Mr Tan Tai Kiat: A Grounded Healthcare Entrepreneur Integrating Health, Social and Community Services

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Tan Tai Kiat, Director of Operations, SingHealth Community Hospitals.

By Warren Choo Shao Jie and Loh Wei Jie (ECONews Student Reporter)

Starting his career in public transportation and then to public healthcare, Tan Tai Kiat is a grounded healthcare entrepreneur in charge of operating three community hospitals. While living a busy life packed with meetings, he is pursuing a Ph.D. in Gerontology, combining his job as a healthcare administrator with his personal interest in caregiving for older adults.  Mr Tan was the founding secretary of NUS Economics Alumni that started in 2007 and also received the NUS Outstanding Young Alumni Award in 2015. The ECONews met him at Bright Vision Hospital.

Could you share with us your work scope at SingHealth Community Hospitals? 

SingHealth Community Hospitals (SCH) is the nation’s only cluster of public community hospitals with three hospitals under its management – Bright Vision Hospital, Sengkang and Outram Community Hospitals. SCH wants to bridge care and build communities in order to achieve health goals with patients by delivering person-centred care. A part of this goal is to provide a homely environment for patients to take part in well-paced personalised care from our multi-disciplinary teams.

We want our patients to not only recover, but also regain abilities so that they can return to the community. On this note, we envision ourselves playing a role to integrate health, social and community services through our initiatives, such as our Patient Service Centre at Sengkang Community Hospital, where our business office co-locates with community partners like Agency for Integrated Care (AIC) and National Library Board (NLB).

As Director of Operations, I oversee support operations, planning, communications and community engagement. In addition, we are working with our partners like the Singapore University of Social Sciences, with whom we recently signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to develop our education, research and innovation capabilities.

You started your career from the transportation sector and later moved to the healthcare industry. Could you share with us the transition and tell us how you arrived here today?

I was interested in public transport when I was young, and that’s why I studied transport economics in NUS. The late Associate Professor, Anthony Chin, was my honours thesis supervisor. It was a natural move for me to start my career at the public transportation industry. After graduation, I joined Land Transport Authority (LTA) and SBS Transit. One of the most memorable projects I did was Bus Service Enhancement Programme (BSEP) at SBS Transit to improve bus services. The move to public healthcare was serendipitous. I happened to join KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH), and that gave me the opportunity to contribute my skill sets in another industry.

How did you develop your interest in public transport when you were young? 

When I was little, I enjoyed reading street directories and bus guides. I even planned up my own bus route at home, playing with toy cars and buses, and built imaginary roads too! So it was natural for me to lean towards transport economics and move on to LTA. I am grateful for the exposure in policy, planning and investigation work related to vehicle offences. 

After this stint, I went to London School of Economics and Political Science to do my graduate studies in public policy and administration. There, I learnt that implementation and context matter, so I decided to go into the service delivery space of public transport to understand the spectrum and value chain of public transport. At SBS Transit, I did planning and operations, and that was where I enjoyed the ground experience working with bus captains and union. Through these experiences, I think I was better able to contribute ground-up operations with top-down planning for BSEP. That experience also helps me a lot here in the healthcare industry working with different stakeholders and multi-disciplinary teams.

You received a Master’s degree in Public Policy and now you are pursuing a Ph.D. in Gerontology…

It was also serendipity for me to study gerontology. I developed my interest in this subject when I was working at KKH. After attending workshops and conferences to understand this subject better, I wanted to learn the subject more in-depth. My interest in gerontology was cultivated also because I am a caregiver to my parents and parents-in-law. We need to offer more insight on caregiving in view of the ageing population in Singapore, and this is one aspect I want to emphasise through my work.

Sitting through sessions on end-of-life care, dementia and even environmental gerontology, I found the topics interesting. Besides caregiving research, I am interested in gerontology plus technology, or gerontechnology, as this is one emerging area we need to pay close attention to in digital age. For instance, I ask questions on how we can make better use of technology from bio-psychosocial and spiritual perspectives so that all of us can lead an active ageing life. For example, a simple digital tool like WhatsApp can be a powerful platform for older adults to connect and remain connected with friends and family members who may not be staying near them. I am really fortunate to be working in the healthcare industry so that I can marry my work and interest in gerontology, explore solutions on the ground and even social innovations to better serve the needs of ageing population.

How do you cope juggling different responsibilities?

I am grateful for the wonderful opportunities. My current responsibilities allow me to synergise my work, interests and play. To wind down, I read, jog, swim, cycle, do Taiji and Qigong regularly. I especially enjoy reading, which helps a lot for my graduate studies in gerontology. 

What advice would you have for Economics undergraduates?

Enjoy your moments as a student while you are studying. You have to find something that you enjoy doing. One way to do that is to widen your horizons during your school days by going for attachments, volunteer works, or internships to get to know more people. For example, I have been a voluntary probation officer for 20 years, and I enjoyed the interactions there and learning at the same time. These are the experiences and journeys in life that we can reflect on to live meaningfully and help us define the cause and course of our lives.


This article was first published in ECONews in April 2019

Ms Shirley Crystal Chua: Financial Entrepreneurship – Creating and Managing More Than a Financial Conglomerate

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Shirley Crystal Chua, Founder and Group CEO of Golden Equator

By Neo Teng Wei (ECONews Student reporter)

Graduating from NUS with a Double Degree in Economics and Southeast Asian Studies, Shirley Crystal Chua started her career with American Express International, and later moved to Citibank and became the youngest director at the age of 29. She set up her own business, Golden Equator Capital (now known as Golden Equator Group), in 2012 at the age of 32. The ECONews met with Ms Chua and listened to her life story and unique business model encompassing fund management (venture capital and private equity), a multi-family office, business consultancy, a technology and innovation club and more.

Can you tell me about your businesses? Golden Equator looks more than a financial group. It has not only asset management, a multi-family office and venture capital but also a consulting arm, business platforms and so on…

I founded Golden Equator Capital with two major components – multi-family office and fund management. We have then added new businesses as our businesses were developing. We now have three distinct sectors – financial services, consulting and a technology and innovation business club. It is a very distinct and unique business model. We do not see any other company in Asia that provides a wide scope of services as we do.

Let us talk about your businesses one by one. We had an interview with a private banker, Daniel Lo, in the last issue of the ECONews. How is family office different from private banking? 

Family office is a concept popular in the West such as Switzerland and the United States. We formed a team to manage the whole wealth of rich families. This included helping them set up family constitutions and pass on their wealth to the next generation. After the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, I noticed that wealth management in Asia was not substantive enough for the ultra- rich. I decided to cater to their needs. We work with more than ten different private banks, and a dozen of other service providers like trustees, tax advisors and private fund companies. We structure funds following the needs of the families and consolidate management of their wealth in different banks and financial institutions. Each family is unique in their requirements, which is why we tailor our services to them.

Daniel Lo gave us an analogy that private banking is like a first-class flight whereas premier banking is a business-class flight and retail banking is an economy-class flight. What is a multi-family office, then?

I can say family office is a private jet that arranges your own travels. The ways you arrange your trips are unique to your own needs. Some family offices only cater to one family, mostly billionaires. But there are rich families in between who will need family office services. We focus on such families. Multi-family office is akin to having a fleet of private jets of different sizes, shared by, say, ten different families. We use different jets depending on how many people we would want to bring along. For example, we have a venture capital team that different families can utilise and we cover more than 12 different countries around the region.

How do you run your fund management arm?

Under the fund management, we have a number of funds, including venture capital funds, prime currency funds and development funds investing in regional properties. Our core focus is technology and innovation funds. We invest in start-ups focusing on series A and series B funding around the Southeast Asian region. While serving the needs of our multi-family office clients, we realised that there is a strong demand in venture investment. 

At the moment, we are interested in Fintech, blockchain, AI (artificial intelligence), and digital economy. They can bring efficiency for consumers and the market development is quite interesting. The way that the future generation will interact with technology is different from the older generation. For instance, live streaming is a new form of media, something which was unthinkable ten years ago. It is now something revolutionary across different generations. We try to understand the reasons why these new technologies became popular and why the future generation finds them interesting.

You have Mr Taizo Son, younger brother of Softbank’s founder Masayoshi Son, on your board. How’s the relationship between Golden Equator Group and him?

We are closely working with Mistletoe, a venture capital and incubating company founded by Mr Taizo Son. He is a very innovative and smart man. He is also well-travelled and exposed to a lot of business ideas and companies. He himself has invested in and co-founded many venture companies. We feel validated as he picked Golden Equator Group as a partner to build a start-up ecosystem collectively. We share similar values on what we want to do. We both hope to see more excellent innovators coming out of Asia.  He is a special adviser for us. He is not a shareholder at the moment.

You also have a consulting arm…

That is also an extension of serving our customers’ needs. Start-ups require a lot of support. The beginning is not easy. They also need support from different areas to accelerate their growth as quickly as possible, especially in terms of market penetration. I co-founded Golden Equator Consulting to help start-ups accelerate. We also help MNCs to transform digitally. We live in a digitalised world but their businesses may not fully utilise new technologies. The consulting arm helps them to do that.

What is SPECTRUM and what does it do?

That is the latest one I have co-founded as a technology and innovation business club. Its purpose is to promote the ease of doing businesses around the region that stem from Singapore. It promotes learning and knowledge sharing. It is a curated and inclusive club for people who can contribute to learning and knowledge sharing. SPECTRUM extends and expands the Golden Equator ecosystem by allowing direct access to crucial elements of business growth: capital, consulting and community.

In SPECTRUM, we have seven groups but let me just highlight a few. We have innovators – people who come up with new ideas and are strong in particular skill sets in their industries. We also have executors – people who put together a company and make the company viable in the market. They are the management team. We have learning institutions. The innovations of tomorrow will come from bright minds of the future. We have recently collaborated with GIST (Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology) on an AI town in Korea.

You provide a very broad spectrum of services … How did it all begin?

My first job was with American Express International. I worked there for two and half years focusing on cards. At that time, the financial industry and wealth management were booming in Singapore. I decided to switch to wealth management and joined Citibank. At Citibank, my core area was wealth management but the bank gave me many other opportunities and groomed me to assume a management role. I was the youngest director at the age of 29. I stayed there for eight years in various positions and was exposed to different skill sets.

What drove you to set up Golden Equator Capital? Was starting a company your goal when you started working?

At the back of my head, I always wanted to start my own business. And I found that working in a multinational bank equipped me with many skill sets to start my own business. Six years ago, I felt that it was the right time. The climate was right, the market was mature and I had the right skill set to take the plunge. I left Citibank to set up Golden Equator Capital.

I would say, at that point, it took a lot of courage and bravery. There was a lot to give up. I had to take a pay cut. Back then, the government wasn’t really pro-entrepreneurship and it took a lot of sacrifice to set up a business. But I started Golden Equator Capital with a well thought-out rationale. The government is now more encouraging.

We noticed you have competent co-founders. How did you convince them to take the plunge together?

It didn’t take a lot of convincing. My co-founders had worked with me for some time. For instance, Grace (Grace Chiong, Group Chief Operating Officer) was my mentee at Citibank. I trained her and she worked for a couple of other banks, including Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch.

When you pick a co-founder, you’d better pick someone with different skill sets from yours. When you start a business, you need to do ten different things concurrently and you might not have the skill set for all ten things. You cannot be good at technology, vision, ideas, client acquisition, organizational skills, people skills, management skills, convincing investors, market penetration, compliance… You need to know your strong skill sets and whether your co-founders should be able to complement you. But we must have a similar vision and similar values. Our goals must be aligned. We got it right. That’s why we are still here together.

How much did your learning at university influence your career?

