IN THE fomenting debate over Singapore Inc’s bid to buy a most vital pillar of Australia’s economic architecture, there’s something deliciously apt that the decisive call on the Australian Stock Exchange will probably be made by Canberra’s independent members of parliament.
Singapore doesn’t do independents, Mr Oakeshott.
Indeed, it would be aghast at – and quite likely arrest – anyone compelled to spend 17 minutes publicly justifying democracy and why it matters. The mere notion is abhorrent to Singapore’s very ethos, its effortless merging of mammon and political muscle into a formidable money-making machine known as Singapore Inc.
Singapore doesn’t really do parliament either. Yes, it has one, where hand-picked loyalists occasionally convene in a brutal modernist edifice to rubber-stamp edicts from above. In the last election in 2006 the People’s Action Party won 82 of 84 seats with a gerrymandered 66 per cent of the trackable votes.
Only North Korea, China and (just) Cuba from 1959 outrank Singapore in single-party-rule longevity. Which may explain why the average Singaporean is more likely to know Sony’s head office over the peoples’ chamber.
Conflicts of interest? Not in Singapore, where independent thinking complicates and slows its real business, which is business. Real power at every critical institution in this rich, urgent little place gathers efficiently and pyramidally, peaking at one of the most powerful families in the world, the Lees. And their power prints are everywhere, even at the Singapore stock exchange.
It’s not corruption – Singapore ranks well on that score – but rather an intimidating, and often intimidated, power network of trusted, well-rewarded hands (cronies?) who know what side their bread’s buttered on and don’t step out of line. All easy to manage in a small, highly wired town like Singapore. Compliant Singaporeans don’t have to be told what to do, they just know.
Far from the non-interventionist paradise advancing the world’s best practices of governance and transparency, the Lees have finessed probably the world’s most capable dirigiste economy, a top-down model to impress the most rusted-on French enarque.
It impacts elsewhere too; autocrats from places like Kazakhstan, Russia, Zimbabwe, Rwanda and Sri Lanka rush to embrace the ”Singapore model” as if it were some miracle philosophy, when it’s more like The Truman Show. And clearly some Australian stockbrokers are impressed, too, though likely more so with the millions they seem set to pocket from the SGX deal.
It doesn’t take long navigating Singapore Inc to bump into a Lee. There’s even one on the board of the SGX bidding $8.1 billion to buy the ASX, the deal known as Project Avatar. That’s Lee Hsien Yang, the youngest son of former long-time prime minister and Singapore’s ”philosopher-king”, Lee Kuan Yew.
A shy man, Hsien Yang knows Australia well enough, though those who have dealt with him say he struggles with our robust press and public life. He was for 12 years the CEO at Singapore Telecom, which bought Optus on his watch in 2001, the last time economic nationalism flared with such fervour over a controversial Singapore Inc purchase of a strategic Australian asset.
Like the SGX now, Lee and SingTel were hammered. Australian critics cried ”national interest” about the farm being sold to Asian autocrats, but ultimately the deal got done. Two things helped: that the seller was a foreign company, Cable and Wireless of Britain, and that the deal did not require parliamentary approval.
The ”Singapore premium” helped too. SingTel’s $14 billion was a lot for a company that had made just $400 million. But even though Lee Hsien Yang was lavishly spending Singaporeans’ money in Australia, because of who he was few Singaporeans dared take him on back home.
Singapore Inc and the Lees were on their best legal behaviour, resisting their infamous instinct to sue anyone who dares criticise them. But most of that criticism was outside Singapore. The Lees tend to bring their cases in Singapore, where a win seems guaranteed.
SingTel-Optus’s major shareholder is Temasek Holdings, which by some estimates – such as the US government’s – controls as much as half the Singaporean economy. Temasek is the leviathan state-owned investor run by Hsien Yang’s sister-in-law, Ho Ching, and serves as a key lever in Singapore’s economy.
Indeed, many analysts argue that Temasek’s over-arching influence in Singapore’s economy deters the genuine grass-roots entrepreneurism of say, a Hong Kong, and that Temasek’s breadth is too wide and its pockets too deep to spark genuine competition and reform. Singapore has a great many things, but a vigorous competition commission is not one of them.
Ho Ching’s record is patchy, and her dealmaking controversial elsewhere in the region, notably in Thailand, where its $4 billion 2006 purchase of then Thai prime minster Thaksin Shinawatra’s telecoms and media empire precipitated a coup, Thaksin’s ouster, four years of political turmoil, a $2 billion paper loss and a legal stoush with the current government angling to take the Thaksin empire back.
