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From GIC Chief Investment Officer To Presidential Hopeful: Ng Kok Song Shares The Key Differences...

...And Similarities Between Both Roles, And Why He Wants To Take On The Top Job.

“I do not want our reserves to be misspent or to be squandered,” says Mr Ng Kok Song.

He has reiterated his lack of political affiliations and his experience in managing Singapore’s reserves through his 45 years in public service.

Mr Ng Kok Song, the former Chief Investment Officer (CIO) of GIC from 2007 until 2013, is also Singapore’s presidential hopeful. He has announced his interest in running for the 2023 Singapore Presidential Election.

In 1970, Mr Ng started his career as an investment analyst in the Ministry of Finance before moving to the Monetary Authority of Singapore when it was formed in 1971. Later in 1986, he joined GIC to head the equities and bond department. He then held other posts including the Managing Director of Public Markets before taking on GIC’s Group CIO role.

Mr Ng, the former GIC CIO, is one of three individuals who have been issued their certificates of eligibility for the upcoming Presidential Election. The two other contenders are former Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam and former NTUC Income Chief Tan Kin Lian. Nomination Day is on August 22, and if more than one candidate is nominated, Polling Day will be on September 1.

DollarsAndSense speaks to Mr Ng Kok Song in an exclusive interview as he sheds light on his work as former GIC CIO and how it contributed to the national reserves, his thoughts on the role as a President, as well as his plans if he’s elected to take on the top job.

Angela Teng (Angela): Can you share with us what the role of a GIC CIO required you to do previously, and can we have a sense of what the job scope was like?

Ng Kok Song: I was the Group CIO for GIC for six years before my retirement in 2013. Before then, we didn’t have a title such as Group CIO. But we had the title of Managing Director of Public Markets. Public markets refer to our investments in equity markets, bond markets and currency markets. It formed the largest portion of the assets of the GIC.

You might say that the Managing Director of Public Markets in GIC was similar to that of the Group CIO. So, the Group CIO, the term Chief Investment Officer, meant that I have to set the investment strategy. Setting an investment strategy means, number one, I have to decide on what are the key factors that will affect our investment performance, and our rate of return.

I have to help formulate the investment policy decisions for them to be approved by the Board of Directors, which was chaired by the Prime Minister and then make decisions such as the top-down decisions: How much risk should we take? What should be the proportion to be invested in risky assets like stocks, private equity, and real estate? How much to be invested in less risky assets, such as bonds and cash? Thereafter, having formulated the investment strategy and getting it approved by the board, I then had to execute it to produce the results. So, the formulation of policy and execution of policy – that was the responsibility of the CIO. I did that for a long period of time at the GIC.

Angela: Can you share with us the learnings from the many years working in GIC and how the work has helped shape, for example, your character, mindset, exposure to the international stage, and your approach to tasks?

Ng Kok Song: In order for me to perform well and to do the work at GIC as CIO, I need to have a very clear mind. I have to be able to follow developments globally – from economic to political developments as well as financial market developments.

I have to read very extensively and I need to have discussions with my peers and experts in order to cross-check my own thinking. It calls for a lot of study, and a lot of intelligence gathering for me to make those decisions. As a result of that, I built up many friendships around the world among leading investors, among policymakers. Because for my work in GIC, you know, I have a saying which goes by you must have a combination of “know-how” and “know-who”.

“Know-how” is technical knowledge, reading and all that but sometimes you’ve got to have “know-who” because “know-who” means people who know more than you. You want to be able to tap into their wisdom as well as into their views, and they may know something that you do not know. If you have a good relationship with them, you can exchange views with them and benefit from the experience.

Combining “know how” and “know who” is very important not only in investments, but also in life.

I think it helps when I ask myself the question: “You are the Group CIO, how can you best impact the bottom line? You cannot do everything, right?”

In investments, there are top-down decisions and there are bottom-up decisions. Top-down decisions mean those decisions which have the greatest impact on the bottom line. In the case of investments, it is an asset allocation decision – how much in risky assets and how much less risky assets. How much to have in various currencies, those are also top-down decisions. I must lead my investment team in making those top-down decisions because they have the greatest impact on the bottom line.

There are also bottom-up decisions such as what stocks to buy, and what securities to buy. Those have less impact, but they do impact the bottom line. As GIC CIO, I have to decide what are the tasks where I can best contribute and focus on them.

Angela: Sounds like you have a learner’s mindset as you mentioned the need to have “know-how” and “know-who”. This means that you need to listen to the advice from people who have other experiences to share. Do you think your experience in GIC has helped to contribute and shape your character and mindset in any way?

Ng Kok Song: It helps me to be humble. Not to think that I’m “Mister Know It All”. Because we’re trying to understand the reality of the world and you must be careful not to think that you know everything.

Listening to other people’s points of view helps you to cross-check your own thinking. I would call that humility and to have a willingness to listen to another person’s point of view. In that sense, my accumulated work experience has helped me shape my character, you know, over the last 45 years.

Angela: Let’s talk about the presidency, what made you decide to contest in the Singapore Presidential Election?

Ng Kok Song: There were two basic reasons. The first reason was that I want the presidency to be contested. In other words, I want there to be an election. We cannot have a walkover because we call this an elected presidency. How can you say that this is an elected presidency if there’s no election?

At that time when I was deciding, Mr Tharman had already announced that he was going to stand for the presidency and he would automatically qualify right?

At that point Mr George Goh said he also wanted to contest, so I was a bit concerned that Mr George Goh may not qualify, and if he doesn’t qualify it is a walkover, right? That’s not good for the presidency.