I think I am now utilizing less than 10% of what I learned at school. That’s small in my entire life curriculum to develop my skill sets. Most of my skill sets were built from on-the-job training in my career life. I encourage students to learn things and gain knowledge rather than just being educated. Learn things that will help you in the areas where you can build your skill sets. This is very important when you embark on your career journey. 

At NUS, I did an extensive range of social work. I was involved in a church group, mission trips and counselling teenagers. I continued doing them in earlier days of my career as well. Doing business can have a social impact on the lives of the future generation. That is something close to my heart ever since I started helping out teenagers when I was in school.

Tell us more about your time in NUS. Why did you choose to double major in Economics and Southeast Asian Studies? That is a very unusual combination.

I chose to major in Economics for a practical reason – to enter the financial industry. Southeast Asian Studies was very interesting because I could get to learn about the culture, language and people in the region. It sat a bit better with my nature and personality. Southeast Asian Studies made me learn a new language – Bahasa Indonesia and gave me an opportunity to travel during my university days. I came to see people in a different light as I learned how they led their lives in different countries.

Thank you for sharing your life story with us. Finally, do you have any parting advice for our Economics students when they start their professional careers?

When you are young, it is always good to try a number of things in your first five years. This will be the time when you try to find out where your strongest skill sets will be. It will be great if they align with your interests. It is easier to find a strong skill set than follow your interest because your interest can change. Your skill sets can only get better and better, and you can utilise them in different areas. Try as many things as possible because once you reach a certain age, you may not have an appetite to try different things. 


This article was first posted in ECONews in July 2018

Mr Daniel Lo: The World of Private Banking – “Treat your clients’ money as your own”

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Daniel Lo, Senior Vice President of CIC (Crédit Industriel et Commercial) Bank

By Neo Teng Wei and Andy Ho (ECONews Student reporters) 

The private banking industry is undergoing phenomenal growth and Singapore is now even dubbed as the “Switzerland of Asia”. The ECONews met with Mr. Daniel Lo, who is currently Senior Vice President of a French bank, CIC, and learnt about the less-well-known world of private banking.

Most of us are not familiar with private banking. What is it?

I will compare it to airlines. We have economy, business and first classes. Retail banking is the equivalent of an economy class, which is the biggest segment but with the least privileges. Services rendered are limited. Similar to economy flights, you get a limited choice of the standard set meals. Business class is equivalent to priority banking. DBS calls it Treasures, UOB calls it Privilege Banking while OCBC names it Premier Banking. For most banks, the minimum requirement is a deposit of US$200,000. You have a relationship manager (RM) assigned to you. The ratio is usually 1 RM to about 100-200 customers. The services and products provided are also limited. You can deal in a few generic products such as foreign exchange, mutual funds, unit trusts, dual currency deposits and equity-linked notes.  

Private banking is the equivalent of first class in the airline industry. The ratio is generally 1 RM to 20-30 customers. These customers are usually known as high-net-worth individuals and will open an account with a minimum of US$1 million in investable assets. Investable assets usually refer to assets that are rather liquid and normally include bonds, equities and cash. In private banking, the sky is the limit in terms of product offerings. The product spectrum ranges from foreign exchange, funds, bonds, equities to exotic structures and derivatives. Essentially, as long as you have an investment idea, the financial engineer can create a product to match your idea. At the tip of the pyramid, we have people who go into antiques, paintings, and are frequently seen at auctions. 

So what does a private banker do?

A private banker is essentially your financial advisor. He is your relationship manager who knows much about you including some of your little secrets. Your wealth is basically under his care. Here, the relationship between the private banker and the client has more breadth and depth as the RM interacts with his clients more frequently on more products of bigger ticket size.

One of the most rewarding features is when your clients gradually grow to become friends. It is not uncommon for some private bankers to manage the family office of their key clients after leaving the bank, given the trust and understanding established over the years.

How would a private banker find clients, or how would clients find you?

It is mostly through word of mouth. It is unlikely for private banking clients to attend to cold calls unless you are a celebrity perhaps. It is most effective if your existing clients introduce you to their friends and relatives since they bear the best testimony of you as an outstanding private banker. Therefore, if you serve your clients well, more clients will naturally be added to you.

Another common source is through a referral agent. Occasionally, you might find a retired private banker who may introduce his/her contacts to a private bank in return for a referral fee.  Other common routes are via the accounting firms or law firms, or people with very strong networks with HNWIs (High Net Worth Individuals).

Sounds like quite a job! How can you become a good private banker? 

It boils down to sincerity, integrity and your character. If you just drink and party with your clients, it’s not going to go far because, ultimately, you need to perform. The money they have entrusted you with must grow. If it doesn’t grow but dwindles over time, it will not be long before you lose this customer. In private banking, like in any job, you have to deliver performance.

Personally for me, what matters most is sincerity. The client knows whether you are treating his money as your own, or if you are just doing it to generate revenue for the bank. Once the client realises that you are sincere and trustworthy, he will gradually commit more funds for you to manage. Such clients will also be more understanding on occasions when your performance is adversely affected by market movements.

What is the size of the private banking industry in Singapore?

It’s huge. It’s in trillions. Singapore is not just attracting Asian funds. Money is coming from all over the world. As one of the largest financial centres in Asia, Singapore faces many key challenges, including money laundering and tax evasion.

This explains why private banks in Singapore perform very strict due diligence when it comes to signing on clients with the bank. ‘The Know Your Client (KYC)’ is very thorough and comprehensive. With most banks, clients who are engaged in primarily cash transactions such as gold/diamond trading are not welcome, as it is difficult to determine the source of funds.  The penalty faced by the bank for accepting funds from dubious sources is more than just a big fine: there could be a loss of reputation as well. Therefore, private bankers make great efforts to find out about their clients – not only to understand them better so that they can better serve them, but also to protect themselves from potential compliance issues.

Private banks also generally don’t deal with politicians and people in government positions. For this category of clients, the same issue of source of funds remains – are these monies clean?  Besides, it is not uncommon that these people are investigated under a new government and banks do not want to be involved in such investigations. Personally, I have encountered a case in one of my previous employments, where I came across an account with over USD10 million. We did our usual KYC and discovered that the account holder was a police superintendent of Cambodia. From search reports, we uncovered that this client was responsible for many deaths during his time. The bank committee deliberated and decided to close the account. The bank did not want to have anything to do with money tainted with blood.

How did you start your career as a banker?

I stayed in Boon Keng during my university days. To go to the Bukit Timah Campus at that time, there were only two bus services, 175 and 182. The starting point was at Queen’s Street where the DBS Rochor branch was located. When commuting to and from campus, this particular DBS branch was always within my field of vision. Gradually, I told myself that I wanted to join this bank because banking was a rather glamorous job back then, and DBS Bank also carried a strong branding.

In my Honours year, DBS would hold tea parties and invite the top 5 Honours students in every department of the faculty by recommendation of the Dean. I was not among the top 5 in Economics but fortunately for me, the Dean decided that anyone could sign up for the tea party. Eight of us submitted our names, attended the tea party and all eight of us got the job offer before Christmas. It was really the best Christmas gift. I could not wait to start working and I found myself sitting in the Corporate Banking department of DBS Bank at Shenton Way immediately after my final examinations.

When you first entered DBS, did you know what you wanted to do?

I just wanted to work in a bank. Fortunately, I was posted to the Corporate Banking division where I performed credit analysis on corporates in the real estate and financial services industries. I was blessed to have a very good mentor, Mr Hong Tuck Kun, back then.  To this day, I remain in close contact with him. In this division, I dealt with many large property developers who are among the richest people in Singapore today. This job was really rewarding – I enjoyed interacting with the shareholders and senior personnel of each corporation, having lunches in almost every good restaurant in Singapore, and having an attractive pay package.   

How did you then move to private banking?

I must say I am very blessed. My path was, in a way, charted. I spent three years in Corporate Banking at DBS, after which I joined Bankers Trust in Regional Corporate Banking. At Bankers Trust, I was given the opportunity to join the Treasury Department, where I was first exposed to financial market instruments such as foreign exchange, bonds etc. Equipped with a good knowledge of financial products, I moved on to become a product advisor in private banking with Bankers Trust. In that role, I accompanied relationship managers to meet with their clients where I shared my views and recommendations on financial markets. When I rejoined DBS in 1996, I assumed two roles:  a team leader for the North Asia market, and assisting the private banking department to expand its suite of product offerings. Thereafter is really history. DBS private bank has come a long way. In recent years, it has acquired the private banking businesses of Societe Generale and ANZ to become the largest private bank in Asia.  

Who are clients of private banking in Singapore?

In the Asian context, somehow, the wealth is vested mainly with the hardworking Chinese.  More than 80% of private banking clients are business owners. Like Hong Kong, wealth in Singapore is also mainly generated from two asset classes, i.e. real estate and shares.  However, our small nation was able to attract the mega-rich from the neighbouring countries, particularly from Taiwan and Indonesia, and lately from China. Since the 2008 Global Financial Crisis  led to increasingly regulated environments, Singapore has also been seeing funds flowing in from Europe and the Middle East.

Why do Taiwanese tycoons want to park their money in Singapore?

When I marketed to these Taiwanese tycoons, I talked about 三保 (Three Treasures). First, 保障 (Security). Singapore is a AAA-rated country. It is a sovereign nation not aligned to any other country. The legal framework is strong and robust, so investors know that their money is safe here. In other countries, your money may experience ring-fencing, that is, the money cannot come out. Singapore doesn’t have that problem. Secondly, 保密 (Confidentiality). Taiwanese tycoons do not want to “put all their eggs in one basket”. Given the cross-straits problems, Singapore offers a neutral and viable option to park their money in. Thirdly, 保本 (Principal protection). As an international financial centre, Singapore offers many investment options, including those with principal guarantee.

Singapore has forward planning for as far as 20 years into the future. The Singapore Government adopts a business-like approach to managing its resources, with many success stories, such as Singapore Airlines, Singapore Telecoms, DBS. This way, it has built huge reserves under the umbrellas of Temasek Holdings and GIC. During the 2008 financial debacle, Singapore successfully rode out the crisis with innovative schemes like job credits. When companies wanted to retrench people, the Government said, “No, don’t retrench. We will help you pay 10% of your staff’s salary.” You save jobs. Jobs are critical. Without jobs, the economy cannot perform. 

Let’s go back to your career. You mentioned you were a team leader in relationship management in DBS…

Actually I never planned to leave DBS. During the 2008 financial crisis, DBS management took the view that market conditions could deteriorate further in 2009. DBS therefore made the painful decision to retrench 6% of its entire staff, about 900 people. I was one of them. For me, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I collected an unusually big retrenchment compensation (given my 15 years of service), terminated my service with DBS on 31st December 2008, and then moved CIC, a French financial services group, as a team leader on 2nd January 2009.

CIC is probably the best place I have worked for, in terms of work-life balance. Some banks just go for revenue and are very result-focused. Such banks are known for “hiring and firing”. They can hire 100 people and in 6 months’ time, 50 are out. European banks are generally more conservative and less demanding on performance. Very often, I have witnessed occasions where the staff were given a second chance. If you can’t produce results in 6 months, they will give you one year if you show a positive work attitude and good potential. Our local banks are increasingly more result-focused, unfortunately. 

When you move from one bank to another, do you keep your clients?

This is a given. That’s what you’re paid for! Your client is your asset that you have built and you are expected to bring them wherever you go. Let’s say I want to take in a new RM. I will see how many clients he/she has, how much AUM (Assets under Management), how much he/she can contribute to the bank’s revenue. With that understanding, we agree on the compensation package and the obligations that follow.

