Working Abroad: How to find a job in Singapore

Job hunting. It’s always a rollercoaster. Job hunting in Asia?  Is in a whole new league.

This post is my own comedy of errors over the past 7 weeks, and to also share everything I wish someone had told me.

The sitch
You’ve done it. The ultimate act of bravery: You throw caution to the wind and quit your 7 year UK marketing career to go travelling. And it’s awesome, life changing, something you’ll have forever. But unless you go too far and turn into those guys in tie-dye who make their own jewelry/tambourines/organic yoghurt on Luang Prabang market, (in which case there’s no coming back…) then it’s only a window. The day comes when you have to re-join the rat race again.

Part 1/2: Cut off the ‘I heart tubing in Laos’ wristbands. Part 2/2: Buy interview clothes and get in the zone to pretend you have a 5 year plan (shudder!)

My mission
…Was to find an advertising/marketing  job in the city of Singapore. I did some research. Well, I googled: ‘jobs in Singapore’ – Great, there are loads. How hard can it be, right? So I jumped on a plane with 8 weeks contingency dollars. No contacts, nothing lined up.

Oh yes, before you get too carried away thinking you can viably work for Saatchi or Ogilvy from that remote beach in Koh Samet (we all wish) let International visa restrictions narrow down your country of choice – Working Holiday Visas.

In a nutshell: Singapore allows UK citizens aged under 30, with a degree, to apply for a 6 month working holiday visa. My approval email only took 6 days, plus you don’t pay the$120 until you’re already here to pick it up. Check out Ministry of Manpower (MOM).

So deciding where to go & getting yourself there, it turns out, is the easy part.

The Hard Part:

CV (or should I say resume)
Dust off the cobwebs on that word doc. Thank god I drafted one before I took off around the world. Believe me after a year your brain has replaced the name of every client you ever worked with, with the names of far-flung islands in the Philippines. Reading something you wrote a year ago, it feels bizarre be reminded you were once were an adult with a vocabulary of BS like ‘KPI’s’ & ‘PRINCE2.”

So write it. Then re-write it 20 more times. Hone it, re-format it, and adapt it for the Asian market. Bump your education qualifications up to page 1 even if they were 10 years ago. Asia is big on academia. In Singapore you are fully expected to include a (sober!) photo, your age, and even your marital status and religion. Yes it breaks every anti-discrimination law in the western world, but that’s how it’s done in here. Ideally, you should have a local +65 mobile number on there too.

Recruitment Agencies (aka a necessary evil)
In advertising/marketing a huge percentage of companies use 3rd party recruiters. This was all pretty new to me.

Now I’d always presumed that recruitment agents invite you round for coffee, get to know you, give you a cuddle & broker you the best deal. I was wrong. They kind of do some of this, (not the cuddles) but most are driven by their client and their own commission. You need them, just don’t be fooled into thinking they really are your BFF’s. Keep some cards (like salary) close to your chest.

I wasted loads of time uploading my CV to generic sites like Street/Jobs DB, thinking it would miraculously set the world alight through that ‘keyword’ SEO software that everyone talks about. Definitely write with keywords in mind, but you can’t just upload it and expect employers to flock to you. To get recruiters attention, apply individually to one of their listings. The aim is just to hit their radar. If they like you, they’ll call you for a pre-interview. They move pretty quickly. If you haven’t had a call within 48h, move on. They are just not that into you. It’s harsh but true.

The problem is, there are tons of Singapore recruitment agencies. Literally hundreds. And the secret is – only 10% of these won’t click you straight into the recycle bin. Very few are high-end enough to place foreign talent. The good ones I would recommend include:

Xpand Singapore
Randstad Singapore
Savvy Creative
Celina Lawrence Global Recruitment

Singapore & PRs only

Get used to this phrase! As a non Singaporean/Malaysian citizen it’s near impossible to get temp work here, and cash in hand even less likely. 90% of all job ads will include this phrase at the bottom, and they mean it. Singapore has tight government quotas on foreign workers. This was probably the hardest lesson to learn as it seems the odds are stacked against you.

