Does their mastery of maths make Singaporeans better bankers?

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Young people in Singapore are, by and large, very good at maths. The city state ranked first globally for secondary school maths and science results in a May OECD survey, just a month after the “Cheryl's birthday” Singaporean maths problem – originally posed to the nation’s junior maths-whizzes – went virtual across the world.

Singaporeans’ number-crunching abilities aren’t only winning them plaudits in the classroom, they are helping to produce prime candidates for graduate jobs in financial services at a time when the government is encouraging more local people to enter the sector. But as finance jobs in Singapore become more client-centric and less process-driven, numeracy is only one of the key skills needed to forge a successful finance career there.

Children in Singapore, encouraged by parents, teachers and sometimes personal tutors, often excel at maths from a young age, says Weili Chiu, Singapore chairman of Iron Mountain Capital and a former maths tutor. “Local textbooks challenge them to think and solve difficult questions, even at primary school.”

Maths is compulsory until the final “A-level” school-leaving exams, so when budding Singaporean banking professionals enter university they typically come equipped with the numeracy skills needed to excel in finance-related degrees, says Dr Lee Hon Sing, deputy head of finance at the National University of Singapore’s Business School. “A good understanding of maths is integral to a finance education because much of the study concerns the quantification and valuation of cash flows,” he says. “Students also study risk – which involves statistics and probability theory – and arbitrage and hedging, which use calculus to model the rate of price changes.”

Foot in the door of finance

Lee says Singaporean finance graduates often use their mastery of maths to help clinch their first junior banking job. “Employers in Singapore regard numeracy as highly important – many financial-industry job interviews require a computer numeracy test, with a large number of maths questions posed in a limited time. Some job interview questions involve simple numerical calculations or case studies that require working with financial ratios to arrive at returns and break-even statistics.”

Numeracy is also a vital ingredient for longer-term career success in finance, says Lee. And Singapore’s traditionally strong academic base in maths has played its part in helping the country become a global banking hub, whose 197,000-strong finance workforce is now roughly 70% localised. “The more numerate you are, the more financial instruments you can work with – not just stocks, but bonds, derivatives and credit default swaps – and you can even structure new products,” explains Lee.  “As the finance industry further develops in Singapore, financial instruments will only get more complex and demand for numeracy will only get higher.”

Not all you need

Mathematical prowess isn’t the only skill becoming more important to building a financial career in Singapore as the island nation sheds its reputation as a mere hub for back-office roles and experiences a boom in sales and relationship-management jobs in retail, corporate and private banking.

“This means the industry in Singapore is now demanding more of candidates – they need not just a grounding in maths and finance, but also traits like communication skills, inquisitiveness and the ability to work with different types of customers,” says Gary Lai, managing director for Southeast Asia at recruitment firm Charterhouse Partnership in Singapore. “Fresh graduates in Singapore shouldn’t neglect their soft skills because, like maths, they are becoming more important to moving up the ranks as more banking jobs here involve dealing with external customers.”

“Financial services in Singapore is maturing now and becoming more client-driven,” adds Daniel Chia, a former quant with a maths degree from Cambridge University who now runs Singapore fintech company Call Levels. “Maths is increasingly crucial to many jobs, but recently I’ve also noticed more emphasis on teamworking – and this is starting to filter down into the education system here, with more project-based work,” says Chai.

Lee from NUS agrees: “We've incorporated group projects into our courses that mimic industry work. The ability to work in teams is more crucial now in finance because deals are getting bigger, more due diligence is needed and projects require more teamwork to complete.”

Singaporean financial professionals also need a good dollop of business savviness. “Mathematical models help you analyse financial instruments, but you must have good business sense to make good decisions – maths is not the only skill developed in our finance education and not the only quality that employers look at.”

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