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2019 salary survey: Competition for compliance professionals in Singapore intensifies

Competition for compliance professionals in Singapore is more intense now than before as the three domestic banks step up their hiring, in part due to digitalisation, but largely because of the continuing focus on financial crime. Competition is expected to intensify further this year as financial technology (fintech) firms join the fray in search of the best candidates, said recruiters.
A 10 percent increase in salary is still the norm for most compliance professionals when they take up a new offer. What is interesting, however, are the numerous counter-offers that come their way — a trend which began in 2018 — as financial institutions seek to attract talent with specialist knowledge and relevant experience, according to recruiters. This is particularly true for those in compliance advisory and financial crime.

“There was an increased need for organisations to carry out their recruitment processes quickly, as many candidates had multiple prospects available, which we saw in 2018,” said Helen Ng, director at ANSA Search, a legal, risk and compliance specialist search firm in Singapore.

The tight talent pool in the compliance field largely explains why candidates are receiving multiple offers. While it would appear on the surface that there are now more compliance professionals in the market, hiring managers are taking a more pragmatic approach, said Gavin Izon, consultant, financial services, finance and governance at Robert Walters in Singapore.

“An asset manager looking for a senior candidate with a generalist background, for example, [is] unlikely to consider an experienced compliance professional from a banking background, as his or her functions are often too ‘siloed’. And of course, vice-versa. … [Hiring managers] have to see beyond the on-paper requirements to seeking potential in candidates who may have considerable gaps in certain skills and experience, but can be trained over time,” he said.

But the quantum leap in salary for compliance professionals seen seven to eight years ago is now a thing of the past. During the period between 2011 and 2012, the early days of banking reform after the financial crisis, the salary for an assistant vice president position in anti-money laundering/know your client (AML/KYC), for example, went up considerably from S$35,000 to S$40,000 per annum to the range of S$50,000 to S$60,000 per annum within two years. The salary increase for those at the senior vice president level was equally significant during the same period.

Such a significant jump in salary for compliance professionals is no longer the norm, according to Kyle Blockley, founder of KS Consulting, a boutique search firm in Singapore.

“Compliance cost is enormous for banks. I am not sure if salaries are increasing as much as they were a few years ago. Compliance cost was so inflated. I don’t think it is a 20 percent increase anymore when compliance professionals move to a new job. On average the increase is 10 to 15 percent,” he said.

Financial crime a hot spot; private banking drives hiring

Executives at the mid to senior level with a background in risk management, compliance and internal audit continue to be highly sought-after as banks boosted their compliance teams to deal with myriad of new regulations and financial crime, Ng said.

Financial crime remains a hot spot particularly in areas such as anti-money laundering, tax evasion, and determining sources of wealth, which will continue to be the focus for many banks this year, Izon said.

“There is a very strong demand for solid tax compliance and FATCA [Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act] professionals, as the talent pool is limited in Singapore. Data scientists are in strong demand as well, as many financial institutions optimise their financial crime compliance systems,” he said.

Demand for compliance professionals specialising in financial crime is mainly for those at mid to senior level with a big part of the demand coming from the private banking sector, according to Ng.

“There is more hiring in the private banking sector mainly because Asia, especially Singapore, is still the wealth management centre. They require people to track sources of wealth. Private banking is still the main growth area for banks compared to investment banking where there is now less hiring,” she said.

The increased hiring activity in private banking is also seen in areas such as transaction monitoring, Izon said. Hiring in the asset management sector remains steady, mainly for replacement hires, although new players are always entering the market, he said. Generalist compliance officers are at a premium.

Outside of Singapore, demand for compliance professionals specialising in financial crime is also seen elsewhere in the region namely China, Hong Kong and India, Blockley said.

“The focus is still on AML, fraud and policy reviews. There is a high demand for compliance professionals in those areas because regulators are putting more demand on financial institutions. They want to make sure that financial institutions have in place the standards for AML and due diligence. Regulators are more proactive these days. Reputational risk could be at stake for financial institutions,” he said.

New regulations require candidates with specialist knowledge

Regulations such as the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) of the United States which has been in place for a few years now, and new domestic regulations such as the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA), which has seen a number of breaches by some financial institutions in Singapore since its enactment in 2016, are driving demand for compliance professionals with specialist knowledge, according to recruiters.

“With ongoing financial crime and KYC remediation programmes, occurrences of misconduct and breaches of new regulations, most recently PDPA, banks and financial institutions are tightening gaps in those areas,” Ng said.

Compliance technology team

The digitalisation that is now underway in many financial institutions, concerns about data protection and cyber attacks, and the ever-present threats of financial crime-related breaches have seen the creation of a compliance technology team in some financial institutions. Some banks named their team “compliance AI [artificial intelligence] analytics” which, as the name aptly suggests, looks at the automation of processes and data analytics, among others.

