Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat at the Asian Financial Leaders Programme Graduation Dinner on 24 October 2023.
Prof Arnoud De Meyer
Chairman, Human Capital Leadership Institute (HCLI)
Ms Doris Sohmen-Pao
Prof Lim Sun Sun
Ladies and gentlemen,
A very good evening. My heartiest congratulations to our graduates of the Asian Financial Leaders Programme (or AFLP).
There are five cohorts graduating today. While your programme may have been disrupted by COVID, the upside is that you get an upsized celebration!
So make the best use of this wonderful opportunity to network and get to know one another better.
The AFLP was established in 2015 as a strategic initiative of the MAS, to develop top talent in the financial sector to assume regional and global leadership positions in the various financial institutions.
Why the need for this? Because financial services is a key sector of Singapore economy, contributing around 14% GDP, employing nearly 190,000 workers, and offering good jobs.
It is also a highly competitive and fluid sector. What distinguishes one financial centre from another is the depth of its talent pool and ecosystem, as well as the quality of its regulations.
At the same time, the financial sector can be volatile – within the last few decades, we went through several financial crises.
With the financial sector being such a substantial part of the Singapore economy, it is critical that we invest in developing our talent; to ensure that our policies and regulations are responsive and innovative; and build a core team that has the right values, competencies and strategic grasp of issues.
In today’s more volatile and uncertain world, the premium on trust and good leadership has grown.
While inflation appears to be slowly coming under control, the underpinning geopolitical risks have grown.
Beyond the US-China strategic competition, we are also contending with unrest and war in different parts of the world – Ukraine, and now Israel and Gaza.
Countries and companies are rightly seeking to “de-risk” and diversify their supply chains and operations.
In the immediate term, this has benefited safe and trusted nodes like Singapore.
However, the longer-term worry is that rising protectionism could result in a fragmented and decoupled global economy, which does not bode well for a small and open economy like ours.
We are also confronting the key challenges of climate change and the technology revolution.
There are numerous data points that underscore the urgency of the climate challenge – we are seeing rising sea levels and the warmest years on record.
Yet the world is hardly investing enough to enable the global transition to net-zero by 2050. It is difficult to galvanise leadership attention and mobilise collective action.
On the technology side, while there is optimism about the new possibilities it can unlock, technology’s disruptive nature has also brought anxiety.
Technology is forcing the pace of economic and industrial transformation. Jobs are being reshaped, and may even disappear. Workers will need to retrain and reskill in order to remain relevant.
These anxieties can end up being misdirected. It is easier to blame foreigners for taking over jobs, than to confront the difficult task of transformation and reskilling. We have seen this happen in more than a few countries.
Moreover, with technology being viewed as a source of competitive advantage, some countries have been framing technology through a national security lens to curb collaboration.
In short, now more than ever, countries and organisations need good leadership and trust to navigate choppier waters.
At the same time, every challenge is also an opportunity. Can our financial sector help galvanise action to realise the transformations that are needed to overcome these challenges?
For example, to tackle climate change, we will need to facilitate access to capital, to invest in green and transition projects.
We want to scale up blended finance, to crowd in more private capital into key projects such as energy transition infrastructure and nature-based solutions in emerging markets.
It is through such projects that we can facilitate the major transformations across economies, societies and infrastructure.
On the technology front, we could be seeing fundamental changes to the way the financial system functions.
In the first digitalisation leap, we harnessed technology to improve access and inclusion for emerging economies, businesses and individuals.
In the current leap, we are making financial transactions and the banking sector as a whole, even more efficient and seamless, through technologies such as distributed ledgers, Generative AI, and the tokenisation of financial and real economy assets.
To realise the upside returns from the opportunities, and manage the downside risks, good leadership for the financial sector is critical.
And the most critical quality of good leadership is trustworthiness. Trust is the currency of finance. We need to maintain trusted systems and organisations, manned by officers of integrity.
The role of leaders in building, maintaining, and renewing trust cannot be stated enough.
In navigating a more uncertain world, we also seek leaders who can understand, and decisively respond to new risks, challenges, and opportunities.
They must then have the skills, savvy, and charisma to lead their organisations and workforces through the necessary transformation, while holding firmly onto core values like trust and integrity.
And because there are common challenges across the sectors, leaders must be able to drive collaboration across organisations and institutions to reap synergies and strengthen the ecosystem as a whole.
Across the board, we see that industries and companies that have exceeded expectations are led by leaders who have a keen sense of opportunities, the ability to formulate strategies, and the capacity to build deep capabilities to deliver results.
This is why we started the AFLP, as a flagship programme to prepare Singaporean leaders for regional and global leadership positions.
For one, we see that financial sector jobs are becoming more international facing. The estimate is that close to half of these jobs are primarily international in nature.
This means that the competition for these leadership jobs is global. It is therefore critical that we equip Singaporean talent with the necessary capabilities and skills to succeed.
