The Global Talent War: Why Singapore Needs to Get Serious About Branding Itself

Singapore has what it takes to be a global talent magnet: now it needs to make its case clearly, argues Ng Siew Kiang from Contact Singapore.

Date Posted

1 Nov 2008


Issue 5, 14 Nov 2008

Singapore has been largely discreet in its efforts to attract talent and investments. The Government tends to work through its agencies to establish contacts to bring industry heavy-hitters to our shores. While this approach has served us well in the past, we can no longer afford to be subtle. As competition from our regional and global competitors escalates, we need to leverage on every avenue available to us to promote ourselves as a location of choice for the world’s best talent.


Talent has been and continues to be a key resource pillar of Singapore’s economic strategy. Without the luxury of land, natural resources or a large indigenous workforce, we rely heavily on the collective brainpower and resources of both our own people and those whom we can attract to work, invest and live here. Now, more than ever, we need to tap the professional skill sets of global talent, including Singaporeans residing overseas, who can help propel emerging sectors in Singapore—such as biomedical sciences, clean technology, interactive digital media and financial services—on to the world map; as well as create new areas of growth for Singapore.

This is a challenge because of the nature of skilled talent—there is a limited pool that is highly sought-after and highly mobile. From London to Moscow, Shanghai to Dubai, headhunters are reporting a global shortage as countries aggressively woo professionals to grow emerging sectors in their own economies.

Singapore and its various government agencies, such as the Economic Development Board (EDB), Ministry of Manpower and Contact Singapore, will need to make a concerted effort not just to create favourable conditions for working, investing and living for global talent and their families, but also to showcase why talent should choose Singapore above any of our regional and global competitors.

Strategic to these imperatives is a campaign to brand Singapore as a talent destination. A unique brand proposition targeted at global talent would single out Singapore as the unequivocal choice among competitor cities. When graduates from leading universities begin job hunting, or when investors and entrepreneurs are looking for a place to invest and set up their businesses, we want Singapore to be top-of-mind. We want talent to think of Singapore not just as the ideal place for them to be but the only place to be.

We want Singapore to be top-of-mind. We want talent to think of Singapore not just as the ideal place for them to be but the only place to be.


We have made the difficult transition from the third world to the first in a matter of decades, but our metamorphosis is far from complete. With the building of a new financial district in Marina Bay, the construction of the Integrated Resorts, the expansion of biomedical facilities and info-comms hub, we need more and more professional talent, with more specialised skill sets to realise the potential of our structural transformation. And in the league of first world cities, this competition for talent is all the more intense.

The American Marketing Association defines a brand as a “name, term, sign, symbol or design, or a combination of them intended to identify the goods and services of one seller or group of sellers and to differentiate them from those of other sellers”1 (italics are author’s own). Branding Singapore as a talent destination is useful and necessary to forming our global identity. It gives a recognisable face to the many opportunities we offer. It is part of cultivating the perception of our status as a global first world city—a necessary prerequisite for attracting the talent that we will need.

Consistency is messaging, experience and perceptions of Singapore as a talent destination is crucial to winning mindshare.

A strong brand identity differentiates us from the rest of our competitors. Japan is known for its hardworking workforce, China for its abundant, cheap labour and Germany for its science and technology base. Singapore has long cultivated a reputation for an efficient workforce, but that is clearly no longer a sufficiently unique factor. Branding presents an untapped opportunity to distinguish and strengthen our competitive advantages.

Putting in place an overarching brand proposition that encapsulates Singapore’s attributes as a talent destination would help align the messages of Singapore’s various government agencies, create opportunities for synergy with other Singapore branding efforts and importantly, would deliver a consistent message to the intended audience. Collectively, consistency in messaging, experience and perceptions of Singapore as a talent destination is crucial to winning mindshare in the long term.