Steer clear of Temp Team, Recruitment Express, BGC. They are not geared towards Working Holiday Visa applicants. Plus, you have to also weigh up whether trying to do casual work is counter-productive to your aim for finding a career job (it is!) The best advice a recruiter gave me is – “value yourself!”

Where to look for jobs? was my daily bible. I practically memorised their ‘A-Z recruiters tab.’ Painstaking but worthwhile.

Aggregator sites like are also useful at first. They pull in all searchable key words from the whole web including the expat forums, Craigslist & Gumtree. It’s a little like a jumble sale but saves you searching individual job sites. Plus if you do it daily, you can quickly spot the new ones.

Linked In (cue the light at the end of the tunnel music)

I can’t over-estimate the mileage I got from it. If I had one piece of advice it would be: (Politely) Stalk the ass off people! Every single interview I had in Singapore came about directly or  indirectly from Linked In.

Recruitment agents, HR reps, MD’s, the Expats in Singapore group – they are all on there.  It really is not what you know, it’s who you know, and how well you can pretend to know them. Name drop people’s career histories, their universities, their interests & groups. I’m definitely not saying blanket spam anyone but do use it cleverly and unashamedly. This obviously goes for twitter too.

Interviewing (Asia Style)

There are lots of phone screenings first, as people are so busy. Hierarchy is a big deal here too. You will often have at least 2 or 3 stages with varying tiers of management. The whole process takes much longer than the UK.

Dresscode: There is no such thing as overdressed here. In England you’d do a recce to make sure you can find the office without stressing about directions. In Singapore you do a recce to gauge whether you can walk the 5 mins from Raffles Place MRT in the 6 inc stilettos us girls are expected to power dress in.

Cultural Intricacies: The ‘Why Asia?’ question will come up. Most employers just want to check you aren’t using Singapore as a Tiger Airline travel hub (wouldn’t dream of it :) ) So at the very least memorize that the Prime Minister is Lee Hsien Loong, and read The Straight Times or that morning.

Top 10 things I learnt along the way:

  • Wages for professional jobs can be good, mainly as tax rates are super favorable in Singapore
  • That said, there’s no minimum wage in Singapore so think carefully about casual work here. I spent a weekend temping on a horse riding ranch (don’t ask!) for less than $2.50 per hour.
  • And although it feels like you are in one of the those ridiculous HSBC ads, always accept business cards ‘Asian style’ with two hands, taking time to read it, and place it on the desk in front of you (never write on it or stuff it in your purse!)
  • Asia’s work ethic is way different to Europe. Average Singaporean office hours are 8am – 8pm. Official holiday allowances are 12 days a year!Western companies based here tend to follow Europe guidelines (thank god!)
  • Get used to rejection :( I lost out a couple of times to the government quotas. The fact is that foreign talent is expensive to sponsor, and local talent isn’t.  There are advantages and disadvantages of working abroad, but you have to roll with it, it’s not always personal.
  • I mistakenly sent out over 20 CV’s with my old UK (disconnected) phone number instead of my Singapore one. Doh. Name your various versions clearly, and always make sure your Linked In profile tallies.
  • Singapore is very finance centric. I had a phone interviewer fire “what’s 15% of 1.5 million at me?!” The role wasn’t anything to do with hedge fund banking, but if like me you are a words and not a numbers person, you might want to brush up. Or be quick enough to google it.
  • Expect a few expat egos. I had met a few characters here who thought they were staring in an episode of Madmen. Grin and bare it.
  • Don’t discount left field offers. I got the chance to do some paid  freelance copywriting, so although it’s hard to juggle all offers, it’s good to keep all options open.
  • Finally, I learnt what a small world Singapore can be. I had clashing interviews for rival ad agencies, who in a city of 5 million people, turn out to be flat mates! Awkward.

The moral of the story:
Last week I accepted a position for a great global branding & design agency with huge clients/campaigns that I would never have a chance to work on anywhere other than a city like Singapore. It can be done.

This came about from a single Linked In conversation with a complete stranger and well written email (arguably just the right side of stalker creepy)  about how I loved their swagger, clients, style. Like 80% of todays jobs, it wasn’t advertised.