The roles supporting such a team often require candidates with technology knowledge, analytical skills and a background in statistical analysis or electronic engineering who are able to understand data analytics, robotics process automation, and machine learning, among others, Ng said. The bigger banks may have five to 10 people in such a compliance technology team.

“These people typically sit within the compliance transformation team and they play an instrumental role. They come with technology knowledge and an understanding of compliance. They collaborate with the technology project team that drives banks’ transformation process as those in business compliance are often too occupied with the BAU [business as usual] demand. There is now a demand for such talent in the market,” Ng said.

While the large financial institutions are frontrunners in this regard, the three local banks — DBS Bank, United Overseas Bank and Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC) — are also undergoing intensive digitalisation, according to recruiters.

Knowledge of risk and compliance highly valued

There were concerns a few years ago that automation and AI would have an adverse impact on the compliance industry, particularly when the number of positions required did not increase as quickly as it was initially anticipated. But banks are finding that technology may not be the panacea they were hoping for, Izon said.

“There are undoubtedly changes afoot as organisations enhance their AML capabilities, for example, but the complexities and nuances of some of the detection scenarios are incredibly difficult for programmers to define and create. This means there is still quite a bit of work for some firms, to give regulators assurance of the robustness of their systems and processes. It has also resulted in [an] increased interest in data scientists within financial crime,” he said.

Despite reports about the possibility of some compliance roles being made redundant as banks increasingly automate their processes, risk and compliance remains an area where specialist knowledge is prized, Ng said.

“I have seen some positions, particularly those at the junior level, being replaced last year, but there is still compliance hiring at the mid to senior level, especially those at assistant vice president, vice president, senior vice president and director levels,” she said.

Fintech firms hit with similar regulations

The Monetary Authority of Singapore’s activity-based approach toward regulating fintech firms that provide online banking platforms or retail investment platforms has seen more of such players being caught by regulations. This is a far cry from just a few years ago when most fintech firms would not have considered it necessary to hire compliance officers.

“A few years ago, a compliance officer wasn’t someone you [would] think of hiring. Now fintech firms need to have compliance professionals to make sure they are up-to-date with regulations. The amount of time they spent with regulators to make sure that processes are in place and that they are following the regulations to stay in the business, require them to hire compliance officers. Fintech firms are competing with banks for compliance people,” Blockley said.

But fintech firms are unlikely to hire experienced compliance professionals, particularly those at the senior vice president or director level, according to Blockley. An SPV is typically paid in the range of S$170,000 to S$180,000 per annum, while a director would be paid around S$240,000 to S$260,000 per annum.

“That kind of cost to a start-up is a heavy hit on its balance sheet. Start-ups are unlikely to take on those with a lot of experience. They need people who understand regulations but they need to be careful [with cost],” he said.

Contract work

Contract work is another area which has seen demand for compliance professionals in the last few years for a variety of reasons. For example, large foreign banks which are still undergoing KYC remediation programmes typically require compliance professionals with KYC knowledge to carry out periodic reviews. In other instances, banks may need someone experienced to track sources of funds, monitor transactions or strengthen certain frameworks.

But such short-term engagements are increasingly hard to fill, as some of the larger organisations come to the end of a cycle of enhancement or improvement and enter a business-as-usual phase, Izon said.

“This will undoubtedly change in the upcoming one to two years, depending on which sectors see greater regulatory attention,” he said.

Singapore Compliance Salary Survey 2019


Role Analyst/associate Manager/AVP VP SVP/director Executive director
Regulatory Compliance $60k-$90k $90k – $170k $170k-$240k $240k-$350k $350k+
General/Core Compliance $50k-$80k $80k-$150k $150k-$220k $220k-$300k $300k+
Control Room/Trade Surveillance $50k-$80k $80k-$160k $160k-$220k $220k-$320k $320k+
AML/Financial Crime $50k-$80k $80k-$160k $160k-$220k $220k-$280k $280k+
Investigations/Fraud/ Anti-Bribery Data Protection $40k- $70k $70k-$140k $140k-$200k $200k-$260k $260k+
Monitoring and Surveillance $40k- $60k $60k-$120k $120k-$$180k $180k-$240k $240k+
Compliance Testing/Assurance $40k- $70k $80k-$120k $120k-$180k $180k-$240k $240k+
KYC/Client On-boarding $40k- $60k $60k-$110k $110k-$180k $180k-$240k $240k+
Source: ANSA Search Singapore. Currency: Singapore dollars


Patricia Lee is chief correspondent, banking and securities regulation, Asia

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