Thursday, 30 July 2009

About Temasek, and of course, the Straits Times

Just when would we say, a lie is a lie, a wrong is a wrong, and enough is enough?


Excellent article from The Age/SMH:

Lumbered with the boss's wife

Eric Ellis

July 30, 2009

SINGAPOREANS aren’t usually given to open criticism of the Lee family that has ruled them for half a century. Rightly or wrongly, some presume that in their tightly controlled island state, walls have ears, and one never knows who is listening.

But this time it’s different. Singaporeans are deeply displeased with their Prime Minister’s wife, Ho Ching. She has run Temasek Holdings, the state-owned fund, since 2002, and has presided over a spectacular series of misjudgments that have lost Singaporeans billions.

There was the murky $3 billion deal she made in Bangkok in 2006, to buy then Thai PM Thaksin Shinawatra out of his telco. Ho’s massive plunges into European and American banks ended in tears last year when Temasek lost a third of its $100 billion portfolio. In Australia, Ho lost Temasek’s entire $400 million stake she’d plunged into Eddie Groves’ ABC Learning Centres, among other missteps.

So much for her much-lauded ‘‘Superwoman’’ smarts and vision when the state appointed her, even though her pre-Temasek record at Temasek-owned arms supplier Singapore Technologies was hardly Sorosesque. Today, Singaporeans are sick of Ho and have been for some time. They want her out of Temasek, lest she create any more financial havoc for them.

Except she’s not going. In a February ‘‘transition’’ — not a sacking, as Temasek spun furiously — Ho was supposed to hand over Temasek to Chip Goodyear, the 51-year-old American (and North Melbourne supporter) who pointed BHP-Billiton at China for four years and made billions.

The big idea was that Goodyear would fix the mess Ho made in banking and tilt Singapore into the booming China and India growth stories, which meant placing Temasek at the middle of big regional resources plays. But that, too, has ended in tears, when Temasek last week cited ‘‘strategic differences,’’ announcing it was "mutually agreed" Goodyear would not become CEO.

It seems clear that after five months hanging around the Temasek office, Goodyear has been paid millions for his life-long silence.

But only a few days earlier, Goodyear was doing the rounds of Temasek satellites mapping out his vision. One CEO I spoke to expressed shock, saying he had been on the ‘‘same page’’ as Goodyear and was looking forward to working with him. The implication was clear: Goodyear was a genuine businessperson whereas Ho was not.

That was mid-July. A week later, Chip was chopped. Temasek’s board met the weekend before last, then announced Goodyear was gone. So what happened?

The Government-controlled Straits Times said Goodyear’s proposals to shake up Temasek were viewed as "too risky" by the board. Too risky? Ho’s bad bets in banks lost Temasek around $30 billion. What could be riskier than that?

More likely is the take doing the rounds of Singapore’s banking and business communities. Local insiders, under few illusions that little happens at Temasek without Government say-so, say the Government has been spooked by the arrest in China of Rio-Tinto executive Stern Hu.

Temasek hired Goodyear because they wanted him to do for it what he had done at BHP, expertly play China, which is far more politically important for an Asian nation such as tiny Chinese-dominated Singapore than it is for a global mining giant. But after the Chinese Government arrested Hu and sent a message it was taking back control of its resources management, it wouldn’t do now, they say, for a foreigner who knows so much about Chinese resources to front mostly Singapore Inc’s ambitions in China.

The handling of Goodyear has deeply embarrassed Singapore and seems to give lie to the fiction that Temasek operates transparently and separately from Government policy. And knowing how deep runs the anger among its readers that Ho has squandered a big chunk of their nest egg, even the normally lap-dog Straits Times was moved to ask how ‘‘private sector’’ can Temasek really be, commenting: ‘‘Like it or not, Temasek cannot get away from the fact that it is inextricably linked to the Singapore Government’’.

It’s shaken up the arcane world of sovereign wealth funds too, where Temasek liked to portray itself as the model for emerging wealthy states. Delegations from around the world made pilgrimages to Singapore to see how it was done, how their state’s strategic jewels can be packaged and managed into an investment vehicle that maintained the illusion it was somehow separated from the Government. Journalists describing Temasek as "Government-controlled" invited a welter of complaints to their editors from Temasek’s spinners who demanded it be benignly referenced as an "Asian investment company" with no references to the Government whatsoever, and certainly not to describe the family connections of Ho’s. Failure to comply would mean an outlet would be blackballed by Temasek, which in Singapore ultimately suggests a libel suit no media company has ever won there.

East Timor decided the Temasek model wasn’t for them, and chose a Norwegian-inspired transparent route for its now $6 billion petroleum royalties pile. In many respects, it’s actually a model for Temasek. Certainly, the East Timorese fund made more money than Temasek has recently — it invested in boring US treasury bonds while Ho was plunging billions into Merrill Lynch.

Unsurprisingly, Temasek’s model appeals more to the more authoritarian and less democratic of states, such as Kazakhstan which, like Singapore, is run along family lines.

Now Singapore Inc is in a pickle. It said it wants to internationalise Temasek, and appointing the much-respected Goodyear was a huge – and widely welcomed – statement. Now it’s stuck with the bumbling Ho, for at least another year, which simply deepens the market’s conviction that dealing with Temasek is akin to de facto dealing with the Government.

Temasek says it is continuing its international search for a new boss. But after Goodyear’s bad year at Temasek, why would anyone want to go there?

Friday, 17 July 2009

Singapore, the safe, safe, city

There is another sky,
Ever serene and fair,
And there is another sunshine,
Though it be darkness there

-- Emily Dickinson


Singapore is a safe city, we like to say. Say it often enough, loudly enough, and strangely, it becomes actual enough, safe in our factual fantasy.


