Meet Voon Lee, Managing Director for Asia
On April 10, Newland Chase brought our webinar Going Global: 3 Best Countries to Expand Your Business – where Global Legal Analyst and presenter Kent O’Neil analysed the business climates and corporate immigration systems of three of Forbes magazines’ 2018 Best Countries for Business: the Netherlands, Sweden, and Singapore. In preparing for the webinar, Kent had the opportunity to speak with Voon Lee, Newland Chase’s Managing Director for Asia at his office in Singapore.
Kent: Thanks so much for the help with this week’s webinar, Voon. With Singapore being such a key location and market in Southeast Asia, I obviously try to keep up on the latest business and legal developments. But there is no substitute for actual expert, “boots on the ground” intel and insight. You’ve worked in the Singapore and Southeast Asia region for what now… almost 30 years? What do you see as the big takeaways my webinar attendees need to know when looking at the business opportunities right now in Singapore?
Voon: My pleasure, Kent. Thirty years… it seems like just yesterday I was graduating University of Manchester and returning from the UK for that first job in Singapore. (chuckles) I guess over that time you could say that everything in Singapore has changed and nothing has changed. Immigration, and foreign investment has always played a key part in the economic success of Singapore… and always will. Hot industry sectors fluctuate from time to time – IT, banking, oil and gas remain strong – traditional manufacturing has obviously cooled somewhat.
But Singapore has been the top or maybe sharing top spot with Hong Kong… destination for foreign investment and talent in Southeast Asia. And that’s so much part of its economy that foreign nationals and foreign business will always find it a welcoming business environment.
Kent: Which brings to mind one of the questions I wanted to ask you, over the last couple years or so, haven’t we seen a tightening of employment-based immigration in Singapore? Some might suggest that Singapore is becoming a “less friendly” environment for foreign business. What’s your take?
Voon: There certainly has been a movement on the part of the MOM (Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower) to encourage companies to recruit local workers before turning to foreign labour. However, you have to bear in mind that these measures are more just “levelling the playing field” for local workers to compete for jobs. Measures like the Fair Consideration Framework and aligning minimum salary thresholds to local starting wages are just designed to ensure that companies are considering locals rather than immediately hiring foreign candidates. The measures really don’t limit companies from hiring from outside the country for skilled positions that fall under the Employment Pass route. Any moves to tighten quotas or foreign-to-local employee ratios have been limited to the moderate and lower paid positions under the S Pass and Work Pass.
Kent: So for most companies looking to bring skilled foreign talent to Singapore, not much has changed. Are you seeing any sectors where foreign hiring is being limited in Singapore?
Voon: The sectors I’m seeing most affected are service industries, food and beverage, hotels, call centres. IT companies somewhat in the lower paid positions but not in the more senior or skilled roles.
Voon Lee began his career in the banking industry, steadily rising to a vice presidency. That’s when the bank asked Voon to take his first expat assignment to a country about which he would only later become an expert on corporate immigration – China. “Back then, there were no ‘mobility managers’ in the human resources department,” recalls Voon. “In fact, ‘human resources’ was still called ‘personnel’ basically employment and payroll records. Good luck finding someone who knew something about work visas in China. You were on your own,” he laughs. Such was Voon’s introduction to the field which would later become his career.
Six years later, Voon and his wife returned to Singapore with two children in tow. When the bank once again wanted to move Voon and his family to China, he decided that his family needed to “stay put” for a few years. He left the banking industry and struck out into the world of business immigration as a partner in a start-up global investor immigration firm catering to high net worth international investors. After several successful years there, a major global corporate immigration firm recruited Voon away to be their Singapore country manager. When he left that firm nine years later to join Newland Chase in 2016, he had risen to the position of Director for Asia.
Voon: I loved that first expat assignment and my time in China. It’s a fascinating country and only becoming more so with its emergence as a major world economic and political power. There is vast opportunity there… both in terms of the influence that China is exerting in the rest of the world through policies like the “belt and road” initiative and the vast growing consumer market within China. It was almost as if that experience was preparing me for what I do now. And having been an expat myself, I never forget it when I’m working with companies and their employees and families. It’s one of the things I believe makes Newland Chase special… we’re big enough to have a global reach, but still small enough to use our personal experiences in creative and customized solutions for our clients.
Kent: Let me quickly switch gears before I let you go. I know we’re talking at 8pm Singapore time… and you have another phone call after this one… but surely you get some downtime. Any surprise hobbies or interests outside of work?
Voon: I’m not sure it will be much of a “surprise” to anyone, but I’m a big sports fan. Die-hard Manchester United fan. Played some competitive badminton in college… and still play that some, but more tennis now. You can’t play both. It messes up your swing… tennis is mostly shoulder and badminton is all wrist. (laughing)
Kent: I play a little tennis. Now for the big finale question… a hypothetical. Assume that tomorrow the nations of the world got together and abolished all borders, visas, work permits, passports, etc. what would you do for a living, assuming professional badminton doesn’t pay enough?
Voon: Hmmm. It would have to involve something with good food, fine wine… I love to eat and share a good meal and conversation with friends. So I guess I’d have to open a restaurant and wine bar, somewhere exotic and peaceful… I could eat, drink, and talk with interesting people all day. But between you and I… I don’t see borders, visas, and permits going away anytime soon.