Last December, Taiwan’s Financial Supervisory Commission (FSC) announced the easing of requirements for foreign finance professionals, part of the government’s plans to make Taiwan an Asia-Pacific financial hub. The work experience requirement for senior financial executives applying for the Employment Gold Card – a special work visa that incorporates an alien resident certificate, open work permit, and re-entry permit – was shortened from 10 years to five. In addition, the requirement for financial professionals and those working in finance-related fields was shortened from five to three years.
The number of foreigners currently working in Taiwan’s financial services sector is not high, totaling merely 449 in 2020. Many of these are entrepreneurs or work in emerging areas like fintech. Taiwan’s authorities are encouraging the development of fintech and trying to attract foreign professionals through the launch of programs and incubators.
Yet in traditional sectors such as banking and insurance, hiring foreign employees is rare, even in international companies operating in Taiwan.
“There’s a bit of a gap between what the government is trying to do and what they’re talking about, and the effects it’s having on the ground,” says Alan McIvor, practice leader at staffing and recruitment firm Paul Wright Group. “We’re seeing very little foreign talent being locally hired in any finance capacity.”
To bridge that gap, says McIvor, local corporate attitudes need to change. “I think it’s rare to find Taiwan companies that value diversity in the workforce,” he says. “If you have a sales team of 20 people, you can almost guarantee that all of them will be Taiwanese. It’s rare to find one with a guy from Germany, a Malaysian, and someone from Hong Kong.”
For those interested in setting up businesses, onerous paperwork and arcane rules and requirements, such as having to use a company chop – or official seal – are also impediments.
“The process of opening a company is very old-fashioned,” says Marco Mirabella, Chief Strategy Officer of Taipei-based search engine startup BigGo. “Taiwan is one of the few places that still requires a seal to approve documents. The entire process is very troublesome and it is not digitalized like in Singapore,” he says.
As a result, the entire registration process could take a month in Taiwan compared to just a few hours in Singapore, where documents can be signed digitally without requiring a chop, says Mirabella, who is also a cofounder of Cartesi, a blockchain firm with operations in Singapore and Taiwan.
Other barriers to attracting more foreign finance professionals to Taiwan include its high tax rate, relatively low salaries, and limited English proficiency. Mandarin is still the industry norm. For example, tests for obtaining industry certifications are conducted in Chinese.
“Foreign brokers may still face challenges in pursuing some licenses locally if they cannot read or write Chinese,” says Chris Cottorone, Vice President of TriOrient Investments, and a member of AmCham Taiwan’s Private Equity committee. “This is one of the areas our committee is interested to work on as it would help attract international financial talent to Taiwan.”
Cottorone says that Taiwan should also be more open to family offices, which are private firms that manage the investment and assets of wealthy families. “What I hope is that family offices will start to be viewed as a special kind of entity, as they are in Singapore, Hong Kong, the U.S., and Europe,” says Cottorone, whose firm is a family office but operates in Taiwan as a financial institutional investor (FINI). “Family offices can play a more significant role in Taiwan’s economy in terms of investment as they tend to be more patient with capital and, increasingly, are interested in emerging trends such as ESG (environmental, social, and corporate governance).”
Encouraging the proliferation of family offices in Taiwan would help develop the domestic investment sector, says Cottorone. It might also improve Taiwan’s chances of attracting more foreign family offices, which are currently mostly concentrated in Hong Kong and Singapore.
While Hong Kong and Singapore host much larger fintech scenes, Taiwan is considered to have strong potential in this area due to its robust tech sector. In addition, several major platforms to develop tech startups have been launched, including Taiwan Startup Stadium and Taiwan Tech Arena, which provide office space and training for startups and facilitate connections with international accelerators and investors.
Ashley Reeves, Director of Strategic Partnerships at blockchain firm Decent, says that for Taiwan to reach the next level, companies should be more receptive to working with startups.
“The local companies, at least the big ones, let alone those in the banking sector, are very traditional and very cautious about who they will work with,” says Reeves. “They will gladly speak to you, but a POC (proof of concept) is very difficult.”
Reeves, who is from the UK, also highlighted excessive banking regulations, citing the case of a charitable donation transparency platform that his firm had developed and wanted to launch in Taiwan. “The platform itself shows strong transparency and ethics, but the problem is we can’t operate as the banks refuse to deal with this kind of product. They can’t settle payments into or from the charities,” Reeves says.
Some foreign finance professionals have come to Taiwan recently through the Employment Gold Card program.
Mirabella of BigGo is one such Gold Card recipient. He is from Italy and arrived in Taiwan four years ago on an entrepreneur visa before applying for and receiving his Gold Card.
Having worked in Shanghai before coming to Taiwan, Mirabella cites several advantages of doing business in Taiwan compared to China, such as the availability and cost of talent. “Taiwan has a lot of engineers and it’s easy to find talent,” he says. “In Shanghai, the cost of hiring engineers has skyrocketed. They demand quite a lot of money, and it’s a competitive environment since you’re competing with [the likes of] Baidu and Alibaba.”
Mirabella also points to the more approachable attitude of government officials in Taiwan as another plus. He sees a lot of positives in the fintech sector due to more talent coming in and more spaces devoted to the sector being opened.
“The entire ecosystem is improving a lot,” he says. “They have boosted investment into local accelerators and companies, and they have also facilitated an international community for startups and tech firms, making it easier for people to come here.”
Reeves of Decent makes a similar observation. “It might be easier [to operate in Hong Kong and Singapore], but the competition is a lot bigger as well,” he says. “In many respects, Taiwan can be looked at as some form of an untapped market. A lot is changing; one by one, the doors are opening up.”