Thinking of expanding into Singapore’s growing tech hub? Here are 5 things you should know

By Curtis Richens. Published at Jun 18, 2019, in Features

This time 3 years ago, I was waiting for my bags to come through the luggage carousel at Singapore’s Changi airport. As the conveyor belt rotated, my excitement grew – I was about to set up Halcyon Knights’ Asian HQ writes Curtis Richens, Director of Asia at Halcyon Knights.

The prospect of an international arm was somewhat daunting, but I knew I wasn’t alone in this venture. According to Singapore’s Economic Development Board (EDB), 80 out of the world’s top 100 tech firms have operations in the city, with investments ever-increasing.

There were a lot of learning curves along the way, but since my solo escapade in June 2016, our Singapore branch has grown to a team of seven working with over 80 clients, representing a strong portion our 50-staff team working throughout the APAC region.

Knowing there will be many others who find themselves standing at that same luggage carousel in the not-too-distant future, I wanted to share what I’ve learnt about setting up shop in this beautiful city.

Why Singapore?

In the 2017 Bloomberg Innovation Index, Singapore ranked number 6 in the world for innovation, just ahead of Japan and the US, with China comparing number 21. It’s also been named the most liveable city for Asian expats, attracting unparalleled diversity of talent from across the APAC region, and is the gateway to the broader and highly attractive Asian market.

For those thinking of Singapore as a potential market, here are a few considerations that will help bridge those first stumbling blocks:

Establish a formal business entity

Setting up a company in a new country is always a minefield of unfamiliar regulations. In Singapore, establishing a certified business entity needs to be one of your first steps, along with setting up a local bank account. A business entity certification gives you a legal identity, enables you to pay tax on earnings, and most importantly, demonstrates your commitment to the local economy - something the government is very keen to see.

Fair warning: At worst this process can take months, and there are stringent requirements to setup a local bank account, so make sure you’re organised and prepared to wait. It also involves appointing a local director, which – although providing a great opportunity to get to know the local talent pool – can take some time to navigate in a new recruitment market.

Local vs Expat talent ratios

As is the case in many countries, organisations in Singapore must have a certain percentage of local employees, or at least be able to demonstrate their efforts to find local talent before hiring ex-pats – a similar policy to our own sponsored work visas down under.

The country’s workplace regulators, the Ministry of Manpower (MoM), can enforce a freeze on hiring international talent if they deem the organisation to have an overwhelming number of foreign staff members. So, while bringing over talent from your company’s home base is useful and common, make sure you’re exploring the local talent pool first when hiring for any new roles. A local recruitment partner can be a good pathway to this talent.

Employment passes

On that note, foreign workers need to apply for an MoM approved employment pass before they can legally work in Singapore. The powers that be determine whether or not your foreign talent is eligible for the position based on their experience and education – for example, does the applicant have a qualification from an accredited institution?

From my experience, this process presents as less of an issue within the tech sector, but can still take 3 – 4 weeks before you have an outcome on your application.

Create the right environment

Like Australia, Singapore boasts an increasingly high demand for skilled tech workers. There is growing competition among tech firms to create a progressive work environment that recruits and retains the best employees. You need to make local talent feel comfortable and empowered, not like they are watching the clock or just cogs in the wheel, as can be typical of the more old-school practices here.

Hot tip: offering benefits like good healthcare and a phone plan go a long way with Singapore’s talent pool – we’ve found that these are actually the most common questions candidates have when meeting new companies.

Good hires come in different forms

Foreign entrants often look for stereotypical character traits to fulfil roles as they would in their home country, but be careful - these stereotypes do not always hold true when applied in a different context. For example, sales people in Singapore are more reserved and less extroverted than the standard idea of a sales person in Australia.

Local professionals have developed their skills to suit their local market, and us overseas entrants need to trust that they know the market better than we do, despite perhaps not fitting our pre-conceived perceptions.

Make 98% sure that you’re ready
I say 98% because there are miraculous exceptions to this rule, where gut-feeling trumps readiness and taking a risk is worth it. But your leap of faith needs to be an educated one, with the capital, expertise and commitment to make it work.

By the time I set out to begin our Asian arm, Halcyon Knights already had a decade of Australian success in our arsenal and were in a financial position to invest in a new market. This helped, a lot, and meant I could focus on other factors.

If you’re ready, Singapore can be a fruitful destination for expanding tech firms. With the right attitude, education (and potential recruitment partners) Singapore can be a great place to launch the future of your business.

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