Private banking is very relationship-driven. The RM matters more to the client than the bank does. That’s why EQ is a lot more important than IQ. EQ brings you everywhere. If you know how to network, the world is your oyster. You can be very bright, but if you don’t know how to network, then you are better-suited to work in non-client jobs like research analysts. Any front-line job requires networking.

What is some advice you would give to current Economics students to become good bankers?

I always tell them that you need three things to be a private banker. First, your personality. You have to be personable. You don’t always have to look gorgeous, but you must be pleasant. Don’t put on a sulky, bitter look. How will the client converse with you? It will be challenging. Every client likes to meet and talk to someone who is pleasant and sociable. Secondly, you must have good general knowledge as well as knowledge of the financial markets.  However, this can be acquired over time. The third is networking. This refers to your circle of friends and contacts. You can also develop this by enlarging your social circle through participation in Rotary clubs, trade associations, and other groups.   

Ultimately, private banking is a front-line job – it requires selling skills, like it or not. You are marketing yourself and your bank. Personality is key.


This article was first posted in ECONews in October 2017

Mr Joseph Chew: “Silk and Steel” – Singapore Airlines’ Secret to Success

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Mr Joseph Chew is a living history of Singapore’s aviation and tourism industry. Soon after he joined Malaysia Singapore Airlines or MSA in 1970, he witnessed the split of MSA into the Malaysia Airlines System (MAS) and Singapore Airlines (SIA) on 1 October, 1972. He spent 34 years with the SIA Group which included a stint of 6 years with the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB) as its Executive Director and 4 years with SATS Catering as its Chief Executive.

By P. Keerthana and Khaw Yew Onn (ECONews Student reporters) 

Upon graduation, how did you start your job career?

Upon graduation from the National University of Singapore with a BA (Hons) in Economics in 1966, I joined the Straits Times as a Management Trainee. Two years into my job, I was appointed as the Advertising Manager of Times Publishing, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Straits Times Group. It was an interesting four years for me as I found out that working for a media company can be quite challenging.

Why did you then move to Singapore Airlines?

I wanted to acquire the experience of working for another completely different industry. So when the opportunity presented itself in an opening in Malaysia Singapore Airlines (MSA), I decided to give it a try. As a result, I spent the next 34 years with the SIA Group.

Soon after you joined Malaysia Singapore Airlines or MSA, it was split into Malaysia Airlines System (MAS) and Singapore Airlines (SIA) in 1972. How was the mood of the employees like after the split of MSA?

There was an air of uncertainty. I opted to join Singapore Airlines, as I was offered a position. With 10 Boeing aircraft and some international routes inherited from its predecessor in 1972, SIA began the process of change on its own. It continued more vigorously to expand its fleet and route network. Thus, the initial mood of uncertainty was transformed by the will of the Management of the company into bold confidence underpinned by the rigorous training of staff.

What did you do during your earlier years with SIA?

In my 34 years with the company, I was indeed very fortunate to experience the various facets of the Airline’s operations from marketing to cabin crew, mostly in management positions. I spent a good 15 years of my time with the SIA Group in managing their overseas operations in Switzerland, Hong Kong, the USA, Southwest Pacific Region based in Sydney, Australia and the West Asia & Africa Region based in Singapore. Then, I spent six years of my career life with the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (now Singapore Tourism Board) as their Executive Director. The latter job was strictly on secondment from SIA. Finally, I spent the last four years of my career with the SIA Group as Chief Executive of SATS Catering. SATS was then a fully owned subsidiary of SIA. It was the service provider for over 60% of the airlines that serve Changi Airport.

Could you tell us more about your overseas experiences?

As a country Manager, my responsibility covered the gamut of operations ranging from sales to traffic, and from public relations to international relations. You almost feel like you are running a company and you are the CEO. It can be quite a daunting task.

What were some of the interesting marketing campaigns and promotions SIA introduced?

I would just like to outline two of the marketing campaigns/promotions. The first is Orchid Street and Fireworks in London, Zurich and Paris. When SIA launched its services to Europe in the early 1980s, it brought in thousands of sprays of orchids to decorate the shop windows at the main shopping streets of these cities (Regent Street in London and the Bahnhofstrasse in Zurich) and grand fireworks displayed on the River Thames in London and the Zurich River in Switzerland. It left a lasting impression on the peoples’ minds and created a strong branding for SIA. The second was the joint SIA/STPB campaigns. Realising that the objective of STPB and that of SIA in promoting Singapore as a destination are synonymous, an aggressive joint advertising and promotion was launched. It had the famous tagline “Singapore. It’s also an Airline”. It was a win-win situation for both Singapore and SIA.

Could you enlighten us on how Singapore Airlines rose to where it is today despite having its roots in a relatively unknown city, Singapore, back in the 1970’s?

I would like to ascribe the success of SIA to a number of factors. Good management with a clear vision underpinned by good team spirit was key to the success of SIA. Right from the start, the company decided to have the most modern fleet of aircraft and to provide the best inflight service. This was epitomized in the ‘Singapore Girl’. In all its advertising and promotions, the ‘Singapore Girl’ was portrayed whether to show the Airline’s modern aircraft and expanding network to a choice of finest champagnes and the introduction of the most advanced inflight entertainment system. More importantly, what was promised in the advertisements was diligently delivered, which culminated in the growing faith and confidence travelers had in SIA.

What was your highest position at SIA?

I joined the airline as an Administrative Officer and rose to the rank of Senior Vice-President. There was not much of a hierarchy in SIA. It was the will of top management that they wanted a ‘flat’ organization which of course had worked well for the company.

When you were in senior positions in SIA, did you have any obstacle in introducing new measures or initiatives?

Life is full of obstacles, but one learns how to overcome them. It had not been always easy and one learns how to navigate nimbly. The one thing I learnt quite quickly was that you have to be firm but fair, a dictum that has brought about a great deal of mutual respect and satisfaction.

What’s your opinion on the airline industry today?

Ever present is the intense competition as in most products and services. Against this background is the emergence of mega legacy carriers from the Middle East and the numerous budget airlines. Competition from them has seriously eroded profit margins of airlines.

You ventured into the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB) while you were with SIA. What was the reason?  

Quite honestly I did not venture into STPB. I was asked by SIA Chairman then, Mr J.Y. Pillay to go on secondment to STPB. I was at STPB over two terms (1976-1978 and 1985-1989), adding up to six years.

What did you do at STPB?

I was the Executive Director. STPB had the dual role of the promotion of Singapore as a tourist and business destination and a regulatory role of licensing of travel agents, tourist guides and related tourist agencies. From the funds it collected from hotels and related tourist establishments, STPB primarily promoted Singapore as a tourist destination.

What are the challenges you have had to face?

At the STPB, the big challenge I had to face was to find ways and means to keep the Singapore product ‘alive’ such that the country keeps attracting new tourists as well as repeat tourists. It’s almost like keeping up a giant theme park where you have to continually refresh the attractions and introduce new attractions to entice your visitors. At SIA, the challenge was to maximize the revenues through high load factors and good yields. 

Can you tell us about your experiences with SATS Catering? 

I spent the last four years of my career with the SIA Group with SATS as the Chief Executive of SATS Catering commencing in 2000. In that year, SATS was publicly listed on the Singapore Exchange. SATS Catering provided the inflight catering and cabin services for over 60% of the international airlines including SIA that operate into and out of Changi Airport. SATS Catering accounts for almost 50% of the total revenues of SATS. It was an interesting but a daunting experience at SATS Catering, having to cater to the numerous clients with varied needs. And the operation is certainly a 24/7 operation to the tee.

How does SATS enhance the culinary experiences of its passengers?

Apart from some smaller airlines, most of the larger airlines have their own in-house chefs and also plan their own menus. However, SATS will inevitably be expected to enhance the planned menus with its own ideas provided by its team of chefs and specialists.

Were there any major changes in SATS that you witnessed as a Chief Executive?

One of the major changes was the introduction of SAP into the operations. It was a major modification to our costing system. Thankfully the SAP system was implemented although there was some delay.

Did you oversee any expansion plans or collaborations with overseas hotel chains?

The SIA Group has never had interest in hotels. As a matter of fact, it was made quite clear from the outset that SIA should stick to doing what it was set out to do. 

Is there any life lesson that you learnt from the SIA Group?

Interesting question but kind of difficult to answer. Right from the start, I told myself that whatever job or responsibility I am given, I would give my level best. I firmly believed that whatever experiences I can gain, they would be useful to me in my career and nobody can take them away from me. 

Do you have any advice about retaining the human touch and managing people?

In the real working environment, I think the EQ (Emotional Quotient) is equally if not more important than IQ (Intelligence Quotient). Essentially EQ refers to one’s abilities to get along well with people especially if you are in a leadership position.

Do you have any fond memories or recollections of the NUS Economics Department?

My classmates in the Class ’66 have regular get-togethers. Each year without fail we have a dinner gathering on 15 August. Last year, we celebrated our Golden Anniversary with our 1966 year mates including several of our professors and lecturers who had taught us. 

Did you have any advice to current Economics Students?

Enjoy your university life. It is one golden opportunity you must take full advantage of. Learn to explore with an open mind and let your imagination ‘fly’. Treasure the moments, treasure your university life.                              


This article was first published in ECONews in March 2017                                                                                                        

Mr Wong Nang Jang: “Integrity, Integrity and Integrity” – The Top Three Qualities for Successful Bankers

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By P. Keerthana and Bryan Lim (ECONews reporters)

Mr Wong Nang Jang is a prominent veteran in Singapore’s finance industry, having served multiple pioneering roles such as the Regional Vice President at Citibank – the first ever local head of Citibank Singapore; Deputy President and Executive Director of OCBC, and was the director of several publicly listed companies in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. He graduated from the University of Singapore (now the National University of Singapore) with a Bachelor of Arts Degree with honours in Economics in 1962.

When we first contacted him, Mr Wong replied that he “may not fill the bill” to be deemed as a notable alumnus. On the day of the interview, we were ushered into the lobby of the Executive Suite in OCBC by an amicable receptionist. While we were in the waiting area, there was the sound of hearty laughter from the inner chambers. “Mr Wong is the one with the loudest voice”, the receptionist laughed. When we entered the cozy meeting room, Mr Wong’s larger-than-life personality placed us at ease immediately.  He then greeted us warmly.

You started your career with Citibank. Why did you choose the banking sector upon graduation? Was it always your calling to work in a bank, or perhaps, even the result of a moment of impulse?

None of the above. In fact, it was a miracle how I was even qualified for an honours degree. I was often on the Dean’s Notice board for wrong reasons. People get on the Dean’s List because they wrote a good essay or had an outstanding performance. For me, the reason was that I did not pass up my essay, thereby catching the attention of the Dean who was also the Professor of Economics (and my teacher).

One day, my roommate told me “Hey, your name is on the Dean’s notice board”, and I replied “What happened?” “It says, ‘Will Mr Wong Nang Jang, please make an appointment to see the Dean?’”. It happened again another day. I got the same message a second time. “What did I do this time,” I asked myself. After the first session, I thought I did everything right!

To my great surprise, this time it was for a different reason. The Dean told me that this Bank, the first National City Bank (now Citibank), was looking for university graduates to join them as an executive trainee. Why me? I did not do well in class, I was far from being a top student, and I did not pass up my essay on time. The Dean explained that they gave him some specifications about what kind of a person they were looking for, and it appeared that I had those qualities they wanted.

