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