So, I said I will try to qualify, and I’m so happy that today, I am certified eligible. Now there will be an election, and the people of Singapore would benefit because they can choose their President.

The second concern was that the elected President has the important role of safeguarding our reserves. For 45 years, at MAS and at the GIC I had helped to build up the reserves. I do not want our reserves to be misspent or to be squandered. I know alot of things about the reserves and I know what questions to ask, based on my experience. So I feel that I have the qualifications for the job.

The announcement that I have been certified eligible confirms that I have the qualities.

Angela: I have a follow-up question on your response. You mentioned that the reserves shouldn’t be squandered. Are you putting forth your intention of being a safeguard or gatekeeper as President?

Ng Kok Song: Yes. Because the President is about safeguarding our accumulated savings, our reserves. When the government wants to use the past reserves, it must get the approval of the President.

The President has got to assess whether the government’s request is justified, whether the amount of money they are asking for is justified. In order to make that assessment, the President must have a deep understanding of the reserves. I feel that I’m in a good position, given my experience at the GIC to safeguard the reserves.

Angela: Moving on to the next question, do you think there are any important similarities between the role of the President of Singapore and your former GIC CIO role?

Ng Kok Song: The President’s role is to watch on how much to spend and how much to save on the reserves.

The former GIC role which I held was also to safeguard the reserves. How does the GIC safeguard the reserves? By investing them properly so that we can generate better rates of return on the reserves.

If we are able to generate better rates of return, then we can allocate more for the benefit of the people because the government can take up to half the investment returns for the Singapore Budget and through that allocate money for healthcare for the elderly, and for education and housing. If the GIC can generate better returns, we have more to benefit the people and we have more to save for the future.

The GIC does not decide how much to spend. It is the government’s decision, but they must get the approval of the President.

The similarity is that both the President and the GIC want to be able to build up our savings for the future. In GIC’s case, through generating better investment returns, in the President’s case, to try to save as much as possible so that we have a better and a more secure future.

Angela: Do you think there are differences between the role of the President of Singapore and the GIC CIO?

Ng Kok Song: At the GIC, my job was to decide on the investment strategy and how to generate better returns. The President’s role will be to protect the reserves, how not to overspend and how much to save for our future. Both roles are concerned with the reserves but are slightly different.

Angela: It sounds like football, where the President’s role is like a defender or goalkeeper while the GIC CIO role is of the centre-forward and striker.

Since you have had the experience of being a “striker and a forward” through the role at GIC as the CIO, what value add can you contribute if you were to take on the role of “goalkeeper” (the role of the President)?

That’s a good analogy. The GIC CIO role is more of a centre-forward, the attacker, taking the offensive, while the President is like a goalkeeper.

In order to be a good goalkeeper, you must have played as a centre-forward as well, which was the role I played at GIC as CIO. You know, to see how people can score against you.

Angela: Okay, so how do you think being GIC CIO has prepared you for the role of the President of Singapore?

Ng Kok Song: I have the knowledge and can explain to the people of Singapore why the reserves are so important to Singapore.

My experience in the GIC enables me to explain better to the people of Singapore. As part of the President’s job of safeguarding the reserves, I can also explain how the reserves are being invested prudently because the people of Singapore must understand what are the reserves for. That’s why I’m able to respond to your questions today. This is because of my work at the GIC.

I think what Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong shared recently with the media with the people of Singapore on the need to safeguard our reserves is what I’m also able to explain, based on my experience. It was a good thing that Prime Minister himself explained to the people of Singapore in simple language, not in complicated language.

Angela: What are your plans for Singapore if you are elected as President?

Ng Kok Song: Well, first of all, I must carry on my responsibility of safeguarding the reserves which I’ve already explained.

My other important rule is to protect the integrity of certain key positions in the public service, to make sure that we don’t have dishonest or incompetent people in those jobs, because the President can veto those decisions, those appointments.

Those are the two crucial things that the President can do.

Other tasks that the President can do is to be a symbol of unity, and to help the ordinary people.

I spoke about my desire to help especially the younger generation of Singaporeans in three ways. One is to help them to develop emotional resilience to be less stressed. That I can share because of my experience in practicing meditation. The second thing is I want to see younger Singaporeans have more self-confidence. In other words, to be able to speak confidently, to speak clearly and not to be afraid to speak up. That is very important. The third way is I want to help younger Singaporeans learn financial literacy, on why it is important to save money even though it might be a small amount at the beginning. On how to save money and how to invest properly for their own financial security.

Those are three things that I can do whether I’m President or not, right? But if I become President, I want to encourage as many people as possible in Singapore to help me help younger Singaporeans in these three areas. I am encouraged by companies like DollarsAndSense because you are doing an important job in educating the public on financial literacy.

Angela: Why do you think financial literacy is very important in this time and age?

Ng Kok Song: It’s very important because financial literacy means learning to save steadily, in small amounts, but steadily. It also means investing for the long term.

Don’t speculate, don’t go in and out of investments, but save steadily. As the saying goes “Slow and steady wins the race”. You remember that fable about the hare and the tortoise, right? So slow and steady is the way to go. Then people can accumulate their savings and be in the long-term race.

Secondly, if people can learn to save money, it gives them a lot of flexibility in life. Supposing you have a very difficult boss that you cannot work with who is causing you a lot of stress. But you can quit. And then before you get the next job, you can use your savings to tide you over. Having savings gives you flexibility in life, you’re not trapped.

The third thing is that when you’ve some savings and if you want to start a small business, it’s easier to get people to support you or lend you money. If you say I’m putting my life savings into it, it shows that you’ve got skin in the game. Learning to save money steadily and investing it properly gives you financial security and gives you freedom in your life.


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