Mike Fromowitz
Apr 8, 2015

The case for Singapore's advertising expats

Singaporeans need to be confident in their abilities to compete internationally and continue to recognise and reward merit—wherever they find it, urges Mike Fromowitz, partner and chief brand officer for Ethinicity Multicultural Marketing+Advertising.

Mike Fromowitz: Singapore advertising still has much to gain from expat involvement
Mike Fromowitz: Singapore advertising still has much to gain from expat involvement
According to online posts I’ve seen recently, some Singaporean ‘creative’ people are exhibiting resentment towards the hiring of more advertising expats into the country. They believe that as more and more expats fill key advertising roles, the opportunity to grow and nurture local talent will be diminished.
 
One post written by ‘Anonymous’ said: “Expats can make a country and an industry like advertising wonderful and diverse, but the expats here are taking our jobs. There aren’t enough high level jobs for us all.”
 
Another said: "Running a business is about putting the best person in the job. Singapore is a great place to do business, but the people here don’t have the same level of experience the expats do and that many multinational clients say they need. I’m sure the companies here are going to continue to hire from abroad if that’s going to give them the best candidate.”
 
A British expat who has lived in Singapore for the past five years wrote to me on the subject of expats in Singapore. In his letter he said: "Singapore has become a victim of its own success. It has done so well at attracting foreign talent to the country it now has the problem of too many wanting to relocate here. This also leaves it in the enviable position of being able to cherry-pick the best talent.”
 
 
 
Meritocracy, the key to success 
 
In contrast to what some local Singapore advertising creative people are saying, the late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was all for bringing professionals into the marketplace to lead by example and instil best-of-breed practices into several industries—including advertising. Come to think of it, would the huge strides in Singapore’s advertising industry have happened without the likes of Ian Batey, David Droga, Linda Locke, Rod Pullen, Neil French and Jim Aitchison? For certain, Singapore today has some brilliant home-grown talent, and many would tell you they learned their skills from these advertising pioneers.
 
Neil French’s arrival in Singapore marked the beginning of a new era in advertising in the city-state. 'The period of Camelot' in advertising had begun, and almost overnight, it seemed like every agency in town had become infected with a new passion for outstanding creative, and the desire was not just to have it acknowledged locally, but to have it acknowledged globally. 
 
The Global City-State
 
Lee Kuan Yew was widely sought out by world leaders because of his success in transforming Singapore, a small and ethnically diverse trading hub, into one of the Asia's wealthiest countries during and after his years as prime minister from 1959 until he stepped aside in 1990.
 
In 2003, Lee addressed about 1,800 students at the Nanyang Technology University Students' Union 9th Ministerial Forum held on campus grounds. He told his audience that Singapore's annual birth rate had declined from 60,000 about 30 years ago to 40,000, and the chance of finding world-class players among locals alone was slim. 
 
'If we do not attract, welcome and make foreign talent feel comfortable in Singapore, we will not be a global city,” he said. “The days of being a regional city are over.” He also said that Singapore's foreign talent policy must not change, as doing so will undercut the nation's capability to grow and expand. “There are four million people in Singapore; one million of which are foreigners. You get rid of this one million and many will not find jobs.”
 
Lee’s remarks were made in the context to the exits of several high-profile foreign talents from Singapore at this particular time. These included executives from DBS Group, Chartered Semiconductor, the Singapore Exchange, Neptune Orient Lines, and Singapore’s national soccer team. He also told the students that there were only two Singapore-born members in his first Cabinet of 10 members.
 
Branding legend behind Singapore Airlines, Ian Batey, former owner of Batey Ads
 
It’s easy to identify with Lee’s doctrine of meritocracy. His meritocratic approach enabled brilliant minds from minority races to rise up to the highest levels in government and the pubic sector. He strongly believed that providing the best conditions for talented individuals to succeed was the only way for any nation or company to thrive in the modern age. 
 
Lee was very open to knowledge, absorbing what he considered appropriate for Singapore. Singapore, as a small island had nothing much to offer: except the sweat of its people. In those early years, Lee and his government colleagues hedged their bets by enabling multinational firms to use Singapore’s low-cost labour pool to build products for the rest of the world. He even invited Israelis to discreetly train the first Singapore army and immediately put the most talented in charge of national defence. On the other hand, other Asian nations decided to protect their industries through protectionists policies. Little wonder then that Singapore’s decision to open her doors to the world has left many of the other Asian nations far behind. 
 