This is in line with our consistent commitment to human resource development. With no natural resources to count on, we always do our best to nurture and enable every Singaporean to maximise their potential.
There are very encouraging signs of this. MAS estimates that the number of Singaporeans taking up senior roles in the financial sector has more than doubled since 2016, in line with the growth of the sector.
One example is Dennis Tan, the CEO of Prudential Singapore. Dennis graduated from the AFLP in 2017 when he was Head of Consumer Financial Services at OCBC.
The AFLP enabled Dennis to broaden his horizons and expand his network, which were valuable in advancing his career and leadership journey.
In fact, after becoming CEO, Dennis was also appointed Managing Director of the Strategic Business Group covering Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. He is part of Prudential’s Group Executive Committee at the global level.
When capable Singaporeans like Dennis win their seat at the table, it serves as inspiration and encouragement to others.
More importantly, it grows our collective capacity to build a diverse workforce, where we draw in the best talent from all over the world to contribute and grow the sector together.
I am glad that the AFLP provides a comprehensive experience to enable participants to build the necessary capabilities. Besides offering global perspectives across five countries, it also offers interactions with policymakers, academics, captains of industry, while helping participants sharpen their leadership skills.
The leadership journey
Today, we mark the milestone of graduation. But the leadership journey is a marathon, and the AFLP is merely the basic fitness training for you to start right.
What should you pay attention to as you head back into your workplaces? What else can you do? Let me offer two suggestions:
First – take charge of your growth, by owning your career and leadership journey.
Many financial institutions use Singapore as a base for the region, so to take on a leadership role here, it is crucial to build up regional and international experience. In fact, local banks in Singapore have grown their regional and global footprint.
How do you do so? First and foremost, be prepared to take on overseas postings.
Working in a different context with a different set of stakeholders will require us to build up cross-cultural competencies and the muscle to mobilise diverse stakeholders.
But this requires us to uproot ourselves and even our families from a comfortable and known environment, and venture somewhere new.
Interestingly, research by the Centre for Creative Leadership showed that taking on HQ stints gives outsized influence and brings advancement opportunities.
So If you are offered the opportunity to take on an overseas or HQ posting – go for it! It will be good for both your career and personal growth.
MAS’ International Postings Programme is available to help financial institutions defray the costs of such postings. Since 2016, nearly 180 Singaporeans have been supported on such postings.
The issue of developing leaders for our corporate sector, beyond finance, is one that we are working on.
Last year, I worked with the Singapore Business Federation to convene an Alliance for Action for business leadership development. The team released its findings and recommendations earlier this year, and emphasised the importance of building leadership muscles through overseas and cross-functional postings.
By widening our skillsets and broadening our exposure, we grow our competence and confidence in taking on regional and global leadership roles.
So this is the first point – we must take charge of our own growth and development.
Second – beyond personal growth, we must grow with others, and help others grow. I therefore encourage you to fully tap on and contribute to the various networks that you are part of.
First and foremost, there are more than 300 leaders who have come through the AFLP over the years.
I am glad to hear that there are healthy and sustained interactions, within as well as across cohorts. This alumni network is important to enable you to support one another.
Singaporean graduates from the AFLP are invited to join the MAS’ Singapore Financial Leaders Network (or SFLN) to network and provide peer support to other leaders within the financial sector.
This initiative began around 10 years ago, during my first term as MAS Board member. Along the way, I have personally engaged with SFLN members and always found them thoughtful.
The SFLN is a good example of how it is possible to compete in the business, yet at the same time, collaborate and support one another as a community.
Given the many shared challenges that the financial sector faces, there is plenty of room to collaborate with one another, share good practices, and pursue opportunities at scale.
Leaders play an important role in building such positive norms and behaviours.
I am therefore glad that many of the SFLN members have also signed on to EDB’s Singapore Leaders Network, which is run by HCLI and enables financial sector leaders to network with peers from outside the financial sector.
It is useful to be among this community of leaders, so that we can support, grow, and thrive with one another.
Finally, we must also pay attention to growing and nurturing the next generation of leaders.
Developing talent is a leadership responsibility; I am certain that in our own career journeys, we would have benefitted from a mentor or a boss who went the extra mile.
So I hope that you will be generous in paying it forward, by nurturing the young talent in your companies, and encouraging them to step out of comfort zone.
This way, we can build a sustainable community of leaders.
In closing, let me once again warmly congratulate all of you for achieving this milestone of graduating from the Asian Financial Leaders Programme.
The trends and circumstances of our world today means that the knowledge and skills you have picked up during the Programme will be very salient.
A more uncertain and volatile world calls for good leadership and building trust.
With our efforts to develop talent for the financial sector over the past decade, we have been able to seize opportunities and deepen the sector, which in turn create more good jobs.
Let us continue to build on this good work on this virtuous cycle, to strengthen our financial sector, deepen our local bench strength, and offer good leadership that serves not just Singapore, but the region and the world.
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