It honestly took me hundreds of hours, at least 50+ applications, and half a dozen interviews.  I shed many a tear and it’s a huge challenge. Contingency funds, hard work, self belief & good friends are important. But like with most things; good luck & timing are everything.

Champagne lifestyle, Tiger Beer prices: How to procrastinate on a budget

Fill in the blanks.  ‘Job hunting abroad is’….

…Exciting, sole destroying, all-consuming,  something we all must do… But most of all it takes: Time!

So give yourself a break, re-charge, fix up, and enjoy a sneaky bit of procrastination. Here are some of the budget perk-me-ups  every city is hiding.

I sound as though I’m obsessed with parks, but we all need a little greenery. After all; ‘Green is the most restful of the colours’ so say the hippies. I’m mindful to agree.

“I feed the pigeons I sometimes feed the sparrows too. It gives me a sense of enormous well-being. And then I’m happy for the rest of the day safe in the knowledge, There will always be a bit of my heart devoted to it” (Blur/Parklife)

Singapore Botanical Gardens. 8am – 7pm daily, admission free, MRT Circle Line.

Check out the Andy Warhol exhibition until 21st Oct at Singapore’s Art & Science Museum for a bargain $15.  Or visit the URA (Urban Redevelopment Authority) #2 City Gallery, 45 Maxwell Rd, admission free. Their miniature scale urban planning models are cuter than a Hornby train set. Plus their Sims-esq interactive game is a fun way to appreciate the intricacy of intelligent city planning. How do you balance heritage, business, arts, culture, industry, energy sources, green spaces, and the rest?  Turns out, not easily! Although Singapore proves to be a master.

Take a trip to the zany Gardens By The Bay – a huge horticultural sanctuary. Although their indoor conservatories are ticketed entry, their OCBC Skyway is only $5, and worth it for the views of nearby Marina Bay Sands. You can have a nice walk whilst pretending you are on the set of Avatar. Plus, if it’s good enough for Kate and Will’s royal visit last month you know it’s a decent day out.

Given the words cinema + budget friendly rarely go together. But since the $9 ticket price can barely buy you glass of (cheap) pinot here, it’s all relative. The gorgeous art deco fronted Cathay Cinema at Dhobi Ghat is actually super chic inside. It was a lovely spot to catch Woody Allen’s Too Rome With Love. And an even lovelier place to appreciate the life-size cut outs of Daniel Craig for the new Bond film Skyfall (out in Nov.)

And finally this is where the ‘champagne tastes’ come in. I’ve blogged before about the delightful Marina Bay Sands.  Let’s face it, quaffing extortionate $21 glasses of Merlot should technically be saved until after the new job search not during, but a nice city skyline vantage point is good to clear your head I say. Beat the crowds and shun the $20 Skypark ticket by brazenly announcing to the elevator bouncers in Tower 3 that you are off to swanky drinks lounge Ku De Ta. The views are just as great as the observation platform, and you can peak over at the famous  infinity pool. Do it on a Wednesday and they may also throw in a free vino for ladies night. Sneakier still.

10 tips for 10 days…

Traver, expat, student, Singapore, London, wherever. Living somewhere new can be amazing… AND scary as hell. Some are lucky enough to have a job, an apartment, or an internship sorted. Some are just winging it! Whatever your reason, here’s 10 things that got me through my first 10 days…

1) Staying in a hostel
For your first few weeks you don’t need privacy, you need new friends! An endless & revolving supply of them. Not to mention cheap rent!

The Prince of Wales $22 SGD long term stay is in the hear of the CBD, Boat Quay. Other good finds are River City Inn in Chinatown or The Drop Inn in Little India.

2) Be a yes man!
Be a real keen-o and extend your social network. ‘Do you want to go to a party on a helipad? Do you fancy going ice skating? Shall we go for a beer?’

A: Yes! (Although when is the answer to any of these ever not yes!) Invite yourself along to anything and everything. It’s not as weird as it seems. Expats love it.

The Helipad at the Swisshotel opens on the last Thursday of every month, entry until 10pm. Ice skating is at JCube, Jurong East on the Green MRT line.