So I went along for a job interview. The interviewer was a senior manager in the Bank. He was very polite and interesting, and as it turned out, he became my immediate boss. Several weeks later, he sent me a letter offering me a job “provided you graduate with an honour’s degree”.  I was elated but was also horrified to discover that the salary they offered was almost half of what my brighter class mates were expecting in jobs at other multi-national corporations. The reality was that I did not expect to get exceptional marks so I would not be qualified anyway. Most importantly, my parents told me that it would be good to work in a bank as bankers are known to be respectable people. As a 21-year-old and knowing little of the commercial world, I acquiesced.

There was no “calling”, no great ambition, nothing. I just stumbled into the job offer with a lot of luck and goodwill. Nearer to my graduation, I started to have other jobs being offered. I was fond of marketing and there was a job offer of marketing powdered milk for infants and babies with a salary tag of more than 1.5 times of what I was offered! As fate would have it, I took up the Citibank offer.

If you look at the banking sector today, we hear of graduates complaining that is very competitive. How do you think the banking sector is like today as compared to the past?                

In my day, the banking sector was not at all prestigious. There was no rush. First, you do not get paid well. Graduates in other banks were not getting much more than what I got. But, as you well know, the banking and financial sector had phenomenal growth with the advent of Singapore’s development as a financial center for Asia. This growth led to greater demand of bright and eager candidates. In tandem, supply of candidates also increased. Sadly, it also attracted smart people who do not subscribe to integrity. This is why we witness so many cases of wrongdoing, even in Singapore.

If you were paid so poorly in the past, what really drove you to maintain this hunger to succeed and persevere throughout?

I think it was drive rather than hunger. It is nice and dramatic to use the word “hunger”, but it was the drive that was there, deep down inside me. It was not a question of “hunger”, but the need to do the job well. I could not leave a job unfinished, so I did not quit until its completion.

Banking is very demanding and unforgiving. If you cannot balance the book at the end of the day, you have to stay back until it does. Similarly, if you get a lot of cheques on any particular day, you have to read and scrutinize every detail, the signature, that the words and figures match, and the date is current. That’s painstaking.

On the day that I was to be engaged to be married, it coincided with a seasonal rush with more than the usual volume of cheques. People were writing more cheques because it was the end of the year and it was time to settle payments and debts. Clearly I was going to be very late and, by almost at 11 pm, my colleagues packed me home. Fortunately, she was patiently waiting for me, and eventually married me! Thankfully, digitization has done away with all these tedious manual processes.

Of course, I did not get any extra pay or promotion, and my salary certainly did not double itself until much later. It was only till 7 years later after I was appointed as the General Manager of the Singapore branch, then did I catch up with my brighter and more intelligent peers.

At any point of time, have you ever asked yourself, “Why am I doing this?”

I really didn’t because after several years in the Bank, I was already a father, a married man with 2 kids. The job was secure and with heavy responsibilities. I did not have the luxury of going to a headhunter to seek another job. The banking community then was so small that the information on an enquiry of another job would easily passed to my boss and it would anger him enough to give a black mark on my career. Then, as now, loyalty is an attribute every banker should have. Loyalty to yourself, to your Bank, and to your customer – they are the 3 most important stakeholders in any banker’s list of priorities.

What are some other qualities you think a successful banker should have?

I offer you three: Integrity, Integrity, and Integrity. If you don’t believe in integrity and don’t practice it, you should not work in a bank. Historically, if you look at the problems of big banks overseas and in western countries, they invariably stem from the hunger of greedy people who are in a hurry. We can read many stories involving rogue foreign exchange traders, shady investment bankers who sell papers and certificates that have no intrinsic value. Even worse, these same people have sweet mouths and oily tongues and can even sell snow to an Eskimo.

The fallout of all this is best exemplified by the financial meltdown of New York and London in 2008/2009, not so long ago. Movies, videos, and countless books have become best sellers recounting the massive fortunes made and lost. I urge you to read some of them.

Closer to home, I believe the Singapore-incorporated banks possess the best examples of integrity and stability. Because of them, like-minded people will still beat a path to their doors for employment. Of course, the economic development of Singapore has also spawned a plethora of specialist jobs related to the banking and finance industry.

Success in a banking career does not equate to driving flashy cars and living in posh bungalows or condos. Fact is, not all of us have flashy cars and posh homes. Statistically, around 15% (or more) of the working population here are engaged in the banking and finance industry. They are well off and comfortable, but they are not filthy rich. Success in climbing the corporate ladder is a long hard ride and there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow! This is sobering but real.

You later became the first Singaporean to head the Citibank Singapore Operations. Was there any special reason as to why you were chosen to lead the Operations?

Luck. Pure luck. If you are looking for motivational reasons, there are none. I was 29 years old in the right place at the right time when I was appointed as the General Manager of the Singapore Branch. I believe that somebody in the Bank was trying to make the point that local staff is just as able as expatriate Americans. Besides, we cost much less. That policy determined in New York trickled down to lucky me. I had good colleagues within Asia like in Japan and the Philippines. My counterparts there were also promoted to jobs that replaced American expatriates. Some attribute this to my part in the development of the Asian Dollar market.  Till this day, I really do not know. 

Let me tell you a little about the Asian Dollar Market. It was a clone of the Euro Dollar Market in London. This started when Russian banks were subject to “sanctions” by the US, whereby they could not transact payments and receipts in US dollars. So they turned to British banks in London to make payments on their behalf. As these British banks had good relations with clearing banks in New York, they welcomed the offer as it became an additional source of income. Soon other banks started to trade in London in US dollars as there was the additional advantage as they need not worry about the time difference and could finalise rates etc., at the time of transaction.

In Singapore, the then Minister for Finance, Mr Hon Sui Sen, was wise enough and visionary in seeing the advantage to allowing this business to spawn. The only snag was that he had to remove some regulatory obstacles such as Foreign Exchange Control; waiving withholding tax; and freeing up reserve requirements for deposits. He did. That was the beginning of Singapore’s Financial Center.

It was in this regime that gave me the opportunity to travel around Asia. Firstly, to convince all Citibank branches that they can as easily borrow from the Singapore branch as it was from the London branch.  Soon enough, the market blossomed. I then went visiting the central banks in the region for their business, principally deposits which were not core to their reserve holdings. 

Citibank was the most advanced bank at that time, for instance, being among the first to introduce IT systems. Did you have any challenges introducing all these innovations?

In Citibank, and then latterly in OCBC Bank, I was put in charge of IT but I knew nothing about computer applications or how they work. Fortunately, I had very good people working with me, so I learned very quickly. The advent of ATMs may have changed the habits of bank customers, but even more so, improvements in the backroom operations via digitization turned the banks upside down. The ATM system was supplemented by the eGiro system. Today, you receive and pay by Giro. More changes will come.

You mentioned that when you were put in leading positions in the bank’s IT development, you were inexperienced. How did you overcome it?

In OCBC, I had very good people advising me and telling me very politely how ignorant I was. So I had to learn quickly or sink into oblivion. At one point, I was the Executive Vice President in charge of operations, the entire backroom. I realized very early that we had IT people with no knowledge of banking, and banking people who were totally ignorant about IT. The challenge was how to meld the two skills together. I was lucky in that both sides started to learn together, so there were no major mistakes made.

In Citibank, it was different. Some folks from New York came to assist in implementation. (One of them actually would not drink anything except Coke and eat nothing but hamburgers while in Singapore for fear of ingesting unhygienic food!) However, in OCBC the bucks ended with me so it was vital that I knew – and I learned!

How did you become involved with OCBC?

There were many businesses that OCBC was comfortable with in the 1970s, but they had little experience with industrial financing, and Citibank could help. So a joint venture was formed by way of a finance company with OCBC group as the majority owners. I represented the foreign partner and a successful partnership was launched. 

What do you think was the highlight of your OCBC career?

Working for an organization with a soul is vital. When I reached the point of retirement as an executive, the Bank kept me on in various capacities. I was sent to subsidiaries and other banks as either a Board member or as an advisor. The most memorable assignment was as the Chairman of Banking Computer Services Pte Ltd. (In February 2016, it celebrated its 40th anniversary.) What do they do? In Singapore, every cheque written and deposited, every Giro payment made, are all serviced and handled by them. Although it is 100% owned by OCBC, it serves all major banks in Singapore. I was dispatched there as the Chairman. At the ripe age of 60, and in a full time job, I was tasked with changing the company’s service to keep up with changing IT advances. The biggest challenge was to enjoy the confidence of the regulator (MAS) and all participating banks that private information will be respected. Not one iota of information could be leaked to outsiders, not even to our single shareholder! 

My baptism of fire was my first day on the job, 31 December 1999. It was the fear of the Y2K problem which, if it happened, could wipe out most of the computers of the world the next day, 1 Jan 2000. As it turned out, it was a non-event.

The Bank also sent me to Malaysia to serve as a Board member of Pacific Bank Bhd, a subsidiary bank in addition to OCBC Bank Malaysia Bhd. Similarly, I also served in the Indonesian subsidiary bank, PT Bank OCBCNISP Tbk.

You were in a leading position in OCBC during the Asian Financial Crisis. Was there any particular challenge you faced during the Crisis?

Thanks to a strong and formidable balance sheet, OCBC was not directly affected. There were some initial jitters as we had banking relationships with banks in Thailand and Philippines, but in the end everybody paid up and we suffered no loss.

What is your take on the 2008 Financial Crisis?

I had earlier made reference to the 2008 Financial Crisis. In the final analysis, banks and customers should always know what they are selling or buying. Bankers with integrity can sell and customers will buy. But if both are blur about what it is, and are driven only by how much they can earn for themselves, then you can have a repetition of the events of 2007 and 2008. 

Financial regulators in Europe and the US have been busy introducing regulations and laws to prevent this from happening. Sadly, human aspirations (some call it greed) to make more money can find ways of circumventing them. The only way to minimize this, is to ensure that bankers have the integrity in restraining themselves from malpractice.

What are some of the challenges Singapore banking industry face currently?

First: Stability and steadfastness. If Singapore banks and our regulators remain as a stable force unbuffered by hurricanes, earthquakes and remain steadfast in maintaining faith, we will be an example to warn all others who may see our unwillingness to wheel and deal as a weakness, and may capitalize on it. Examples of money laundering are now beginning to emerge and they have to be dealt with forcefully and with no fear or favour. The three Singapore banks are very solid and their strength and quality of management are important. Not only will the local customers remain faithful, but people overseas will flock here to protect their hard-earned money.

Second: Keeping up with advances in technology. Digitization can and will change the way we live, let alone how we manage our money. Third: Sound and prudent management. As long as others leave their wealth with banks to manage, there should be an unsigned pact to protect it as best as they can.

Reminiscing about your times as a student in NUS, what were some of the important lessons you learnt back then?

I had very good teachers and I enjoyed my lessons (notwithstanding the fact that I was tardy in passing up essays). Some books inspired me to think. For example, Schumpeter’s book on entrepreneurship. Another was an old book whose lessons are still valid till this day: How to Lie with Statistics (by Darrell Huff in 1954). Read and learn from it! 

When you were receiving education, you mentioned that it was not at all smooth sailing, but, rather, a series of miracles that allowed you to graduate with an honours degree.

I was not poor and my father could afford to pay my fees, so there is no dramatic story. It was more about the distractions. I was the Financial Secretary of the Student’s Union, probably the worst possible job. You had to manage the funds given by the University and be accountable to a very hands-on Bursar. As an elected official, you had to listen to them and learn how much to dole out. In addition, I was courting a girl who eventually became my wife.

What advice would you give to Economics students from NUS?

I don’t know. Today’s students have a different set of aspiration and patience. In my day, I had a great job but the worst pay.

Perhaps all of them should take a course in ethics and logic before joining any financial institution. Learn to decide what is right and what is wrong, what are lies and what is the truth? You should not believe in everything you hear. See the big picture and hear everyone before you decide.


