SG presidential election: Former asset owner execs in the spotlight

The appointment of any of the candidates, all of whom are former business executives and money managers, reinforces the image of Singapore being run as a super-efficient corporation, said one observer.
SG presidential election: Former asset owner execs in the spotlight

Singapore’s final lineup of candidates for the presidential poll has thrown up three names, all of whom are deeply connnected the asset owner industry.

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam was also previously chairman of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) and deputy chairman of sovereign wealth fund GIC; Ng Kok Song is a former chief investment executive of GIC; and Tan Kin Lian is a former chief executive of insurer NTUC Income, now Income Insurance.

Singapore's president serves a six-year term and is directly elected by popular vote.

Candidates have to meet strict requirements for previous service in the public or private sectors. The incoming president will succeed Halimah Yacob, the only candidate to qualify for election in 2017.

One Singapore-based source told AsianInvestor that “working with a large asset owner likely ticked many of the boxes” for qualifying to run for the city-state’s president.

While the position is largely ceremonial, the president of Singapore also has some discretionary powers in managing Singapore’s past reserves – and that will likely be in focus in coming days.

The president has the power to reject or approve any request from the government to draw on past reserves -- reserves accumulated during previous terms of governments via annual budget surpluses.

The discretionary power of the president was used during the COVID-19 pandemic, when President Yacob approved emergency funding to the goverment to tackle the health crisis.

From L to R: Tharman Shanmugaratnam; Ng Kok Song; and Tan Kin Lian


Past reserves are a segment of Singapore’s overall reserves, which are primarily managed by MAS, GIC and Temasek.

Two of the candidates, Shanmugaratnam and Ng, have worked with either GIC and/or MAS. All three have financial management skills.

Tan was also reported in local media as saying that if he becomes president, he wanted the ability to set the investment strategy for building Singapore's reserves.

While poltical analysts said that Tan would not be able to do that since the president has no such power, it’s indicative of how reserves have suddenly become one of the discussion topics of election season.

Government assets are mainly managed by GIC. The government also places deposits with MAS, which also holds its own assets on its balance sheet. The government is also the sole equity shareholder of Temasek, which owns the assets on its balance sheet.

MAS and Temasek publish the size of the funds they manage – together they managed about S$798 billion ($588 billion) at the end of March. GIC’s assets under management are not publicly revealed although it is said to manage well over $100 billion.

“It is not in our national interest to publish the full size of our reserves. If we do so, it will make it easier for markets to mount speculative attacks on the Singapore dollar during periods of vulnerability,” the Ministry of Finance says on its website, noting that its reserves are a strategic asset.

This strategic asset has certainly been in the limelight of late.

Piyush Gupta, the head of DBS group and dubbed Singapore’s "star banker" by media, recently called for a rethink of how the country’s sizeable reserves can be better deployed, according to media reports.

Gupta is in favour of carving out a larger share of reserves to help the “underbelly of society” or to increase spending on new sectors and industries.

The issue of managing Singapore's considerable reserves come at a time when soaring home rents are threatening to become a serious social and political problem.

It’s possible that discussions around reserves management could kick up a notch around elections, especially since all the candidates have investment-related experience.

“Both Ng and Tan have experience of money management from the investor’s side, while Shanmugaratnam has experience of both the investor and recipient [of investment], since he used to be with MAS and part of the government as well,” said the source, who declined to be named because of the topic’s sensitivity.

“It is possible that [depending on who wins] the person might be able to provide inputs or suggestions to government, if asked, on managing reserves. There is no legal requirement to accept what is suggested, though.”

One thing is for certain: the next president will almost certainly have strong money management skills. That will likely send a strong signal to the business community.

“A money manager for president reinforces the image of Singapore being run as a super-efficient corporation and that Singapore means business,” the source added.

Singaporeans will head to the polls on September 1.

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