3) Laugh out loud
The single best think I did to feel connected to life out here was go with friends to a comedy club. Great to pick up local nuances and like watching an episode of  ‘Mock the Week’ at the same time. Win win.

Comedy Masala – Tues 9pm @Home, Clarke Quay. $10 entry with free drink

Fight Comic Singapore – Thurs 9pm @Blue Jazz Bar, Little Arabia. $10 entry.

4) See what the cool kids are doing

MAAD Fridays (Market for Artists & Designers) is on the 1st weekend of every month building, Tanjong Pagar MRT. They had a brilliant life drawing area where anyone can drop in to practice their skills. If you sit for them as a model (fully clothed!) you can pay $10 to commission any of the pieces if you like what you see. All proceeds go straight to the artist.

5) Buy a local Sim card
Nothing screams rookie like a +44 dialing code. The second you purchase a +65 it’s official, you live here! To recruiters and employers at least. Starhub sell sim cards/top ups from $10+ at any SevenEleven. Bring your passport.

6) Be a joiner
New sporting activity = new friends. Join a free running club like 101 club, Tues/Thurs 6.30pm. Meet at the bottom of UOB Raffles Place for 3k/5k/7k circuits.

7) ‘The Usual?’
Get a fave cafe/sandwich shop/street food hawker. Claim it as your own till they know your order from 50 yards away. Memorise the best stalls in the maze that is Bugis St Market. Shop until you know it like the back of your hand.

8) One direction
Revel in the first time you give someone directions. “Why yes, I DO know where Altitude bar is…” (it’s kind of easy to spot by the gigantic skyscraper!)
a) they think you’re authentic enough to live here b) you can be proud you know your city/neighbourhood.

9) Dry your eyes mate
When it all gets overwhelming, and it WILL happen, don’t be ashamed to have that little cry. If you want a good spot try Fort Canning Park or Chinese Gardens. Read a book, write your memoirs, have a little time out to sit and think. We ALL do it. Have a word with yourself then get straight on Facebook or Skype and ring you BFF’s for a pep talk. Seems a million times better.

10) Everything is fixable
You have options. You are only ever three clicks away from Skyscanner! Give yourself  deadline (at least 4 – 6 weeks) and sleep on it. If it’s genuinely not where you are meant to be, so be it. Nothing ventured…

“A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.”  William Shedd

Leaving on a jet plane: Living abroad, Week 1

Who? Me!
Where? Singapore, South East Asia. I adore the city, it’s hot, English is a first language, cool creative agencies have offices here….
What?! Indeed, good question. I’m turning 30 this year, a milestone for many reasons –  mainly as the cut off point for Working Holiday Visas and the fantastic opportunity to live (& work) abroad for a year.  It’s now or never.
Why? After 15 months of traveling  & 48 countries, the question of course, should be; why not!

So I’ll get to all the practical stuff; city living, food, life, re-joining the rat race later. Week 1 is for enjoying!

Singapore’s annual Night Lights Festival, 1st Sept 2012. Features art installations all over the city, seen here at SAM (Singapore Art Museum) at Bras Basah.

Hard-core-par-kour! & aerial acrobatics from Argentinian dance company; Fuerzabuta. Dancers leap from wires into a brightly lit silk curtain and frolic in water inside a perspex fishbowl.

Fitness fans line the boulevard underneath the UOB skyscraper in Boat Quay. Free evening classes gather nightly as well as the 101 running club for our 3k around the marina! (My rookie first timer time: 17 mins.)

The fruit pastel coloured Clarke Quay. A prime spot to sit in the sun & indulge in my fave new past time; Scapbooking!

Finally, here is what you get if you mix a ‘temptation bell’ (you ring it, you buy the whole bar shots!) with a load of city bankers in the heart of the financial district = A night of free drinks! @ Magumbos Boat Quay. : The Anantasin is the name of a shipwreck just of the coast of the Sensi Parasise, Mae Haad Bay, Koh Tao, Thailand. It’s one of my many favorite places.

Lit.tle: Just because it’s cute.

Blasts From The Past…

April 2020

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