This article was first published in ECONews in August 2016

Mr Dhanabalan: Living a Meaningful Life – From a Humble Student to an Elder of Singapore Inc.

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By Chong Yee Lim and Marc Tan (ECONews reporters)

Awarded with the nation’s highest honor, the Order of Temasek (First Class), earlier this August, Mr Suppiah Dhanabalan, 78, is one of the most respected elders of Singapore Inc. After graduating from NUS with BA in economics, he started his career as a civil servant in 1960. He became part of the pioneering team that established Economic Development Board (EDB) and later the Developmental Bank of Singapore (DBS). 

He entered politics in 1976 and held influential positions such as the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Minister for National Development and Minister for Trade and Industry. In 1988, he was even identified as a possible candidate to succeed Mr Lee Kuan Yew as the Prime Minister. He then moved to positions to oversee Singapore’s prominent government-linked institutions, serving as Chairman of DBS, Chairman of Singapore Airlines, and Chairman of Temasek Holdings. He is also one of the longest serving directors of Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC).

Mr Dhanabalan reflects that he has tried to live a meaningful life even at the expense of a happy one. In our conversation with notable alumni, he shared with us his diverse experience and advice he hopes to pass on to the next generation. 

Mr Dhanabalan, we understand that you went into the public sector right after graduation. What was your motivation for doing so?

My time was unlike your time. We were not so well informed. We could not survey the whole world and ask ourselves what we should do after graduation. I was rather naïve when I graduated and I thought that the academic world was the whole world. I wanted to do my master’s degree so I enrolled for masters and stayed on for 2-3 months. But my financial situation was bad as I had to support the family, so I applied to join the administrative service in 1961. I was accepted and got posted to the Ministry of Finance (MOF) and that was how I started. I didn’t stay there for very long as EDB was set up within a year. I was seconded to EDB for a couple of years.  I then decided to resign from the admin service and joined EDB. 

As a pioneering member of EDB, what were the challenges that you and your team faced in the initial stage?

When we started EDB, it was supposed to be an institution to promote investment in manufacturing industries. Nobody in EDB had experience in this area, including the Chairman, Mr Hon Sui Sen, who later became the Minister for Finance. We were all rookies. The first director of EDB was an Israeli who came here for two years. He had experience in promoting investment in manufacturing industries and he shared a philosophy with Mr Hon that while we were all without experience, the decisions should be made by locals because investments are made in the local economy. 

The biggest obstacle for us was that we did not know much. But we were also able to use that to our advantage, as that also meant we did not know how difficult things were going to be. We were full of energy and ideas and we charged ahead. By the time I joined MOF, the policy decision to set up EDB had already been taken. However, a formal decision that would require cabinet approval and drafting of laws had not been taken. I was asked to draft the first cabinet paper to set up EDB. The startup capital was 100 million dollars, which was a lot of money in the 1960s. 

The board of EDB accepted my recommendation that the interest rate should be 7% for long term loans. Industrial loans were very new in Singapore. Commercial banks only made loans to traders and those loans required collaterals which came in the form of either properties or commodities. The banks had warehouses to store these collaterals and they were released when payments were made. In industrial financing, however, cash flow is the key thing. But the idea of cash flow financing, which required evaluation of prospective projects, was then unheard of. To do that, you needed economists to make estimates of the market and assess reasonable prices and technical experts to dive into the details of projects or businesses. 

Where did you learn about the idea of cash flow financing?

We learned from books and some of us went to the World Bank when we were still part of Malaysia. We were quite involved in the details of the common market that we would need to make Singapore viable, especially on what kind of protection the industries needed. At that time, Singapore was a port where things were duty free except for tobacco, liquor and petrol. The conventional thinking was that we cannot build up industries without a domestic market. There was this concept of “infant industries”. 

But we knew that we had to do things differently in order for Singapore to shift away from being an entrepot. A tariff commission was set up to discuss the viability of protectionism for various manufacturing industries. Before we could impose any duties, we became part of Malaysia. The basic rationality for the merger was the common market and a larger domestic market. The process of setting up the common market was very convoluted. We had a Malaysian tariff board that consisted of members from Singapore, Malaya, and Sabah, and it was chaired by somebody from New Zealand. During that period, I went to the World Bank to learn the tools about analyzing projects and establishing financial viability. When I came back, we were separated from Malaysia and that was the end of the common market.

How did EDB build Singapore’s industries after the breakaway from Malaysia?

EDB became a one-stop organization for people who wanted to come to Singapore to establish industries. We had various incentives, tax being the main incentive. There was a concept of pioneer industries. They were firms that were bringing new products to Singapore and in return, they were given tax exemption for five years. EDB recommended and processed these applications while the final decision was made by the Ministry of Finance. For firms wanting to invest in Singapore, they were unsure if the political will to promote industries would remain, so, they wanted the government to take up equity other than purely loans, so EDB took up equities in various firms. Those were exciting and tough times. 

Were those decisions the prime reasons that Singapore became successful?

We were saved. We became successful not so much because we made right decisions but because the international environment changed. The initial investments were made by Japan and Hong Kong. They invested in Singapore because they could see that we were going to protect the market. Then a wave of textile manufacturers came who did not ask for protection as their target was the international market. For them, Singapore was mainly a base with low-cost labor that allowed them to produce goods at competitive prices. The textile industry took off because of a system called the long term textile agreement. The first country to have that was the UK and subsequently, the US.  America was being flooded by cheap imported items and they set up the textile agreement by which they forced countries like Taiwan and Hong Kong to cap their exports. As Singapore was not part of this agreement, textile companies came to Singapore to set up factories which allowed them to export without the cap. 

Basically, our thinking at the time was that we would continue to grow industries with tariffs and exports. But the change came later when US firms faced severe competition from Japan and Taiwan in certain industries such as electrical and electronic products. They found it difficult to compete in highly labor intensive industries. Thus Americans began to look for overseas location to establish operations that would allow them to compete against the Taiwanese and Japanese. That was how the electronic industry got started in Singapore. We were fortunate that this new wave of investment began to grow while most of the third world countries kept multinational corporations (MNCs) out of their economies because they felt that MNCs was a new form of colonialism. They feared that MNCs would become too powerful and eventually control their governments. Singapore however, was very receptive towards these MNCs. 

You soon moved from EDB to DBS. Why did you do it?

In 1968, Dr Goh Keng Swee decided that EDB’s responsibilities should be divided in order for them to become more efficient. The financing responsibilities were taken over by DBS while real estate development was taken over by Jurong Town Corporation (JTC). Productivity related activities were taken over by the National Productivity Board (NPB). EDB was split into different components, leaving investment promotion as their primary objective. I went over to DBS with Mr Hon Sui Sen, who became the first chairman of DBS. DBS then became the financing institution for industries for long term finance. My job scope stayed the same, except that I was no longer doing investment promotion. My focus was on finance.

You stayed with DBS nearly for ten years and then moved to politics in 1976. What was the motivation to do so? 

Soon after we set up DBS, Mr Hon went over to politics. He stayed as the chairman for two years, then Mr Howe Yoon Chong became the chairman, while I was number two in the bank. Mr Hon knew me from EDB days, so obviously he must have recommended to the Prime Minister that I should be persuaded to go into politics. I was persuaded by PAP leadership to go into politics.

There were quite a few rounds of interviews. The first round was with the chairman of the party, Mr Toh Chin Chye and a few other ministers. At the time, I was not sure about the timing as I was 39 years old and thought that maybe I should wait for another term. But that meant I would only enter parliament at 44 and probably become an office holder only at 46 or 47. That would leave me with a very short runway, and so I decided to go ahead with it.

You served both Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Goh Chok Tong as Prime Ministers. Was it very different working under Mr Lee and Mr Goh?

Mr Lee is the founder of modern Singapore and he had great persuasive power, foresight and courage. He built the machine that was taken over by the second generation. Mr Goh was chosen by the second generation leadership, which comprised of myself, Tony Tan and Ong Teng Cheong. Even though he was not Mr Lee’s first choice, as he made clear in his rally speeches, Mr Lee accepted our recommendation. Mr Lee was much older than me when I entered politics, a lot more experienced, a lot of battle scars, so he was a different kind of leader. Mr Goh was my colleague (They were from the same cohort of the NUS Economics Department). We entered politics together in 1976, so obviously the relationship was different.

Which job did you enjoy the most? 

Pre-politics, I enjoyed my time in DBS the most. While EDB was satisfying because we learned a lot of new things, DBS was more satisfying and also more exciting because we were the latest local bank to be set up. We did not have all the baggage of past practices or families telling us what to do. We just did what was needed. DBS did many new things that other banks never did. DBS not only did long term financing but also participated in equity financing and promoted financial leasing and merchant banking. We were the first bank that issued Asian dollar bonds.

In politics, I covered various portfolios. I enjoyed the most when I was the Minister for National Development as the job was a lot more concrete. Things are within your control in Singapore.  Foreign affairs are a different kind of experience and responsibility. We are small and cannot shape world events. We have to take advantage of trends. In national development, we could decide how Singapore should develop and we could see the results of our decisions appearing before our eyes. Even today, I still see things that were a result of the decisions made by my team when we were in charge of national development. That gives me much satisfaction. 

After politics you moved to Temasek. How was Temasek conceptualized? Did the government always have the intention to create a sovereign wealth fund?

It is important not to use “sovereign wealth fund” to describe Temasek. A sovereign wealth fund, strictly defined, is a fund that manages government’s overseas assets or funds that invested overseas. Temasek is an investment holding company, while GIC is a fund manager. GIC manages government’s funds and is paid fees to manage. They are told by the government about the areas they can invest in and what kind of risk they can take. And they follow these parameters quite closely.

In contrast, Temasek is an investment holding company. Temasek shares are held by the government and Temasek owns the companies in which they invest. For example, Temasek owns more than 50% of Singapore Airlines, 100% of Port of Singapore, 100% of Sing Power, 30% of DBS Bank. So there is a whole list of companies that Temasek has invested in and owns. An investment holding company has direct shareholdings in the companies in which they invest. GIC invests in companies on behalf of the government, but they are basically operating in the public markets, buying listed companies or using public funds to buy properties on behalf of the government. 

When EDB was split up into many different components, we had a portfolio of loans that were made to companies and a portfolio of equity investments that they made in order to promote and share the risks with the investors. The loans were quite simple. We knew what the loan size was, and it was transferred over to DBS. Equity participation was a little more complex. There were companies that were private or public, and there were also questions of their valuation and how they should be transferred. An easy way was not to transfer them to DBS, and so the Ministry of Finance took over the equity portfolio of EDB. 

From 1968 to 1974, those equities were held by the Ministry of Finance. Then in 1974, the Minister, Dr Goh Keng Swee, decided it was not a good idea to hold it within the ministry and it would be better to set up a separate company, transfer all the equities to it. If the company is 100% owned by the government, no valuation problem occurs. The main idea was to make it a separate company with separate management to focus on the investments. Civil servants should look after policy, and not get involved in the running of companies. That was how Temasek was set up. The first chairman and group of managers were loaned from the government to look after the company. 

How did Mr Goh Keng Swee come up with the idea of this separation?

It was quite clear to him that it was not a good idea for policy makers to be confused by whether they were making policies for Singapore as a whole, or making policies for the company which the government has interests in. The two should be separated. Policies should be made for the economy as a whole, and not be colored by the fact that the government has a company that it owns. So that was very farsighted of him. This is unlike other countries that do not do that.

Your career so far has indeed been amazing. Can you tell us about some essential skills that you have picked up over the years? 

