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Human resources experts have warned that Hong Kong must develop better policies to retain talent or risk losing them to Singapore. Photo: K. Y. Cheng

Plug Hong Kong’s brain drain or Singapore will poach top talent and ‘shake’ regional financial status, human resources experts warn

  • Human resources experts say methods for attracting high-quality staff have been built up piecemeal and incentive schemes are not generous enough
  • Warning comes after Singapore announces new work visa rules from next January designed to woo foreign professionals

Hong Kong needs better policies to encourage talent to stick with the city if it is to retain its position as a regional financial centre in the face of stiff competition for top notch staff from Singapore, human resources experts have warned.

They said the city’s methods for attracting high-quality staff had been built up piecemeal and that incentive schemes were not generous enough.

“Those high-income earners targeted by Singapore are mostly in the financial or high technology sectors,” Alexa Chow Yee-ping, the managing director of executive search agency ACST Consulting, said on Tuesday.

“Hong Kong already sees a brain drain problem in the two sectors. The Hong Kong government needs to do something to stop more of our talent being pulled to Singapore or elsewhere,” she warned.

“Otherwise our status as the regional financial or technology hub could be shaken.”

Hong Kong’s John Lee talks new ventures with deputy prime minister of Singapore

The warning came as the city state on Monday announced new work visa rules from next January designed to woo foreign talent.

A new five-year visa will be created for people earning at least HK$168,700 (S$30,000) a month. Holders will be allowed to work for several companies at one time and their spouses will also get permission for employment.

People with “outstanding achievements” in sports, the arts, science or the academic world who do not meet the salary criteria will be able to qualify under Singapore’s Overseas Networks and Expertise (ONE) pass.

Singapore is on the prowl for talent, with a new five-year visa to be created for people earning at least HK$168,700 a month. Photo: EPA-EFE

Armstrong Lee Hon-cheung, managing director of Worldwide Consulting Group, backed Chow’s views.

“Hong Kong is not short of schemes to attract talent. But they are more like labour import schemes that try to recruit general workers to come to work here in fields we are short of workers,” he explained.

“There is no need for big surgery or an overhaul of all those schemes. For example, if we can allow those under the immigration arrangements for non-local graduates [IANG] scheme to stay longer in Hong Kong, say, five years or even 10 years, instead of one year, then it will become much more attractive to mainland talent.”

Steve Parkes, a senior partner at Page Executive, part of international recruitment firm Michael Page, said the Singapore scheme targeted a very specific type of employee, but Hong Kong maintained an image of being a “free market” for foreign talent.

Parkes said the Singaporean scheme was “incredibly niche” and that the city state was “targeting a small population of workers that would like to work in Singapore”.

Singapore rolls out special visa for top talent earning over US$250,000

He added he doubted if the “incremental not exponential” move would solve the talent crisis in the Singapore market.

Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu has said several times that the city should do more to scout for talent overseas and in mainland China, especially in the fields of medicine and innovation and high technology.

Lee added he would reveal more about his proposals in his first policy address in October.

Hong Kong also runs other schemes to attract well-qualified staff, including the technology talent admission scheme, where 60 applications were approved in 2021.

The quota-based quality migrant admission scheme was designed to attract highly skilled staff.

Successful applicants are not required to have a job offer before entry to Hong Kong and they can also bring their spouse or partner and unmarried dependant children under 18 years old.

Talent crunch, complex laws hinder Hong Kong’s fintech competitiveness

Chow, however, highlighted that Hong Kong’s high housing and living costs were a deterrent to expatriates.

“From the company’s perspective, if Hong Kong gets less attractive, but is still very expensive, it means that companies will have to dig into their pockets deeper if they are to hire people to come to work in Hong Kong,” Chow said.

But Benjamin Elms, Hong Kong’s regional director at global headhunter Randstad, said he believed the city still had its perks.

“Based on my own experience, Hong Kong is slightly more open to global talent as the visa eligibility and application process is simple to understand and straightforward,” he said.

One talent acquisition expert has said Hong Kong still offers some advantages over Singapore, such as recognising same-sex couples as eligible for dependency visas. Photo: Sam Tsang

Elms added that applications to shift from a working visa to local residency after a certain period were also “uncomplicated and stress-free”.

And while Singapore had recently announced plans to decriminalise sex between men, the regional director said, the city state still needed to catch up with how Hong Kong treated same-sex couples arriving from overseas.

“Hong Kong’s employment schemes allow for visa holders to bring same-sex partners to work and live with them in the city as dependants, which is not allowed in Singapore,” he said.

Elms added that Singapore sometimes required the partners of visa holders in opposite-sex couples to apply for employment-based documents instead of granting them dependency status.