By Gemma Keogh-Peters

Nothing happens in Singapore without a plan. At least that’s how things would appear. Planned growth began in the 1800’s when Sir Stamford Raffles first created the Raffles Town Plan intended to ensure that the physical growth of the city followed an orderly pattern. And if, like for most foreigners, your first view of the jewel of Asia is from the window of an aeroplane, you’d most likely agree that the island city-state looks like one of the most orderly cities in the world.

The view, however, changes once you enter the Central Business District. The streets in Singapore’s business hub are an oddly chaotic criss-cross of roads that meet at seemingly ad-hoc angles and are all too often, too narrow for the traffic that flows through them. This illustrates the power of British city-planning.

It took less than a decade for the city to outgrow the limits of the Raffles Town Plan and a sort of urban sprawl to develop, upon which is built the contradictorily organic versus organised pattern of the business district of Singapore — where modern skyscrapers intermingle with two-storey shophouses; remnants of warehouses from the 1800’s that now house cafes, restaurants and all manner of eateries for the variety of food that Singapore is also famous for.

This contradiction of Singapore’s business district seems to be echoed in the nation’s long term business plans as well. During his 2016 Committee of Supply speech the Minister of Manpower, Lim Swee Say, laid out the challenges facing Singapore’s business growth for the coming years. The central conundrum facing Singapore is one that many developed nations face today — how does one maintain a strong core of local workers, yet keep the competitive edge that often requires the hiring of foreign talent?

Dissatisfaction over the number of foreigners has mounted amongst Singaporeans and the government has been taking pains to keep a healthy balance between bringing in much needed expertise and experience with ensuring that jobs go to Singaporeans first, where possible.

In order to ensure that jobs remain available to Singaporeans the government has instituted a maximum of a 2:1 ratio of locals to foreign workers although this number varies across industries. While that means that Singapore could potentially accommodate a third of its workforce as foreign, the actual number is closer to 21% of the total workforce, as this ratio is enforced on a per company level rather than a per capita level.

Over the next five years, the Minister expects to see a drop in the growth of the labour force, from 55,000 per year to a low of 20,000 new jobs per year by 2020. The pressure is then on for businesses to make operations leaner, whilst increasing productivity — which so far has remained stagnant — in order to keep Singapore competitive. It also means that the island nation will be issuing fewer employment passes in the years to come.

This drop in the number of employment passes is a concern, especially to foreign businesses and multinational companies looking to set up in Singapore. While companies do set up business operations elsewhere in the APAC region, Singapore is usually the location of choice when it comes to locating a regional headquarters.

Having a regional headquarters in Singapore while maintaining operations elsewhere means requiring staff with experience and expertise in running multicultural operations — a skillset local Singaporeans seem short of.

It is not that Singaporeans are incapable of working in a multicultural environment. It is simply a matter of geography. It is almost ironic that the Singaporeans who would have this skillset are not in the country. Or it would be ironic, if it didn’t make complete sense. Learning to work with other cultures requires one to, surprise surprise, work with other cultures ― something that locals don’t always value as crucial to their career development.

Headquartering in Singapore thus brings up some unique challenges. Keeping headcount lean while bringing in the appropriate expertise can prove quite problematic, and this often leaves large foreign companies in a quandary over how to proceed. Though the Ministry of Manpower requires that companies post up positions on a government Jobs Bank this by no means provides a good way for foreign companies to find suitable Singaporean talent to fill those positions. This goes doubly so for new set ups.

What then? Singapore needs new businesses to come into the country to stimulate its economy. And while foreign companies see Singapore as an ideal location to set up base, getting employment passes for the required staff can prove too restrictive to allow a company to hit the ground running. While many businesses are urging the Singapore government to relax its stance on employment passes as a solution to this problem there is an alternative.

The biggest issue for multinational companies setting up an office in Singapore is finding local talent. Yet companies have to do this without extensive knowledge of the local manpower market.

Recruiters could do much more to fill the gap between the interests of foreign companies and the Singapore government by sourcing for suitable talent. Jobs Bank may be a resource, but like any jobs board it will not have any insight on passive candidates who may be looking for the very opportunities presented by a new foreign multinational setup — be they local Singaporeans with the expertise who are looking for fresh opportunities, or Singaporeans based overseas who may be attracted by a suitable opportunity back home. Recruiters could form that crucial link between need and opportunity. Between business’ needs and the government’s needs.

When the Singapore government took urban planning to heart in the 1950s the structured metropolis that is Singapore really began to take shape. I think ever since then the expectation is for the Singapore government to shape every aspect of the nation. But as the history of its Central Business District shows, business in Singapore does not grow solely along the guidelines set out on paper — it craves its own path within them.