Well, it depends on what level you are. When I was in EDB and DBS, obviously I was applying many tools that I learnt as an economics student: demand and supply, break-even point, what kind of legal structure there should be and so on. But as we go up higher and higher in management, it is not so much specific technical tools that you need. Rather, the most important skill is how to judge people and how to select people to run the organizations. You need to get the right people in the right place. So most of the effort, at the level of chairman, was really focused on getting the right people and making sure we had good people at various levels of management. Once you have good people, they attract good people and they know what to do. I have never described to a head of a department: “this is what you should do”, “this is your function”, “this is your objective”, or “these are your terms of reference”. No, I expect them, as entrepreneurs, to take the ball and run with it. The key at higher levels of management is to identify and recruit the right people. So that’s something you don’t learn in Economics.

What is the secret of choosing the right people?

First of all, the person must have some basic technical skills and experience in running an organization, knowing how to make right investments, how to look for right markets and so on. At a higher level, you want to assess the person’s values: what is it that drives him, what is it that shapes his decisions, has he got a passion, is he focused on money, or is he focused on building an organization, and so on. These are judgement on values. It is necessary to get an idea of whether he is a sort of person that you can trust. So you talk to the person about many things, not just about works in the organization. You talk about his interests, his family, what is his background and what is his passion.

That is the key. The secret of Singapore’s success in government owned companies being so well run is not organizational structure, but people that make up the organization. I would say it is more dangerous and risky to take in someone who is highly skilled and has bad values than having someone who is less skilled but has better values. From time to time, I get people coming from other countries who are heads of investment holding companies, sovereign wealth funds, investment promotion agencies and they ask about the processes, the structure which can explain our success. And I keep telling them that it is not structure, it is not process, but it is people.

You applied the same principle in overseeing Temasek Holdings?

Once Mr Lee Kuan Yew appointed Mr Hon as the chairman as EDB and later as the chairman of DBS, he never interfered in what Mr Hon was doing. That is the key to success. When Temasek makes investments, some of them don’t go right. That’s bound to be the case because if you are only investing without any losses, then you are not taking any risk. There are bound to be losses and successes, but overall how they perform is what we should focus on.

Even today, many people in parliament do not understand that. When there is a loss, their immediate response is, “What is the minister of finance doing about it? It is your company, you own it, what did you tell them to sell, and what did you tell them to invest in?” And he has to keep explaining to them that he does not make the decisions and that Temasek makes decisions. He only looks at the financial performance at the end of the year. Should there be a year that they do not do well, he would want to look at it across four to eight years, not just one year. And if they are not performing, then he would change the management, and the board. If they are performing, he would leave them alone because he does not have time to micromanage and tell them what to do. Once the politicians start interfering, the management would be able to say that, if something goes wrong, it is not my responsibility but yours. That’s the difference between Singapore and many other countries. If we decide to set up a commercial enterprise, we must let them operate commercially, not by direction from the government. 

When you recruit fresh graduates, what are the qualities that your companies look for?

First, we have to check if the person has basic educational qualifications. Personally, I will not look at how you did in PSLE, O levels and A Levels. To me, those are quite immaterial. I would ask what did he study, why did he study, and how did he perform. The merit of his performance at the last level is very important. I would also ask what else he did which would reflect his other interests. When I interview a person, I try to get an idea of what drives him, what motivates him, and what is he focused on. I was told about somebody who was being interviewed for a job, and the first thing he wanted to know was, “where is my office, and what does it look like, and who is going to be my secretary?” The interviewer just finished the interview. During the course of interview, people betray what drives them and what motivates them. If it is the wrong type of interests, then we just pass over and go on to the next person.

Moral values are very important, what motivates a person, his ambitions in life, what is it that he wants to do, and his level of commitment. My generation did not have any choice. The world was not their market. But my children’s generation was different. They had choices. And many of them actually made a conscious choice to live in Singapore and made their home here. Those who want to go somewhere else do so often for material reasons. “I cannot afford a big house, nor a big car.” Those are usual reasons. Some give the reason, which I do not know how truthful it is, that they find the society too oppressive. But I do not know if this is just to give a little more altruistic motive to what they are doing. 

Let’s talk about your university days. Can you tell us what the most important lesson you learnt from university was?

One of the unique lessons I learnt in my economics course was from a professor by the name of Silcock, who I think was the first economics professor, and later went to Australian National University. He was not an easy lecturer to understand, because he knew that in Economics, when dealing with people and society, there is no categorical statement that you can make. Any categorical statement you make about the economic future, trends or situation has got to be qualified because there are many things that can be different and many things that can affect the outcome. For example, you can say that as price goes up, demand goes down, that is a categorical statement. But that does not always happen. Even in economics courses we learn about backward sloping curves and so on. 

The point is that you must be aware that there are many things that affect the outcome. While you must not be frozen to inaction, you must be aware when you take action to keep your eyes on many other things so that you can adjust as you go along. So when he lectured, and made a statement, he always qualified that statement. So by the time the qualification is over, you will be confused and even have forgotten what the statement was. But it was good in the sense that it made you think and be aware that economics is not a physical science. It tends to be a science as with many sociological subjects, but it is only a science in the sense that you organize the data in a scientific way. You cannot predict the outcome exactly. This is a reflection of the real situations we face, that is why we have to keep our eyes on many things in business, else we get blindsided by things that happen which we do not expect.

But then Economics is getting more quantitative, which frankly is of some concern to me. It gives false impression that it is an exact science. It is not an exact science. At the very most we can say that a situation will happen with plus or minus 10 or 20% while that 10 or 20% can kill you or make you. So you have to be aware that though you try to add some precision, it must not lull you into thinking that you have a precise answer and that you have a precise action to take.

There was one branch of Economics that was in vogue when I was in university (from 1955 to 1960) called the theory of economic development. Arthur Lewis wrote one of the early books that dealt with this. Basically, his point was that how the economy of a country develops depends on many cultural factors, not just on the hard facts of what raw materials were available, labor available, and skills available and so on. Those do affect the outcome, but does not determine it. There are still many other sociological and cultural factors. This still remains the fact. That is why countries with a lot more resources than Singapore are less successful. It is not that they do not know what to do. But they do not do it because of many other factors.

Thank you very much for spending such a long time to share your experience and wisdom with us. Do you have any parting advice for graduating students?

Each person really has to ask themselves: What is it that you want out of life? Someone has sent me an article called ‘Meaning in Life’. It is not a religious article but one written by psychologists. Happiness is not same as meaning. Some people who lead the most meaningful lives may not be going through happy experiences. They lead very meaningful, satisfying, and self-fulfilling lives, by doing things which are painful and stressful. Being painful and stressful is the opposite of being happy. But it is still meaningful and makes them realize that there is more to life than just seeking happiness. There is a deep satisfaction when you are doing something for people in the world. Doing it does not make you happy because there are so many obstacles, challenges and stress. There is a difference between being happy and living a meaningful life. So basically, you have to ask yourself what it is that you find meaningful. 

I did not do the things I did because I thought they were going to make me happy. I did them because I thought it was a duty that I had to answer. I would have been much happier if I had not gone into politics, in the sense that I could have spent more time with my children, could have been spared all the hassle of having to please constituents and evenings spent walking around the constituency meeting people. But these were meaningful. The burden of just driving past and seeing people along the street, and knowing the responsibility that you have on their future and their happiness is something that humbles you. So yes, I hope I have lead a very meaningful life. 

I had not, even for a moment, dreamt that I would have done the things that I did. I think your generation is a lot more aware about what is happening in the world, and all the various options, problems, challenges and attractions. You have a lot more information. We were, as I once said in parliament, like babes in the woods, innocent people with very little knowledge. Your decisions are tougher because you are better informed than I ever was. But start with what you want, be it happiness or meaning.


This article was first published in ECONews in December 2015

Mr. Ho Kwon Ping, Executive Chairman, Banyan Tree Holdings – From dissident student-cum-journalist to businessman, and back to academe

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By Sammy Peh and Lim Wei Di (ECONews Reporters)

Mr Ho Kwon Ping is a man with a most unusual career. It took him nine years in three universities to complete an Economics undergraduate degree. As an Economics student in NUS, he also worked as a freelance writer. Some articles he contributed to the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER) led to him being placed in detention under the Internal Security Act, and he was released from detention after confessing to be a Marxist. Later, he joined his family business in Thailand which ultimately led him to set up the Banyan Tree Group. He is currently the Executive Chairman of Banyan Tree Holdings. Mr Ho is also Chairman of the Singapore Management University and was the inaugural SR Nathan Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS). He said it was the first time the NUS Economics Department extended an invitation to him when it invited him to an alumni dinner in November last year. He recently shared glimpses of his colourful life with ECONews.

Why did it take so long for you to complete a BA in Economics?

I was born in Hong Kong and lived in Thailand because my father had a small business there. I attended an international school in Bangkok and my parents sent me to Tunghai University in Taiwan to learn Chinese. After a year there, I was admitted to Stanford University. It was during the period of the Vietnam War and anti-war demonstrations. I was involved in all kinds of political activities and was suspended from the University. I received an offer to move to Cornell University but I chose not to go. Instead, I decided to return to Singapore and serve my National Service (NS). After finishing NS, I could have gone back to Stanford or Cornell but I felt that I never really understood Singapore and enrolled in NUS. In those days, Singapore was too British. They accepted credits from Cambridge or Oxford but not from US universities. Stanford was no exception even though some Economics faculty members were using textbooks written by Stanford professors. I had to start over from year one. So it took nine years for me to get a BA in Economics; one year at Tunghai, three years at Stanford, two years in NS, and three more years at NUS.

What did you do in NUS after you had already spent four years as an economics student in the US and Taiwan?

I have to admit that there weren’t a lot of specific college memories with NUS. I seldom attended lectures or tutorials because lessons were mostly a repetition of what I had already learnt. Nevertheless, during the time I was in class, I was vocal and, being older than other students, I would disagree on a lot of stuff that was taught by teachers. Some tutors even told me not to attend their classes because I wouldn’t stop talking and arguing with them. Most of the time, I was freelancing and writing articles. I was riding on a motorbike earned from my writings. I became a correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER) at the age of 23. 

How did you become a correspondent for the FEER as a university student?

I can still remember the first article I wrote as a freelancer. I am very proud of it. It was a story about what happened in Singapore between midnight and 6am. It wasn’t about the red light district. I covered interesting stories about a whole part of Singapore that comes to life while the rest of us are sleeping. People like security guards and places like fish markets. It was forty over years ago and I still remember it really well. I did it out of the blue one night when I couldn’t sleep. My article got rejected many times before a travel magazine picked it up and paid me $100. The first $100 was so rewarding. After that I continued to write. I even wrote for an oil and gas magazine on issues I knew nothing about. I got on my motorbike and went out to take pictures, wrote articles and sent them in to every magazine I could think of. That was how I eventually became a correspondent for the FEER. I was also working as a news producer for the Television Corporation of Singapore (TCS) and I had to get up at 5am in the morning to produce the news. 

You were detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA). Was it due to your writings?

I wrote a series of articles for the FEER. Some of them were quite critical of the People’s Action Party (PAP). I was detained with a whole bunch of other people when the PAP was about to be expelled from the Socialist International and the Government suspected there was a conspiracy behind this. My colleagues in the FEER were also detained. 

What was it like to be detained?

I was detained in my third year of study in NUS. I spent two months in solitary confinement in a prison detention centre before confessing to being a Marxist. It was close to my examinations and after my confession the authorities allowed me to have my textbooks. I got A+ for all the subjects I took during my detention. I jumped from being a marginal student to being the best student in the Arts Faculty in my year. So if you are a failing student, I recommend you to get detained. Having nothing to do but study for 24 hours, you can succeed spectacularly in exams. I disliked microeconomics, theory of the firm and anything to do with quantitative economics and mathematics. But I still managed to do well on those subjects while I was detained because I studied them repeatedly. Thanks to the detention, I also got married. I made a most unromantic marriage proposal to my wife. 

