January 9, 2023
SINGAPORE – Hong Kong authorities are granting work passes to more than 200 foreign and mainland Chinese professionals a day under an ambitious new scheme to attract top talents to the global financial hub, as the city shakes off the final shackles of its Covid-19 curbs that have contributed to a loss of tens of thousands of its highly skilled workers.
The Top Talent Pass Scheme received some 3,800 applications in the first 10 days since its launch on Dec 28 – a daily average of nearly 400 submissions – and about 60 per cent of them have already been approved.
“Frankly, the response has been much better than expected,” Secretary for Labour and Welfare Chris Sun told The Straits Times. “By Hong Kong standards, this is a major breakthrough. It speaks volumes about the competitiveness of Hong Kong as a centre for talent from around the world… It shows us clearly that there is a pool of people… with keen interest to come to Hong Kong.”
Mr Sun, who was in Singapore on a five-day working visit until Sunday, said Hong Kong aims to bring in at least 35,000 overseas and mainland Chinese talents annually across all its work visa schemes over the next three years. That is a 40 per cent increase from the average number of professionals brought into Hong Kong in 2020 and 2021.
The new Top Talent Pass Scheme offers a two-year visa to applicants who earned at least HK$2.5 million (S$428,000) in the past year or graduates from the world’s top 100 universities who have worked for at least three years in the past five years.
Those who graduated from the top 100 varsities in the past five years without at least three years of work experience are also eligible, subject to an annual quota of 10,000 visas.
The scheme’s roll-out comes as Hong Kong, which had been cut off from much of the world for nearly three years, scrapped the last of its pandemic restrictions on travellers in December and gradually reopens its border with mainland China from Sunday. The city’s labour force has shrunk by some 140,000 people over the past two years, with about two-thirds of them considered highly skilled workers, and companies have been facing difficulties bringing in fresh talent to replenish their ranks.
In his interview with The Straits Times on Friday, Mr Sun, 51, a Shandong native who moved with his family to Hong Kong at the age of six, recounted his childhood growing up in the city.
“It was actually very difficult,” he said, adding that until his arrival in Hong Kong, he had never been formally educated and could speak only his Shandong dialect.
A place of opportunity
“Yet Hong Kong society is such that it continually provides you with so many opportunities. As long as you are willing to try, you can keep on improving yourself,” said the official, switching easily between English and Mandarin throughout the interview. He is also fluent in Cantonese.
“Not unlike my own experience, our talent scheme provides many of today’s young people… with the opportunity to come to Hong Kong to just try it out… We cannot guarantee that you will definitely succeed, but we will give you the chance – a shot at success.”
Hong Kong’s new talent scheme is similar to one of Singapore’s – the Overseas Networks and Expertise Pass – which started on Jan 1 and grants a five-year work visa to foreign professionals earning at least S$360,000 a year in base salary or with outstanding achievements in specific fields.
But Mr Sun stressed the complementary rather than competitive roles that Hong Kong and Singapore played in attracting talent to Asia.
“There are far more areas where we can complement each other,” he said. “For those looking at the Greater Bay Area or mainland China as the major driver of their business, naturally they have to choose Hong Kong. But if you’re looking at South-east Asia as your major growth area, you have to go to Singapore,” he said.
“Some of the very successful businesses in Hong Kong are coming to Singapore. And equally, we see many very successful entrepreneurs in Singapore going to Hong Kong to expand. So this is how our two cities are using our own advantages to generate greater returns for all.”
Ms Jasmmine Wong, chief executive of Inchcape Greater China and Singapore, said she, too, saw Hong Kong and Singapore as complementing each other in bringing different skill sets from elsewhere to invigorate the region.
For example, Ms Wong said “talents from Hong Kong tend to exhibit entrepreneurship and a risk-taking attitude, whereas those from Singapore display good process and structure mindsets”.
Inchcape, a London-based multinational automotive distributor and retailer, counts the two cities among its key markets in Asia.
Pointers from Singapore
Hong Kong could take pointers from some of Singapore’s labour management policies, Mr Sun said. He cited as examples Singapore’s initiatives to improve gig workers’ welfare including ensuring adequate protection in the case of workplace injuries, and its SkillsFuture scheme to help the local workforce adapt to a changing labour landscape.
Hong Kong and Singapore have regularly been portrayed as rivals for talent and investment in the region. Singapore overtook Hong Kong in the 2022 Global Financial Centres Index in September, ranking third on the list, ahead of Hong Kong at fourth spot. New York and London came in first and second respectively.
In research data firm ECA International’s 2022 rankings, Singapore took top spot in its liveability index and was ranked the world’s eighth most expensive city for expatriates. Hong Kong came in 77th in terms of liveability and was the second-costliest city after New York. The firm surveyed more than 490 cities for its liveability index and over 200 cities for the expat cost of living index.
Mr Sun said Hong Kong has “never stopped” in its efforts to make the city a more liveable place in terms of infrastructure development, citing as examples two world-class museums, the Palace Museum and M+, as well as a new waterfront promenade along Victoria Harbour.
“These are all the things that we want to showcase to (our newcomers),” he said.“But I know it takes time. It’s the government’s job to articulate our good points… to promote Hong Kong to the outside world. So we do have a lot more work to do.”