That fight is led by the Thai finance minister, Korn Chatikavanij, who once remarked of the Thaksin deal that Singapore Inc’s purchase of the private Thaksin assets was ”akin to nationalisation” of a private company acquired by a state.
That it wasn’t the Thai state didn’t make it any less a nationalisation, Korn argued. Cranky Thais delighted in setting fire to Ho’s effigy, such were the passions aroused by her ill-advised Thaksin play, which puts Australian economic parochialism over the ASX in telling perspective.
Madam Ho is married to Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s Prime Minister since 2004 and finance minister for six years until 2007. The Finance Ministry owns Temasek, which also controls Singapore Airlines (SIA), another key power circle. SIA is ”regulated” by Singapore’s civil aviation authority, which also ministers every airline, like Qantas, flying into Changi’s strategic regional hub. Apart from being an SGX director, Lee Hsien Yang is the aviation authority chairman, completing that Singapore Inc circle.
But Hsien Yang does not get to sit on the board of Singapore Inc’s other great sovereign wealth fund, the Government Investment Corporation. That job is reserved for his father, the GIC chairman, and his Prime Minister brother, GIC’s deputy chairman, as well as the Finance Minister Tharman, also of the MAS. (If Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs are any guide, his eldest son and political heir is clearly his favourite, Hsien Loong being cited 19 times by his father in two volumes versus just three for his younger brother.)
With an estimated $350 billion in assets – including vast tracts of Australia’s CBDs – the GIC ranks among the world’s top five sovereign wealth funds. But it was not so long ago that Singaporeans knew who was stewarding their foreign exchange reserves, when the GIC first revealed who composed its board.
It still doesn’t make public its full accounts, which might be a good idea lest Singaporeans start blogging their wrath at its recent ill-fated forays into Western banking – that blogging done anonymously lest the wrath be returned by authorities, who don’t like having their failures pointed out.
The Australian lawyer David Gonski is an SIA director, and is chairman of the ASX. There are other key members of that SIA-SGX power vortex. Chew Choon Seng is the SIA chief executive. But he is about to become the SGX’s chairman, and would head the combined SGX-ASX if Singapore Inc prevailed in Australia, with Gonski as his deputy. He is also a GIC director.
There is also the banker Euleen Goh, the former chief executive of Standard Chartered’s Singapore operation. She is now a director of Singapore’s DBS Bank, the Temasek-controlled bank that came close to buying Westpac a few years back, and she sits on both the SGX and SIA boards.
Then there is Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Singapore’s Finance Minister, who took over from the Prime Minister Lee in 2007. Of Sri Lankan Tamil origin, he is a director of Temasek, the GIC and also of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, the central bank that is ultimately the SGX’s major shareholder as well as its regulator.
Singapore may play as an entree to Asia but Singapore Inc is relatively lightly invested in its ASEAN backyard, where its state-backed corporate thrusts have not always been welcome – pace Thailand – or have bumped up against the similar Asian politico-corporate power networks like its own, such as in cronified Malaysia and Indonesia.
In Australia’s open economy Singapore has become one of the top five investors over the past decade, accumulating assets from property to power generation in deals totalling more than $100 billion.
It has been a happy hunting ground and Singapore a good corporate citizen, with Australia providing experience for other big deals away from Singapore’s own hermetically controlled economy.
But one place pragmatic Singapore is well-invested is in the pariah state Burma. The SGX hosts a number of Burma plays, as it does low-level Chinese listings of often dubious provenance and governance, products of an attempt to compete with Hong Kong and Shanghai, an initiative of mixed results that it does not much like having pointed out, certainly not now as it sells itself to Australia as its ticket to Asia’s wealth.
Indeed, Singapore Inc manages its image very carefully, studiously avoiding having its executives interviewed by locally resident foreign journalists and analysts who tend to be aware of where the proverbial bodies are buried.
Rather, Singapore Inc likes to host lesser-informed editors and academics from abroad, sometimes paying for their passage and stay, and banning local colleagues who might ask difficult questions about its clubby networks.
The American Tom Kloet ran the SGX for just under three years until early 2003. He says the proposed SGX-ASX tie-up is a “very interesting development” being closely observed in North America, where he is chief executive of the Toronto Stock Exchange’s parent, TMX.
“Any time two major exchanges start having a serious conversation about combining, it’s a surprise. To me, it’s the natural evolution of financial markets, but this doesn’t move the needle for us in terms of our own strategy.”