What was that “unromantic” marriage proposal?

From my freshman year, I dated a girl – now my wife – who was in her honours’ year though we were of the same age. I used to take her on my motorbike, which she thought was quite romantic. When I was detained, my parents could visit me but my girlfriend couldn’t. Only immediate family members were allowed to visit detainees. Shortly after my release, I said to her, “I think we’d better get married so that you can visit me next time if I am jailed”. It wasn’t the most romantic proposal but she accepted it, but after we got married, she promptly banned me from riding a motorbike…(laughter). 

What did you do after graduating from NUS?

I could not stay in Singapore. Wherever I went, people recognized me. My arrest and confession kept playing on television. So we went to Hong Kong and wrote for the FEER for another three years. 

We could not afford to live on Hong Kong Island, in Kowloon, or in many other places.  We finally found a small fishing village on an island called Lamma. The village, which had no cars and mainly farmers and fishermen, was called Yung Shue Wan. That’s Cantonese for Banyan Tree Bay. Years later when we wanted a name which had deep meaning to us, we thought of those idyllic years as poor but very happy young people. So the values of Banyan Tree are not about luxury but romance and intimacy. And I was later offered to be a research fellow at INSEAD in France. 

You only had a Bachelor’s degree. How did you get an offer from INSEAD to become a research fellow?

I had already written serious pieces about export-oriented industrialization of East Asia and topics on economic growth. In the 1970s and the early 1980s, there began the whole Asian Tiger phenomenon. Many universities offered short-term fellowships to do further research. My dream during that time was to become a serious writer; to become a person like Anthony Sampson who was a quasi-academic and commentator on world affairs. I accepted the offer and that was where I thought my career was heading.  

How did you then become a businessman?

I didn’t enter the business world by my choice actually. I didn’t want to be an entrepreneur. My wife always said she would never marry a businessman. We were more footloose. If we had done anything, we would have become backpacking academics. We weren’t interested in business. My wife was interested in development sociology. I was interested in development economics. But my father had a stroke before I flew off to France. I had to turn down the offer. Being the eldest son meant that I had to take over the family business. 

What was your family business? Was that how Banyan Tree started?

At that time, our business was a microcosm of a typical Southeast Asian conglomerate; jack of all trades, dominant in none. We had an engineering company that partnered with Hyundai to produce components for MRT trains, a joint venture with Samsung to produce TVs, trading companies, agri-businesses and all kinds of things. I spent ten years running the business but I was dissatisfied with our business model, which was dependent on contract manufacturing. To me, there are two types of businesses. One is based on relative cost and the other is based on proprietary competitiveness. The problem with contract manufacturing was that whatever advantages you have are relative. You can go cheaper but you don’t own “cheapness”. If you have proprietary competitiveness, it’s different. There are two types of proprietary advantage: brand and technology. I was not into technology, so the only other option was to create and grow a brand. When you own a brand, you have customer loyalty. Banyan Tree came after the lessons learnt from running the family business.

So how did Banyan Tree start?

I had a wakeup call one day when I had to close a sports shoe factory I set up in Thailand less than a year after we opened it because everybody left for China where cost was a lot lower. That was my epiphany. Better get out of these businesses as soon as possible and start my own brand. I had no idea what the brand was going to be. It could be shoes, jewellery or food. If you talk to entrepreneurs, you would realise that none of them woke up one night and realised that they were going to create something incredible for the world. Well, maybe you can do it if you are Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. However, most of the time entrepreneurs only have a general idea of what they want to create and the rest is a confluence of luck and intention that makes it happen. For me, it was the intent to create a strong brand from Asia, and not just to be a price taker. What was it going to be? I had no idea. It was purely by luck that we got into the hotel business, and gradually I came to realise that this could be the industry in which I could create my own brand. And that’s how Banyan Tree started.

What were the challenges you faced when you first started Banyan Tree? 

Well, nobody wanted to lend us money. Nobody wanted to manage our hotels. To put it simply, a total lack of credibility.  

How did you overcome them as a new entrant to the hotel business? 

You eventually gain credibility. There is no easy way out. The power of word-of-mouth is really important in business, whether it is business-to-business or business-to-consumer. Even for subcontractors, you gain immediate credibility when somebody recommends you. A recommendation from somebody is, to me, ten times stronger than an advertisement. 

What do you think has made Banyan Tree so successful?

We were selling something different from what was in the market at that time, and that helped us to stand out. If you do something everyone else is already doing, you don’t stand out above the noise. So do something that stands above the crowd, and make sure people who experience it talk about it. That was how I passed the hurdle and gained credibility. With credibility, things get easier. But challenges never end there. When you hit against a wall and overcome it, another wall will be waiting. 

So what are the challenges Banyan Tree is facing now?

Right now, we are trying to move from regional to global. We have about 40 hotels now, and we are like antelopes crossing a river with many alligators wanting to eat us up. Some antelopes make it across and some don’t. We are now in the middle; we can’t go back (to the boutique hotel model) but we are not at the other end yet. Maybe when we reach 100 hotels, we can cruise for a while, but there will still be other predators waiting for us.

The question for us when we go global is how to maintain our brand identity. Banyan Tree has been associated with tropical villas and spas, so two problems happen when we expand. One is when we go into a new area, what do we do? Another is what happens when we go into city hotels? The long and short of it is that we need to define the essence of our brand and it must never change whereas outer features may change. 

For example, one of the core brand values of Banyan Tree is a strong sense of place, so that we are not like a Holiday Inn. Because we are largely in Southeast Asia, you feel like you are in Bali or Phuket when you visit our hotels. But if we open a hotel in Mexico and we furnish it like a Thai style hotel, it then breaks all the values. However, if we make a hotel that really showcases the beauty of Mexican culture, it is still quite “Banyan Tree”. 

When we first went to Mexico, we were quite surprised. The bulk of resorts in Mexico were not Mexican at all, they were mostly catering to American tourists and were totally “Tex-Mex” in food and style. They thought hotels should be built like American hotels if they wanted to attract American tourists. But we built Mexican-style hotels. That was appreciated even by Americans. One of our hotels was voted as the top hotel in Mexico by the US News and World Report and another was ranked fifth out of a few thousand hotels in Mexico. All these were possible because we believe in our values. The Mexicans that we hired gave the best services from what they consider Mexican hospitality. The design and culture in our resorts are truly Mexican and yet we retain certain aspects of it to be “Banyan Tree” like. 

You were able to do so many things even though you had no experience. Were you ever daunted by your lack of experience?

No. Many Singaporeans are daunted by this or that because we really are very coddled. You go to China, Indonesia or Thailand and look at how people survive there. If you grow up in a place where there are a billion people and you don’t take initiative, you don’t survive. When I first began writing as a freelancer, I had no experience. But I quickly adapted myself to the situation and wrote for people who wanted cheap writers. That was how I gained experience. It was also how I eventually became a correspondent at the age of 23. The moral of the story for young people is that you can’t wait for things to land on your lap. You just got to do what you want to do and chase it.

What do you think of our current Economics education system? What is your advice for teachers and curriculum planners? 

Economics is one of the most exciting subjects in the world. Whether you are reading Karl Marx or Adam Smith, it makes you really excited because you realise that Economics is what drives the world. It is the engine of growth and also the engine of disaster. It is such an incredibly dramatic field. If you get your economics wrong, you get a huge recession as has happened. It is full of drama, so full of pathos. However, the problem is that schools teach quantitative stuff at such early stage. It depresses you 95% of the time when you first study it. 

My point is that the Economics curriculum should seek to excite students first. It should make students understand the relevance of Economics in your everyday life, and in the lives of nations. Then should you teach all that technical stuff. If you start learning without passion, it will be the most boring thing on earth. I didn’t particularly like all the quantitative stuff but I knew Economics excited me and therefore I understood the need to acquire these tools. 

In Singapore, many professors and deans don’t realise that when young people are going from Junior College to University, their minds are so receptive, and they are waiting for their minds to be blown by new thoughts, new ideas, and the excitement of thinking and seeing new things. When you are blown away, the passion is there and you want to study.

What advice do you have for students who want to start their own business?

I am a sounding board for some SMU students who want to start their own business. My job is to throw cold water at everything they plan to do. Don’t expect me to encourage you; that is the role of your friends and family. I give them 150 reasons why they shouldn’t do it. But if they can come back to me next week and counter all my reasons rationally, and still say that they want to start up, then I say they have a 75% success rate. The other 25% depends on execution. 


This article was first published in ECONews in August 2015

Mr. See Chak Mun: From Economics to Politics – The Accidental Diplomat with No Regrets

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By Chong Yee Lim and Nicholas Koh Jin-Yuan (ECONews reporters)

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HAVING spent most of his career overseas as an ambassador of Singapore, Mr. See Chak Mun finally put down his mantle of Ambassador in 2006. Although he claims that he was an “accidental diplomat”, he found a love for the job which he had never expected. As a fresh graduate from the NUS Economics Department, he found himself working in the Foreign Ministry in August 1966, and has since served as Singapore’s Ambassador to Australia, the Federal Republic of Germany, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Austria and Hong Kong.

Mr See, 73, has also found himself at the centre of negotiations when he served as the Singapore Permanent Representative to the United Nations and the World Trade Organization in Geneva from 1986 to 1999 and from 1997 to 2001. As Ambassador to the WTO from 1997-2002, he led the Singapore team in the negotiations in the run-up to the launch of the Doha Round and the subsequent WTO Ministerial Conferences.

Looking back at his long list of achievements, Mr See was repeatedly drawn back to his times as Singapore’s High Commissioner to India from April 2002 to September 2006, where he fostered the relationship between Singapore and India. Another occasion which he looked back fondly on was his time as Singapore’s chief negotiator during the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations from 1986 to 1991, where he “had the opportunity to shape international trading laws”.

In our conversation with the ex-Senior Advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr See shared some of his experiences and skills he used in order to traverse the challenging environment in international politics. 

Mr. See, you have had a long history in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs since joining in August 1966. What made you pursue a career in the Foreign Service?

I was an accidental diplomat. I graduated from the University of Singapore in 1966, not long after Singapore was separated from Malaysia. Before knowing my results, I was offered four different jobs. However, because I was awarded a bursary, I had to work for the government.

To me, getting a job was more important than the type of job. I came from a poor family. Halfway through my university education, I nearly dropped out because my father could not afford to pay for my tuition fees. I didn’t join the Foreign Service out of ambition or conscious intention. Getting a job to support my family was the main priority.

Can you give us a brief description of your responsibilities and experiences as a former Singapore Ambassador and High Commissioner to countries such as the Republic of Germany and India?

It is not possible to break down the job of an Ambassador into quantifiable terms. An indispensable function of an Ambassador is ceremonial, but that is the easiest part.

The principal job of an Ambassador is to improve relationships between the sending state and the receiving state. One can only do so by firstly having a good grasp of the policies, politics, economy, culture and people of the receiving state. Then, an Ambassador will have to identify how to value-add to the relationship. Take the Narendra Modi government, which came into power in May this year, as an example. When Modi came into power, his administration emphasized their intention of building smart cities in India and upgrading the infrastructure of the state. By understanding the Indian government’s desire to push for urbanization, the Singapore Ambassador to India needs to know how Singapore can support the incumbent in achieving that goal. S/he can value-add to the India-Singapore relationship by advising Singaporean businesses such as Hyflux and Sembawang Shipyards (Port) to venture into India to urbanize the country. An Ambassador needs to know where s/he can thicken political and economic ties to make the relationship more substantial. Lastly, an Ambassador has to build friendships and develop trust with the officials of the receiving state. Cultivation of relationships is key. An Ambassador must identify the close advisors of the head of states, and win their support.