Singapore is a safe city, because there is “an absence of desperate poverty”, says Kishore Mahbubani. Singapore is a safe city, because “the government has created an ‘ecosystem’ that resulted in this high level of personal safety.” In safe city Singapore, there is low crime, few murders. Singaporeans earn their daily bread, diligently, honestly, safely. Singapore is a safe city because of the government. Because of the government, there’s enough bread to go around, unlike places like Switzerland and New York City, where Mr Kishore Mahbubani was almost mugged mercilessly. Singapore is a safe city.


Singapore is a safe city. The mornings are calm and the streets are tender. We’re not like those willy-nilly liberal democracies, where crazy rioters run amok almost, like, daily. We have little patience for such fluffy frivolities. Singapore is a safe city. Three’s a crowd and two’s a company, and one is now an illegal assembly. Ask for permission to speak publicly, lest you be rounded into prison, seething privately. Refrain from speaking up for the downtrodden, like foreign workers or the Opposition, however they tempt you seditiously, for you might be detained, indefinitely, by Internal Security.


Singapore is a safe city because of its “tough attitudes on law and order”, says Kishore Mahbubani. In this safe city, we whip teenage boys for being teenage boys, and we hang drug mules on transit, young as a foal, foolish as the young. No foreign president or prime minister can persuade a presidential pardon. Because, pardon me, Singapore is a safe city. What is one death amidst so much safety? This safe city depends on draconian laws being executed punitively. Laws that hover above Singapore, keeping us safe, safe-keeping our thriving economy, compromising neither sovereignty nor survivability. Singapore is a safe city.


Singapore is a safe city. We’re an international financial centre, located strategically in a region of endless possibilities. Billions of dollars of private wealth funds are parked here safely, ill-gotten money guarded legally. VIPs from other dictatorships visit us regularly, like Burma’s Prime Minister General Soe Win, and Zimbabwe’s Mr Mugabe. Singapore is a safe city. Dictators and their cronies come here for our medical facilities, our shopping and dining activities. Singapore is a safe city. Get well soon General Soe Win, and enjoy our hospitality Mr Mugabe. The holiday will do you good, surely. Singapore is a safe city. The powerful are protected, and the powerful go scot-free. These give them tranquil peace of mind, and all these are made known publicly. There is no lack at all of white-washed transparency.


Singapore is a safe city. There are no famines, tsunamis, or other unthinkable catastrophes. Our water is safe to drink, and our enemies are kept at bay. Singapore is a safe city. There are no wars here, as NS has long been made compulsory. We have a strong and mighty army, standing and waiting, ever on the ready. Singapore is a safe city. Except, maybe, when army boys die while on serious duty. Killed by a grenade or collided with a frigate, dunked by commandos or crushed by a Rover. But all these are rather secondary, really, because Singapore is a safe city, must be a safe city. That’s why NS is made compulsory – a dire necessity – even if our boys might die while on peace-time duty. It’s all for the sake of our beloved country, Singapore, this safe, safe, city.


Singapore is a safe city. The government plays it safe, and safety measures are taken seriously. Key institutions of the state, from the bureaucracy to the judiciary to the universities, are bosom buddies of our unique democracy. Our main press is headed by a former minister, and our newspaper editors are hired from the spy agencies. Singapore is a safe city, and safety measures are taken very seriously. Even when our first-rate bureaucracy has been a little bit tardy: ‘Lax in managing public funds and opt for convenience’, thunders the Auditor-General fiercely. While it may seem like a dereliction of duty, it is not the civil servants’ fault, surely. Because Singapore is a safe city, and our bookish bureaucracy is merely sitting there, comfortably, reproducing templates, going by the book, prudently, meekly, safely.


Singapore is a safe city. But “despite all our successes,” Singaporeans “should not be complacent”, says Kishore Mahbubani. Indeed, we must not. We must be on our toes and we must pull up our socks. But we must also toe the line, and we must not rock the boat too much. Otherwise, waves of clear and present danger will arise, and Singapore, the safe city, will perish just so easily. Singapore is a safe city. But O such fragility. Naturally, Singaporeans play it safely, and safety measures are taken just as seriously. We shift our glances as we whisper about the PAP. We clam up when we’re invited by the Opposition parties. We follow the rules and do as we’re told. We keep up with the Joneses, and we keep down our high jinks.

Our Father, thou art in Singapore. Give us this day our OB markers, and forgive us our careless trespasses, as we forgive those who threaten us with knuckle-dusters. Lead us not into Sedition, but deliver us away from Perdition.

This way, Singapore will be a safe city, is a safe city, and our people will be brought to salvation – by the PAP – eventually.


Singapore is a safe city. Say it often enough, loudly enough, hopefully and daily, and it will become, truly, a miracle of the Singapore Story.

But what do you say, Mr Kishore Mahbubani, if I don’t want to live in a safe city, where people’s voices have no say, T-shirts imprisoned, and human beings hanged. What do you say, Mr Kishore Mahbubani, if I don’t want to live in a safe city, that forces upon me the false dichotomy of liberty versus poverty, ruling party over democracy. What do you say, Mr Kishore Mahbubani, if I don’t want to live in a safe city, safe to the point of stifling sterility, safe in a pool of stagnant conformity, safe in a tomb of lifeless mediocrity. O Mr Kishore Mahbubani, hallowed be thy name, thy Singapore come, thy will be done. Lead me not into this safe, safe, city, but save me from this insane, insufferable, imperialism of safety.


Superfluous were the sun
When excellence is dead;
He were superfluous every day,
For every day is said

That syllable whose faith
Just saves it from despair,
And whose 'I'll meet you' hesitates
If love inquire, 'Where?'

Upon his dateless fame
Our periods may lie,
As stars that drop anonymous
From an abundant sky.

-- Emily Dickinson