Over time, Singaporeans became a disciplined, reliable and efficient workforce for global companies to invest in. Today, many of the world’s Fortune 500 companies have presence in Singapore and continue to invest in high-value manufacturing and research facilities.
 
Of all the architectural styles in Singapore, none is as distinctive as the lavishly decorated shophouses found in the city's older neighbourhoods 
 
Singapore Inc.
 
Even though it is one of the smallest nations on earth, it has a disproportionate amount of global influence. ‘Singapore Inc’ as it is sometimes called, is really run like a corporation. The results speak for themselves: Singapore has been consistently voted as one of the most competitive nation in the world. It has the third-highest per capita income in the world, and the world’s fourth-leading financial centre. 
 
In general, most Singaporeans keep their feelings about foreigners working in advertising under wraps. However, an increasing number of locals openly resent their presence. 
 
One expatriate copywriter who has worked, lived and made his home in Singapore wrote to me recently and said, “Just the other day I gave up my seat on the MRT to an elderly Chinese lady. She sat down, looked up and said, "There are so many of you here now." I smiled and replied, "You mean, gentlemen?" 
 
Xenophobia, Bigotry and Racism are bad for business 
 
A creative director who has worked in Singapore for more than ten years gave me this rather surprising example of xenophobia creeping into the industry: 
“For many years, (agency name withheld) was a fiercely independent powerhouse of creativity and profitability. Then during a office celebration, a senior local creative expressed his opinion about the creative director (which had something to do with his resemblance to a weasel). A punch was thrown and the surface was scratched. The agency was torn in two. The expats on one side and locals on the other. What happened next was very telling. The locals began screaming: “You bloody Ang Mohs. You come here and steal our jobs.The agency went from bad to worse. Expats and locals were let go. Accounts began leaving in droves. The agency closed its doors.”
Why is this story a relevant lesson for the Singapore and the advertising community, perhaps more than another country?
 
The same creative director had this to say: “Singapore is small and congested. Much to its credit, it's clean, safe and it works. The problem is that the locals gossip. The late comedian, George Carlin, once said that the most destructive force in the universe is gossip. I think both locals and expats need to look at what makes Singapore unique. Being Singaporean is not a birthright, it's an attitude. It's for people who want something better out of life. That's my two cents worth. Cheers.” 
 
Considered to be the tourism mascot of the city, the eight-metre high Merlion statue stands at the mouth of the Singapore River
 
Singapore isn’t New York, Paris or London
 
I wonder if many Singaporeans in the advertising community fully appreciate the remarkable blossoming of the industry and how Singapore creativity is viewed around the region, if not around the world. Too often I have heard Singaporeans downplay their country's advertising, design and artistic achievements, saying ‘It’s okay, I guess, but it's not New York, Paris or London.'
 
But Singapore doesn't have to be New York, Paris, or London. Not in its advertising, nor in its arts and culture. Beyond the field of advertising, the city-state’s art scene is flourishing like never before. The combination of stability and diversity that’s made Singapore into a regional advertising centre of excellence and a financial powerhouse has created a very vibrant country. From an advertising perspective, Singapore produces advertising and design excellence far more copious than its tiny size might suggest, all the while playing host to creative people from around the world.   
 
I highly praise Singapore’s vibrant advertising community for its creativity, as I do the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, the experimental theatre productions by any number of talented groups, the museums that mount exhibits of interest to Asians and Westerners alike, and many of Singapore's diverse art and design galleries. They surely stand on their own merits, as does The Arts House, a jewel in the cultural life of the country.
 
Singapore Airlines Ad, by Batey Ads
 
Given Singapore's aspirations to become a major player in the globalised world, the nation's main economic strategy is based on being home to a highly skilled workforce. In addition to investing heavily in information technology and human capital to meet global competition, the government has focused on developing Singapore into the "talent capital”. Singapore remains a society where East meets West, a small nation that embraces globalisation and where opportunities are second to none. 
 
In setting up Singapore as a meritocratic society, Lee Kuan Yew said, “I would rather these talented and driven people be on our team contributing to our nation than against us from their home country.” Singapore’s advertising community has much to gain from expats who bring with them a hunger for success and a fighting spirit.
 
The fortunes of Singapore have been closely intertwined with the knowledge and experience that expatriates have brought to city-state. I urge Singaporeans to see, as so many expatriates see, the superiority of Singapore over so many other countries—and not only countries in Southeast Asia, but around the globe.
 
Mike Fromowitz is partner and chief brand officer at Ethinicity Multicultural Marketing+Advertising
 

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