Published on 15 Dec 2023

Hello, Globetrotter. Want to work for an MNC? Then read this / The world is your oyster, but look before you leap

It sounds like a dream job and can be one. Just make sure you have the right attributes for it.

Singaporean Tanie Eio has been at a global multinational corporation (MNC) for the past 22 years. She started off in Singapore and has risen through the ranks, with an overseas posting in the Asia-Pacific, followed by an expanded role in Belgium. Earlier in 2023, she undertook her most ambitious stint yet as she headed for Atlanta in the United States. She's now the global head of human resources (HR) for two business units, handling a mind-boggling 17,000 staff across 100 countries and territories. One is the business services unit, while the other is the global finance function, also a vital area.

And just in November, she was awarded an Institute for Human Resource Professionals Master Professional qualification at a ceremony officiated by Manpower Minister Tan See Leng. Singapore wants to develop and nurture more Ms Eios to take on top regional roles in MNCs, as mentioned in the recent Forward Singapore report.

Almost all Singaporeans want to work for international companies. But to land a job at an MNC is one thing. To rise within it and be able to take charge of a regional or global office is another. You need certain attributes and a willingness to work in different geographies to succeed in such companies. Before you take the plunge and join an MNC, it is worth asking if it is the right move for you. If not, don't fret. Working for smaller outfits has its own rewards.


Make no mistake, MNCs have a lot going for them.

Imagine working for a company like Applied Materials to see how chips can be made to work faster and be more powerful. Or having a role at Procter & Gamble's key innovation laboratory for its global mega-brands such as Pantene, Head & Shoulders, Vicks, and Pampers. Or a job at Shimano's research and development centre, which looks at wearable technology and has plans to develop special materials for cycling apparel.

Such a varied scope of work, usually involving operations around the world, means many exciting opportunities for workers. Coupled with MNCs being good paymasters and the abundant opportunities they provide for training and career development, accepting a job offer from one is usually a no-brainer. Employment player Globalisation Partners noted in its recent Global Growth Report: The Rise Of The Everywhere Workforce that nine out of 10 Singaporeans surveyed preferred to work for international companies.

The top factors behind the lure of MNCs include the prospect of enjoying better pay and benefits, options to travel or work abroad, and the chance to be part of a culturally diverse work environment. Starting off at an MNC can never hurt. There is a certain polish that comes from having worked in one. The branding carries weight among prospective employers and could even give alumni a leg up in business. I've known several people who have left MNCs and thrown themselves with equal amounts of energy into setting up their own ventures. A friend of mine started a successful company which supplied to his previous employer. He succeeded, in part, because he knew the ins and outs of how the MNC worked.

One of Singapore's famous angel investors, Mr Koh Boon Hwee, spent his early career at Hewlett-Packard (HP) Singapore, where he was its managing director. An earlier well-known HP alumnus, Mr Wong Ngit Liong, founded contract manufacturer Venture Corp, which is now a technology giant with a market capitalisation of about $3.9 billion.

The technical skills, together with a solid management philosophy honed from the MNC's First World HR practices, gave them the edge to thrive post-MNC.


Still, progressing in an MNC can be a tough journey that requires certain attributes.

Take Ms Eio's case: She has to operate as an Asian female in a male-dominated industry. This was especially challenging during her Europe stint, when she had to contend with a business language that was not English while overseeing some 47,000 employees.

While the MNC provided a robust career development programme and ample training and support from her bosses, getting ahead in the corporate jungle required a generous dose of resilience. "Being a bit more thick-skinned helps," Ms Eio said. She even conquered her fear of public speaking to become a vocal participant in the boardroom and at networking events. One trait that employers have noted among Singaporeans is their reluctance to speak up. Ms Melissa Kee, chief people officer at Temus, which provides digital transformation solutions for the private and public sectors, said that the MNC platform encourages its employees to take the initiative rather than wait to be told what to do.

Yet there is a tendency among some Singaporeans to be more reserved when it comes to expressing a desire to lead specific projects, she noted. Added to that, Singaporeans usually prefer to be sure they have the correct answer before they venture an opinion – your columnist here totally identifies with that – but Ms Kee said it is more important to contribute to the discussion. "You do not need to nail the answer right the first time," she said firmly. Then there is the question of working overseas. After making some headway in an MNC, the next step up the career ladder is to accept a regional or distant posting. If you already have a family, this is where difficult conversations need to take place, with a spouse whose career will be disrupted and children who may or may not want to be uprooted.

Ms Kee said that global MNCs will always check if high-potential employees are willing to move around for work and potential career advancement. "That's because, while you may be competent, there will be many areas in which you need to develop mastery to run a global business spanning Europe, the US, Asia and the Middle East. This includes executing your vision and inspiring global employees with cultural differences, which is not something you can easily do if your work experience is limited to Singapore."

