30 Chinese MBA students. Over a five-day period, the students are introduced to potential employers like Temasek Holdings or the Monetary Authority of Singapore. Students and employers get to know one another, hopefully resulting in successful job placements and new connections between Singaporean companies and Chinese universities.
“One of the MBA students had this opportunity to work for a Singapore company [that was recruiting through its China office]. He told us that because of his [study trip] experience in Singapore, he was able to outperform his peers during the interview. He got the job, and he’s moving to Singapore in June,” Chia said.
Contact Singapore is not the only conduit for Chinese professionals to move to the island-state. Singaporean universities and government agencies offer scholarships to attract Chinese students.
One such student is Shanghainese Zhao Bing, who first went to Singapore about six years ago on an environmental science scholarship from the National University of Singapore. He studied and worked there for six years before leaving to do an MBA at the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Shanghai. Zhao’s goal now is to break into China’s private equity scene, and he says his Singapore experience was useful.
“Singapore is a trustworthy ‘brand’ in China. It will give you more opportunities in the job market,” he said. “Actually, I came up with my career goal in Singapore, after talking and meeting with friends, classmates and colleagues.”
Horses for courses
While Chinese workers generally fit Singapore’s needs, there are some mismatches. Chia says Singaporean employers are often concerned about Chinese graduates’ lack of fluency in English, despite their often stellar technical skills. Conversely, some Chinese job-seekers say Singapore’s environment can be limiting.
“Shanghai has growth potential – like in the stock market, high uncertainty means [potentially] high value.” Zhao explained. “You can do a lot of things in Shanghai that you can’t in Singapore, like exploring the venture capital and private equity fields.”
This sentiment isn’t limited to the white-collar workers Contact Singapore is focused on. Ling, for example, plans to make enough money waitressing to start her own business back home in China.
“I plan to earn a bit more money and then go home to have my own business – it’s better. Working for people is temporary, it can’t be long-term. [Work] is not that great here, it’s tough, very tough,” she said.