Debi O’Donovan: First impressions of benefits in Asia

On 1-2 August 2012 I took part in Employee Benefits’ first ever Asian venture, Employee Benefits Live Asia, in Singapore.

This two-day conference exploring benefit and reward strategies across the Asian region, primarily focused on Singapore (current hotspot for the growth of flexible benefits) and its neighbour Malaysia. However speakers also flew in from populous countries such as India and Indonesia, while other presenters had reward remits across several Asian countries, including China.

The most common question posed to conference delegates who hailed from the UK was: “How far behind the UK is Asia when it comes to benefits?”

Based on just two days of 23 sessions I cannot claim to be an Asian benefits expert, however my answer to the question would be: there are some areas of potential focus for Asia Pacific-based benefits managers including increased cost control on employee medical plans as well as communicating benefits better. But in other spheres, such as the development of flexible benefits, I suspect the UK could learn a thing or two.

As often happens when a region is not the first mover, it has time to learn from others then nab their best ideas and even leapfrog the leader. Flexible benefits (or flexi-bens as many seem to call it in Asia) is evolving rapidly in Singapore and Malaysia as they spurn a common model and sprout a flexible choice of flexible benefits models; most seemingly cheaper than the full flex options we see in the UK.

A key reason for using flexi bens in Asia Pacific (from the employer point of view) is to control spiraling and/or uncapped medical insurance costs. A pervasive culture of entitlement to medical costs being covered by employers coupled with medical inflation of over 10% means forward-thinking employers are thinking twice about current established norms.

On-the-ball health insurers could do well in this market as cost conscious corporates review current offerings.
Not that Asian employers need to be cost conscious for the same reason UK ones do. In Asia is it economic boom time with key human resources issues being trying to attract and retain (predominantly young) staff without pay budgets spiraling out of control.

When, and if, Asian employers have all the talent they need, they work hard to motivate and engage to hold onto staff. (It did strike me that any adventurous UK youngster battling to get a job in Blighty might do well to look at job options in booming Asian markets battling to fill roles).

The other striking difference between UK and many Asian countries is the heavy weighting of workforces towards young staff. Meeting the needs of Generation Y is a big talking point.

Gen Y here have not been dealt the poor hand their UK (and European) peers have been holding since the economic turmoil started circa 2008. Asian Gen Y are viewed (by their elders) as spoilt, over ambitious with little effort, and totally technology focused. We may all recognise the latter in today’s twenty somethings, but the former two descriptors have not been evident in UK Gen Y since the mid-2000s. What this shows is that there is nothing intrinsically odd about Gen Y; their ‘characteristics’ are simply a reflection of economic ups and downs affecting natural human behaviour of any age.

As I headed for Changi airport for my flight back to London I heard a radio news piece from the Singapore government as it campaigns to get citizens to marry earlier and have children. With a birthrate of just 1.1 per couple in a growing economy, Singapore faces becoming an evermore heavily expat community (one in three people living here were born elsewhere). In addition, the predicted age profile, along with much of the rest of the world will increasingly skew towards the elderly. Both these factors affect society and create challenges for the government (as well as employers’ benefits packages).

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I look forward to returning next year for Employee Benefits Live 2013. Hopefully more benefits directors with an Asian remit will join me to gain insights into this region, along with more benefits suppliers looking to do business here (many of our Asian-based delegates complained of the lack of benefits suppliers in the region).

Anyone want to join us?