If you’re an expat banker in Singapore, you are strongly advised to keep a low profile over the upcoming Chinese New Year holidays – above all, avoid any behaviour that could mark you out as arrogant or out of touch with local Singaporeans.
Blame Anton Casey, a British wealth manager who works for boutique firm Crossinvest in Singapore. Casey is facing a torrent of online abuse this week from Singaporeans incensed about his offensive Facebook posts – which mock a “retard” taxi driver and the “poor people” who ride underground MRT trains – and his YouTube video, in which he lampoons his local critics for being raised “a wuss”.
His comments, for which he has apologised, are also ill-timed. They are helping to fuel the fire of anti-immigrant sentiment in wealthy Singapore, where foreigners make up about 40% of the population – a percentage second only to Dubai – and are sometimes derided for taking jobs away from locals. Anger boiled over into a rare public protest against government population-growth plans in February last year.
While protests and online anger often target the blue-collar workers who make up the largest chunk of the foreign population (tensions have been recently enflamed by striking Chinese bus drivers and rioting South Asian workers), rich expats routinely come under fire when one of their number breaks the law or behaves badly.
In the minds of some Singaporeans, the words “expat” and “arrogant” go hand in hand. And since the rogue-trading days of Nick Leeson in the mid-1990s, Western financial professionals like Casey have played their part in forging this expat stereotype. Swiss national Juerg Buergin, a former UBS executive director, was sentenced in May last year to four months and three weeks in prison for having sex with an underage prostitute in Singapore. In 2011 stockbroker Robert Dahlberg, a New Zealander, receive five months jail after a boozy brawl with a taxi driver.
In Casey’s case, the angry local backlash on social media and news websites has even included death threats. “It’s sometimes challenging being an expat here when some idiot banker acts like this – you have to fend off some flack,” says an expat wealth-management headhunter in Singapore. “And the death threats are an equally idiotic overreaction. But I wouldn’t treat them too seriously – crazy stuff gets said online in the US and UK too, but at least in Singapore nobody will act on it. Singapore’s still a much safer, more welcoming place that many of the Western countries that expats call home.”
The recruiter adds: “The majority of foreign wealth management professionals in Singapore don’t moan to me about living here and they don’t act arrogantly either. But guys like Casey give all us expats a bad name, especially at a time when some locals are blaming foreigners for population growth and rising living costs. It plays right into current prejudices.”
So why would Porsche-driving Casey, who’s lived in Singapore for 11 years, is married to a former Miss Singapore and lives in exclusive Sentosa Cove, want to denigrate the country where he’s made his millions? “When you get used to certain social status you then sometimes segregate yourself from others through materialism and by having different values,” says Daniel Koh, a psychologist at Insights Mind Centre in Singapore. “Having such views in turn upholds your new status and strengthens your beliefs that you are better and richer than others. You’ve lost the common touch and you only focus on what is important to you – like money.”
Henry Chamberlain, an expert in organisational psychology and a former head of selection at Standard Chartered, says he has seen expat bankers act inappropriately in Asia because of the “discomfort or fear” they experience living in a country with different cultural values to their own. “It’s the so-called ‘stranger danger’ – when this happens, your natural biases are triggered and you may experience a range of reactions from discomfort to disgust. Extreme responses like Casey’s hint at more than just cultural prejudice; they indicate an attempt to belittle those who are different from him, possibly serving to make him feel better about himself.”
Foreign-based financial professionals, arrogant or not, are finding it tougher to secure jobs in Singapore – a country regarded before the financial crisis as a soft route into Asia, offering low taxes and sun-drenched lifestyles. Banks are under political pressure to employ more locals and from August employers must advertise locally for two weeks, for jobs paying less than S$144k, before they can hire foreigners.
More fundamentally, say recruiters in Singapore, the local financial talent pool is expanding and Singapore’s status as a regional financial hub means Asian client networks and language skills are increasingly important. “I was getting seven or eight applications a week from overseas private bankers two years ago; now I hardly get any – people have cottoned on that their skills aren’t wanted,” says the wealth management headhunter.
Employment prospects are decidedly better for expats already ensconced in the city state. “If you’re working in wealth management already, you have a range of options,” says the headhunter. “But perhaps not for Casey. He may be let go because of this outburst – his clients won’t like the publicity. Unfortunately, his chances of finding work elsewhere are diminished too – it’s a small WM community and some employers might not want to take a risk on him now.”
Crossinvest has condemned Casey’s remarks and launched an investigation.
Not all of the local reaction to Casey's rant has been of the serious, scathing or deathly sort. Local bar Tuckshop has created a special happy hour in his honour, offering him a special S$120 rate for a pint of beer.