It may have been 17 years ago, but I still vividly recall SARS. I was the CEO of Robertson Smart, based in Singapore overseeing offices in Singapore, Hong Kong, Sydney & Dubai. We were not expecting it, and it had a profound impact on our business.  

Of course the scale and geographical spread of COVID-19 is significantly larger than SARS but it would appear that SARS has a higher mortality rate, though less infectious. Consequently, in 2003, I do recall a much higher atmosphere of uncertainty and fear, most probably due to the fact we had not experienced such an event in living memory, certainly for most of us. 

Driving home in the evening from The British Club with a young family, I recall a massive police road block across Pasir Panjang Road as the police were sealing off Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre due to a recently discovered infection cluster, just ten minutes from home. This was a whole new experience. Unsettling and disturbing. 

For us, we felt the SARS commercial impact acutely over a period of four months, starting in Feb 2003. Recruiting stalled, interviews and face to face meetings were banned. The quarantine and lockdown was applied mostly to those unfortunately infected using electronic tagging (if my memory serves me correctly), but I don’t recall a total lockdown as we have seen in many countries, including Singapore, today. 

Employees of many international organisations were warned that they would be terminated if they broke the rules. I recall the case of a very senior banker defying the rules, visiting his holiday villa in Bali despite the travel ban imposed by his employer, a US international bank, only to find himself summarily terminated upon his return. 

Even without circuit breaker legislation, the shopping malls and streets were deserted. When I flew from Singapore to Hong Kong, the plane was virtually empty and both Changi and HKI terminals seemed utterly devoid of any life whatsoever. The market simply stalled, to a point that I decided to temporarily relocate to Sydney and assist in the launch of our new brand Charterhouse. Sydney in comparison seemed to be so far removed from events in South East Asia, as to be on another planet. It certainly is not the same case today.

At the time of writing, Hong Kong is experiencing a drop in new COVID-19 cases and lockdown appears to be easing, and though Singapore is still seeing significant (though reducing) daily cases, it is clear that the situation is well under control; there is expected to be a gradual easing of commercial restrictions from the end of this week. Of course this could change rapidly. 

On the surface, the total number of stalled recruitment months would appear similar at around four, but of course the economic impact of COVID-19 is far deeper and more global in nature. Different countries will experience different challenges, but I suspect Singapore and Hong Kong will bounce back relatively quickly in comparison with many markets. There is liquidity in the market. Recruiters will soon be very much back in flavour. 

My overriding memory and lesson from SARS was the sheer speed in which recruiting came back. It was virtually instantaneous. The current placements all picked up with little or no dropoff as clients and candidates were equally in limbo, so time (for once!) was not the killer of deals. 

I see it clearly today in our business: clients are still interviewing and effectively pipelining, and all of us have our crystal balls out trying to predict just when we should flip the switch. I talk with very senior recruitment leaders most days and it is clear that the tone of calls is becoming more confident, positive and optimistic with each passing week. 

My advice to recruiters and agencies would be to gear up today. Anticipate client needs and vacancies. Reach out to the best candidates out there, many of whom are going to be extremely responsive throughout this period of temporary uncertainty. 

If your desk has gone cold, kickstart it now!