Kloet was one of Singapore Inc’s first experiences with ”foreign talent”, a program championed by the Lees to deepen Singapore’s executive pool and counter criticisms of its clubby power networks. Kloet was nanny in the SGX’s first years after the 1999 merger of the Singapore Stock Exchange with the Simex futures market.
He took SGX public in 2000 in a $1 billion float, a move partly inspired by the ASX’s successful listing two years earlier.
But Kloet did not last long, leaving the SGX four months before his contract expired amid a local whispering campaign about lax regulation and – ironic this – his “ill-conceived” cross-border trading tie-up with the ASX.
Contrary to market chatter of the day and unflattering articles in the state-controlled media, Kloet says he left Singapore early because “I had accomplished what I had come to do … to combine the stock exchange and Simex, complete the IPO, restructure the management and set a ‘for-profit’ mindset into the organisation converting it from a member association to a commercial entity.” He says he loved working for Singapore Inc.
Asked by Weekend Business who he felt was his boss in Singapore and if he was cognisant of how and from where power flowed, Kloet said: “The way I looked at being in Singapore, I thought I was an invited guest to the wedding so I behaved like somebody who was an invited guest. I never got a phone call saying you have to do this because it’s related to the Lee family. Was I aware of it? Of course I was.
“One had to work their way through the fact that in the structuring of the exchange, the monetary authority had to approve the chairman and myself. It wasn’t like it was hidden. I came away very impressed with the way Singapore Inc operates.”
Eric Ellis was the Singapore-based correspondent for Fortune magazine from 2000 to 2007
With reference to the article you wrote in The Age on October 30, 2010, you have clearly displayed the obvious characteristics of most Westerners, which is utter ignorance of all cultures and differences around the globe; and of course, the constant emphasis of forms over functions.
You mentioned that Singapore is a nation that is controlled by the Lees. But you only wrote about it from a negative perspective. The Lees has taken very good care of the nation just like how any parent/s would, over the past 45 years. The majority of Singaporeans have comfortable life and the most important of all, all Singaporeans can live in a very safe and secure environment.
Compare this picture to Australia. Just look at your ‘own’ backyard, and all you could see are numerous cases of crimes, broken family units, countless divorced parents etc. Although Australians have more political freedom, but look at the bigger picture, the standard of governance is so poor compared to Singapore. A very good example is your MYKi project.
You folks talk too much, and in the end, the MYKi project ended up costing taxpayers millions of dollars. And we’re only talking about a simple project implementation that is locally based.
Singapore Airlines vs Qantas; I’m sure you’ll see the picture if you ain’t blind. SQ is head over heels of Qantas in terms of business performance, reputation, customer satisfaction etc. Where else, Qantas is only known for its multiple near disaster cases.
Singapore don’t need too many ‘cooks’, she needs just a few talented people, unlike in Australia where you folks talk too much about democracy but in the end of the day, the common people gets the short end of the bargain. At least, the Singapore government are not pretentious.
You mentioned that you’re a Singapore-based correspondent for the FORTUNE magazine between 2000-2007. I’m surprised that you didn’t being this article up while you’re still in Singapore. Probably you’re afraid that all your lopsided views will be brought to the Court, where you would then need to present the real facts. I’m embarrass that these types of Westerners in Singapore (and I’m referring to you specifically) are so pretentious, to behave like they are still the coloniser while in Singapore, while at the same time criticise the very system that has brought you so much comfort. Your views are so skewed, so ignorant, I’m shocked to know that you have lived in Singapore for 7-8 years and you still can’t grasp the very essense of the nation.
I just wander how many local Singaporean friends do you have? And I meant, Singaporeans who are not with you just because you’re a gaijin/angmoh but more because of you as another human. I guess not many or probably not at all because you don’t to understand the mindset of this nation.
Singapore don’t need reporters like you and we are very happy that angmohs like you are away from our system because all you folks do is write write write, but you have yet to be in a position to implement anything. In other words, please stop talking so much and start walking your talk.
Put yourself in the shoes of the Lees, who are not selfish to the extent of raping their own nation, who are always thinking for the best of Singapore. Yes, Singaporeans have to ‘suffer’ at times in order for the nation to survive in a longer term. Unlike the Australian political parties who are only interested in gaining as much from the nation during their tenure in power.
Well Eric, you’re an irresponsible reporter who only tells a story from one side. You only create adversity among two nations that should be best of friends at all times.
You’re parents must be very disappointed to have a child like you.