Branding a country as a talent destination is a challenging and long-term undertaking. Singapore’s history is replete with examples of how the foresight of our economic planners has borne fruit over time, for example, the land reclamation of the Jurong Island, the decentralisation of the city centre and the building of satellite towns throughout Singapore. Likewise, growing the promise of a brand that will attract global talent needs time, but the results are long-lasting and far-reaching. Singapore does not have the luxury of allowing market forces to dictate the shape of our economy. Successful branding as a talent destination is one of the ways we can be proactive in shaping how the rest of the world perceives our economic status and viability.


As it stands, Singapore already enjoys some competitive advantages to becoming a global talent hub that a branding campaign can capitalise on.

Professional Appeal

Focus group studies of foreigners working in Singapore suggest that global talent is largely motivated by better career prospects. Today, Singapore is home to over 7,000 multinational corporations, about half of whom have regional or global headquarters here. They operate in a pro-business environment with transparent legislation, strong infrastructure, political stability and attractive tax regimes. Key industry sectors are anticipating continued expansion and new investments, leading to rapid job creation at middle to senior levels.

Professionals based here also benefit from Singapore’s Global Schoolhouse programme, which has seen the entry of several internationally renowned educational institutions, offering plenty of opportunities for professional upgrading, executive education as well as networking. From a professional development standpoint, Singapore is a great place to be.

For investors, the Government is rolling out the red carpet as well. A range of programmes, like the Global Investor Programme, Financial Investor Scheme and the Entrepass scheme,2 is already in place. They demonstrate that the Government is serious in its bid to encourage enterprising and successful foreign businessmen to call Singapore home.

The Liveability Factor

What truly sets Singapore apart from other cities is the quality of life found here. The Quality of Living Index survey by Mercer Human Resource Consulting rated Singapore the best place to live in Asia for personal safety.3 Good and affordable healthcare, education, transportation, safety and security are all positives that influence the decisions of companies and individuals considering a move to Singapore. These attributes should be integral to Singapore’s branding as a talent hub.

Growing the promise of a brand that will attract global talent needs time, but the results are long-lasting and far-reaching.

Beyond being safe, clean and comfortable, we are also becoming an urban playground. The staging of the Formula One Grand Prix Night Race, the impending launch of two Integrated Resorts, the introduction of the Singapore Flyer and a myriad of new lifestyle, dining and entertainment options all contribute to upping the fun factor. This liveability factor lends further credence to the brand proposition that Singapore is a place where global talent and their families can not only work, but also live and play.


To execute a highly visible and wide-ranging branding exercise involves the efforts of various ministries and statutory boards of the Singapore Government. So, it is imperative to develop a brand proposition that clearly spells out the attributes that make Singapore a talent destination. This will help each government agency to align with and incorporate the branding message while pursuing its own agency goals. For example, trade bodies can publish advertorials about working and investing in Singapore; the education ministry can showcase the facelifts that public schools have undergone; the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) can target companies to set up shop in Singapore and Contact Singapore can woo business leaders and entrepreneurs to do business here.

However, one agency needs to hold the reins for the entire branding effort to be cohesive. Contact Singapore, whose portfolio promotes Singapore holistically, not just its industry, tourism, healthcare or education, for talent attraction, can play this role. The ultimate objective is greater than the sum of its parts—only when the Singapore brand calls to mind “the place where the best come to work, invest and live”, then we are on the right path to winning the global talent war.


Ng Siew Kiang is the Executive Director at Contact Singapore, an alliance of the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) and the Ministry of Manpower. Ms Ng has been with the EDB for 15 years in various key appointments. Her most recent appointments were as Director of Human Resources, and prior to that, as Deputy Director in the Chemicals cluster. Before joining EDB, Ms Ng was with AT Kearney, an international consulting firm. She has a Bachelor in Chemical Engineering from the National University of Singapore and a Masters in Business Administration from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


  1. American Marketing Association,
  2. The Global Investor Programme and the Financial Investor Scheme are programmes for foreign investors with substantial capital and entrepreneurial track record who wish to apply for permanent resident status in Singapore through making economic contributions. The Entrepass is an Employment Pass for foreign entrepreneurs who would like to start a business in Singapore and be actively involved in its operations. Information on the programmes can be found at
  3. Mercer Human Resource Consulting, Quality of Living Global City Rankings, 2007.

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