Ho Ching: Investor
Wife of SINGAPORE's Prime Minister
On the afternoon of July 20, Lee Hsien Yang, brother of Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and CEO of its biggest listed company, Singapore Telecom (SingTel), walked into a hastily convened press conference and dropped a bombshell.
The 48-year-old told journalists he had quit, but would stay on until the SingTel board finds a replacement. He gave no reason for his decision.
SingTel is a member of Temasek, the huge investment firm owned by the Singapore government and run by Ho Ching. Ho, in her early 50s, is the wife of the PM.
Three hours after Lee Hsien Yang's announcement, Temasek held its annual dinner and dance. It was subdued. Lee did not make an appearance. Many top Temasek officials were also missing. The guests talked quietly among themselves. Neither Temasek chairman S Dhanabalan, a retired cabinet minister; nor Ho Ching made a speech.
Lee has presided over SingTels long court battle with StarHub, another Temasek company over which Ho Ching has more direct control. The dispute is over client accessibility. It is not known whether the dispute has any bearing to his decision to quit.
Early this year, after buying 12% of the British bank Standard Chartered, Temasek drew up a list of answers to possible media questions. The list was leaked to the media. It made interesting reading, especially item 33 (of a total 59):
Question: "Your CEO is also the PM’s wife. The PM is also the Minister for Finance, heading MOF which is your shareholder. Is her appointment politically motivated? Wouldn't there be conflicts of interest?"
Answer: "We are not here to discuss politics since we are not politicians or a political organisation. Our CEO is accountable to the Board of Directors, who is headed by an independent Chairman, just like any other commercial organisation."
Temasek has been playing this same tune over and over again as it embarks on an aggressive buying spree out of Singapore. When the deals are in the West, such as the aborted takeover of P&O of the UK, it is easy to believe Temasek acts on nothing more than commercial concerns. Inside Asia, it is a different story.
From the many investments in Chinese banks to the controversial purchases of Indosat (the Indonesian government wants to buy back shares of this company) and Shin Corp (from Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra), it is difficult to separate Temasek's motives from Singapore's political agenda.
Ho Ching, who has to balance being a first wife and the CEO of a huge investment firm, faces the same dilemma. How she copes will affect how Temasek fares in the future. It is an unenviable task.