Moving overseas is made harder when you start comparing your new work city with Singapore and the comforts it offers. One senior manager quipped that "in comparison to Singapore, every posting is a hardship posting".

Candidates can attempt their overseas foray before family and other considerations – including children, caring for ageing parents, and financial commitments linked to property – come into the picture, suggests Mr Holger Lindner, chief executive of the product service division at TUV SUD, a major global player in the testing and certification industry.

Organisations are well aware of the challenges. Ms Lee Sze Yeng, managing partner of professional services firm KPMG in Singapore, noted: "Businesses are also finding ways to make gaining international experience less disruptive. Initiatives like virtual assignments, job sharing and cross-border working can provide these opportunities without uprooting families or disrupting careers." Government agencies also work with partners such as the Human Capital Leadership Institute (HCLI) to complement efforts by companies. The Singapore Economic Development Board's (EDB) senior vice-president of human capital division, Mr Marcus Dass, pointed to the launch of the Singapore Leaders Network (SGLN) by HCLI and EDB to prepare Singaporeans for global leadership roles.

Since SGLN's launch in July 2022, the community has grown to more than 1,000 members. It is in fact expanding its efforts, with the launch of a fellowship programme in January 2024 to nurture mid- to senior-level Singaporean leaders who have at least a decade of working experience and prepare them for top regional and global roles. The programme includes a four-day leadership course, structured mentoring and an action learning project. An estimated 50 participants will be selected for this first run.

Then there is Nanyang Technological University's Nanyang Business School, which runs training programmes for MNCs where employees from different regions come together. Intercultural exchanges and cross-cultural collaborations are important and can help people better adapt to an MNC environment, according to Associate Professor Zou Xi from the business school's leadership, management and organisation division.


With all that overseas experience under your belt, the world is indeed your oyster when you're at an MNC. But this may come at a cost to one's personal life. Spouses and children will have had to adapt to being on the move. Settling back in Singapore after many years abroad, for example, will take some time.

I know a couple of people who have remained single after having spent many years in MNCs. Whether it was by choice or whether the peripatetic life is less conducive to forming long-term relationships, I'm not sure.It also may not be the most long-lived of careers. If your performance is not up to scratch and does not improve after counselling and coaching, an MNC will be more structured about making you pack your bags and move on. Retirement too will beckon at a certain age. A smaller outfit may be better able to accommodate different performers or even a longer work lifespan.

Association of Small and Medium Enterprises president Kurt Wee is naturally an advocate for smaller businesses. "With a flatter structure, you develop multidisciplinary skill sets and talents which can be an extremely valuable foundation," he said. The caveat is, of course, finding a good boss from a small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) who can mentor you.

Mr Wee said: "Within a less regimented environment, an SME can offer faster career growth opportunities." Some with an entrepreneurial bent might also shun an MNC for a smaller outfit for the freedom of being their own boss. Venture capitalist Huang Shao-ning, partner of AngelCentral, a network for angel and early-stage investors, agrees that an MNC's calling card includes job stability, benefits and prospects. "But our more mature enterprises such as Grab, Sea and Razer can offer attractive career opportunities too. In the medium term, our local enterprises must aim to grow into big trees too that can house our people." She added: "For someone who joins a start-up, there are opportunities to innovate and make an impact. In the local context, they will get a chance to be closer to the decision-makers."

Increasingly, though, as Singapore companies move up the value chain, they may have to take on an MNC mindset and adopt many of their best practices. Mr Ron Sim, founder of V3 Group, which has developed wellness brands such as Osim and LAC, along with luxury gourmet businesses TWG Tea and Bacha Coffee, said: "Cultivating an environment that values creative thinking, problem solving, and a willingness to take on new challenges will contribute to the success of Singaporean enterprises. We must push our company leaders to be more ambitious and encourage them to dream boldly of regionalisation and globalisation."


If you wish to succeed in an MNC, your personality must fit and you must acquire the requisite soft skills. Parents and educators can play a part by encouraging students to speak up and not be afraid of failure or of giving the wrong answer. When embarking on tertiary education, internships may be more relevant for learning about dealing with colleagues from different cultures and backgrounds. Be it an MNC or SME, the passion has to lie within the individual. Returning to Ms Eio's case, what enables her to stand apart is her determination. She's had to make sacrifices such as spending less time with her family. Her days as a national netball player for Singapore weren't just about scoring points and umpiring for a fair game; they honed her competitive spirit. Together with her humble beginnings, this gave her the drive to succeed in the global corporate arena. "The tools to succeed are there for everyone, but the magic happens when you take the leap," she declared.

But look before you leap.