Can you tell us about the challenges an Ambassador would face?

The biggest challenge for any Ambassador is to build relationships with the inner circles of a government. India was no exception. It wasn’t the difference in language that made it challenging; after all, most of them spoke English. Rather, the Indian politicians that were closest to the Prime Minister were often very busy, and difficult to get in touch with. It required a deliberate cultivation of friendships that would not have happened if left to chance. The cultivation of relationships is crucial in order to get information. People don’t simply tell you what is going on.

Foresight is also very important. Take the new President-elect of Indonesia, ‘Jokowi’ as an example. Even though he was elected not long ago, Singapore Foreign Service officers would have already cultivated him and his supporters. Waiting till he was President would be too late. The ability to foresee Jokowi as a potential Presidential candidate, know who his close advisors are, and cultivate those relationships well before he becomes President is the challenging job of an Ambassador.

What are some of the things you miss about the job?

Being no longer on the ground, I am not actually sure what is going on. Reading newspapers are one thing, but the real stories are another. It is important to discern the real answers from what is simply information created by the press. People, who deliberately provide erroneous information, so as to conceal the truth, often manipulate the media. This is disinformation. Although my experience in the Foreign Service does provide me with some discernment, I cannot know for certain what the truth is.

What would you say is the most important skill needed for any individual serving in the Foreign Service?

Anyone looking to pursue a career in the Foreign Service should have three important skills. The first is empathy. No one likes to talk to someone who is arrogant. It is only through empathy that one can better relate to another. 

Second, you have to diversify your general knowledge, and make yourself interesting. This includes learning how to play golf, tennis, and even the card game bridge. My wife and I picked up bridge because it was an important tool to socialize and build important friendships. 

Lastly, you need to have a sharp and analytical mind, being able to ask the right questions and understand what is going on in the world. When given the opportunity to meet someone of political power, you need to go prepared, and be ready to enter into a dialogue, suggesting alternative policies and ideas. Only then will s/he trust you as someone who is knowledgeable and be willing to share information.

How about some skills that you have picked up in university days?

At that time, Economics was my first choice by elimination of the other fields. I took Economics because it was easy to me; you did not have to memorize a lot of things. It was methodical; you merely apply what you know and you arrive at an answer. In this sense, it forms the foundation when dealing with issues from other disciplines. In Economics, everything is dependent on assumptions which you base on certain theories. You then apply your deductive reasoning to arrive at a conclusion. Having this basic train of thought was necessary and useful when it came to solving real world problems, whatever they may be.

In addition to that was the maturing of your mind. During your bachelor’s degree, you learn the basics of everything, be it in the fields of political science, history or even physics. Although you only start really learning way afterwards, during your master’s or PhD, you will be adequately well informed about various problems faced worldwide and this will help you have a general understanding about the world.

Let’s talk about your time as Singapore’s Chief Negotiator during the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations. What was the greatest challenge you faced?

Because Singapore is small, people tend to look down on our position, especially if you compare us to India, for example, which has a large market. And when it comes to deals, my greatest concern always comes down to the hour before deals are finalized. Only those with market clout, such as the Americans, Europeans and India, will have the greatest influence over the conditions of the deals and so there was always the possibility of Singapore being excluded.

But fortunately for us, we have two very skilful ministers, Minister George Yeo and Minister Lim Hng Kiang, both of whom played a big role. Minister George Yeo was the facilitator of Agriculture. We were chosen to facilitate because of our lack of agriculture, so we were deemed neutral and constructive. But it is precisely this factor that enabled us to be among 20 select countries out of hundreds to be given a seat in the “Green Room”, or the inner circle of negotiations, and allowed us to shape the development of international rules.

I am sure you have many insights about India from your time spent there. Can you highlight some of the differences between India in the past and the present?

I don’t think there is much change; institutions and mindsets do not change that quickly. But what I do think has changed is the emergence of the middle class. IT professionals who have been trained in America and exposed to the world have caused the country to be much more open. They realized that they must go along with globalization. I noticed a gradual change from the old Nehruvian concept of self-reliance and import substitutions to accepting real politics and the forces of competition.

What advice do you have for students who wish to pursue a career in Foreign Service?

Well, firstly, students must possess leadership skills and maturity. To show leadership, take part in student activities. Wherever your interests lie, take up leadership roles to show that you are a wise captain. Another thing is your emotional quotient and interest in worldly affairs. Try not to be narrow-minded and broaden your scope of interests. This is because to be a part of the Foreign Service, one needs to be able to adapt to any situation. It is an interesting career as you get to improve relations between countries though not very tangibly.

If you could travel back in time for an hour, to engage with your uni-self back in 1963, what would you say to the Mr. See then?

I think, I would not want to change much. I would have wanted to stay in the university hostel for at least a year. I would have liked to mix around with fellow students more and to have been part of the community.

Also, I could have studied harder and gotten a first class!

Mr See is now embracing life in Singapore as an Adjunct Senior Fellow of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University of Singapore as well as an Adjunct Associate Research Professor of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.


This article was first published in ECONews in December 2014

Mr. Wee Sin Tho: From NUS and back again – A Financier who Created NUS Investment Office

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By Muhammad Afdhaluddin B Ab R (ECONews reporter)

“[It was] truly a full circle moment”, said Mr Wee Sin Tho as he described his return to NUS, his alma mater, after more than 3 decades in the finance industry. His decades of experience proved tremendously useful when he founded the NUS Investment Office in 2005. This investment arm of NUS oversees its endowment fund. It was estimated at 3.22 billion dollars at the end of March 2013, making it, by some estimates, the third largest fund in Singapore after the GIC and Temasek Holdings. After 3 years at the helm of the office, Mr Wee took on yet another challenge as the Head of the NUS Development Office, primarily involved in gift acceptance and donor stewardship matters.   

Indeed, Mr Wee boasts a long and fruitful career in the finance industry. Prior to his career with NUS, he was the CEO of reputable financial firms such as Hong Leong Capital Berhad, Vickers Ballas Holdings Ltd, SouthQuay Global Markets Limited and the like. His CV is enviably extensive, but Mr Wee is never grandiose about it. Instead, he chooses to be level-headed about his achievements and constantly learn from his experiences to be as he says “a better version of yourself, everyday”. 

Our conversation together ran the gamut of his career history, education history, retrospectives, and his passion for developing the mind and meditation. It was certainly an insightful conversation with a wise man who has a wealth of experience to share and a great passion for his work. 

You have a long history with the finance industry. What got you interested to pursue Finance as a career? 


After university, I first started out as a civil servant, working under Dr Toh Chin Chye, then the Minister of Science and Technology. It was 1970. I worked there for about a year, before scanning around for other job opportunities. I found one at a local bank, UOB, as an economic research officer. I definitely felt a greater affinity for Finance and Economics than staying on in my role at the Ministry and so I took the job. 

At that time, the Economic Research Office at UOB also took on portfolio investment and corporate strategy and planning. Those two fields completely fascinated me. Gradually, upon reflection of what I should be doing going forward, I decided to pursue a career in investments. I did it for a very practical reason – if I were successful in my life, I would have money and I had better learn how to invest that money. On the other hand, if I was not terribly great at accumulating wealth, then maybe I should learn to manage other people’s money. Thus, I gradually positioned myself to become more involved with portfolio investments. That ultimately led me to a long and meaningful career in investments and fund-management.  

How did the opportunity to work with NUS come about?

The chairman of the investment committee had approached me through a friend to become the Chief Investment Officer at NUS. At the time, I was in my fifties and already twice retired. I saw this position as a personal challenge since I had no experience in managing an endowment investment programme. So I took on the role, put together an investment office and gathered a team. The venture was a success and after 3 years of heading the office I decided to retire for the third time.

Then, quite coincidentally, there was a change in presidentship of the university. Professor Tan Chorh Chuan took over. At the same time, my predecessor in the development office had left. Professor Tan approached me to take on the leadership role in the development office. Initially I was nervous as I had never done fund-raising in my life, but I was happy to take up his offer as it was an opportunity to do good and serve my alma mater even further. 

These were certainly two very influential positions. Could you give a brief description of what your responsibilities were as both Chief Investment Officer and Head of the Development Office? 

As Chief Investment Officer, my role was primarily to implement the investment policy and strategy as approved by the Board of Trustees for the university’s endowment investment programme. In the Development office, my role was primarily fund-raising and networking with potential donors who wished to express their philanthropic causes through the university. 

What was the key to running both offices successfully? 

The key was to formulate a sound strategic and planning framework and focus on excellence in execution. Whatever we achieve will still be considered as ‘work in progress’, as there’s always room to improve further. 

In talking about success in terms of the Investment Office, putting together a strong team from the beginning was important. I am happy to say that the core of that team is still very much in place since I founded it 8 years ago even though I left the team 5 years back. They continue to work very well. 

In terms of the Development Office, we were very fortunate that over time, the university’s reputation and ranking continually improved which made the job of fund-raising easier because donors like to be associated with success. It is also great that we have effective people who can execute our programmes very well such that donors can express their philanthropic causes through the university in the most impactful way. We are also very fortunate to have strong support from the community and the alumni who wants to see NUS grow and do well. 5 years on, the development office has grown from 30 to 70 people and is continuing to do well.

How was your return back to NUS, especially now wearing a very different hat? 

When I worked at the Ministry of Science and Technology in the 1970s, right on the top floor of the building was a room with a huge table that had the model plan of the Kent Ridge campus. At that time, Dr Toh was also the Vice Chancellor of the University and those were the plans to build the current NUS campus. Back then, in my 20s, I saw a plan for this university campus. And then lo and behold, the last job in my career is with NUS. To walk into a physical campus that I had seen as a plan all those years ago felt very nostalgic and was truly a full circle moment. 

Turning now to your undergraduate life in NUS as an economics student. Was studying economics motivated by the ambition to get into finance?

No, it was not. Many of the subjects that I took in university were purely out of interest. I took Economics because I was deeply interested in the subject. I took subjects like Sociology and Philosophy in my first year mostly out of curiosity. I was fortunate enough to pursue a single subject degree and chose Economics which I had a great interest in. 

I encourage people to stay within their particular area of interest. You need to have interest in and passion for what you study and do otherwise you will not find joy in it and thereby will not excel. 

Are there any fond memories from your undergraduate days which you would like to share? 

The most significant memories I have are of the friendships I forged. As university students you have much more time to make connections and spend time with friends. In fact many of my close friendships and relationships go back to my undergraduate years. The connections you make with people may be fortuitous or may be by chance. Yet somehow, these are the people you continue to connect with in later years. You meet them in all sorts of situations – as clients, as associates, as competitors and so on. That is why I always say do not make enemies.

The other happy experience was finding professors and faculty members who became good friends rather than just teachers. Until today I am good friends with Professor Lee Soo Ann. He supervised my academic exercise in my undergraduate days. We continue to remain in contact with each other and often get together for lunch. 

One last question: What do you envision for NUS 20 years down the road?

I hope by then we are able to put aside the rankings and just focus on how we can serve Singapore and our neighbours much better as an academic institution. Ultimately, I hope NUS remains authentic to its aspirations and goals and consistently works to be a better version of itself. 

*Since the writing of this article, Mr Wee has left the Development office, to take on the position of Senior Advisor, Office of President, NUS. (With effect from October 1)

This article was first published in ECONews in December 2013