Growing up where Sengkang is today, he looked after his younger siblings, fed the chickens and avoided gangsters.
Mr Ng Kok Song, who was born to a humble Teochew family in Hougang, is now the chief investment officer of GIC.
ST PHOTO: SAMUEL HE
The warm evening sunlight streams in through the windscreen as Mr Ng Kok Song, 64, stops his Lexus by a road shoulder and turns on the hazard lights. We are near the tail end of Upper Serangoon Road.
The satellite estate of Sengkang East lies ahead, its relatively new Housing Board flats fanning out and dotting the skyline.“It’s all built up now,” says the chief investment officer of the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC), with pensiveness and nostalgia inflecting his voice.
“But that was where Serangoon River used to be. All the bumboats and trawlers would come in and unload fish to be sold at the wholesale fish market.”
As he dredges up more than half a century’s worth of memories, it’s not hard to visualise what Kangkar – which means foot of the river in Teochew and which was what this area was once called – looked like when he was a child. It was a fishing village with a busy fish market near a bustling river, peopled by Teochews and Catholics living in farms and attap houses.
Shifting in his driver’s seat, he points to a vacant plot of state land to the left.
“According to my son who used his GPS to work out the exact location, that’s where our house was,” he says, using his right index finger to focus on a spot in the expanse of emptiness bordering Punggol Park.
From the time that he was born until he got married at 24 in 1972, Mr Ng lived in the house, which had a thatched roof, mud floor and just two bedrooms.
The man who plays a key role in the investment of Singapore’s foreign reserves is the second of 11 children. His father was a fish auctioneer at the fish market; his mother had her hands full tending to her big brood.
“I guess there was no family planning in those days. Every other year, a brother or sister would be born,” says Mr Ng, with a hearty laugh. His older brother is 67, and his youngest sister, 47. He recalls that each time his pregnant mother’s waters broke, his father would jump on his bicycle to fetch the midwife who lived a couple of kilometres away.
“All of us who were old enough to know would wait outside the room to hear the cry of the baby.”
As a child, he would go to the market every morning to help his father sort different types of fish into different baskets. “One day, he told me not to go any more. He said, ‘Study – this is not the job for you. I don’t want you to end up like me,’” he recalls. His father died a decade ago.
“My father had only a few years of education but he was extremely good at arithmetic. He could tell the weight of a basket of fish just by lifting it, and calculate how much it cost almost instantly. “I inherited that gift from him,” says Mr Ng, who went on to graduate with a degree in physics from the then University of Singapore.
As his older brother was a bit playful, he felt the weight of responsibility from a very young age, being the second eldest child.
Baptised a Catholic when he was seven years old, he was up before the crack of dawn each morning to serve as an altar boy at the nearby Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (above). After classes at nearby Montfort School, where he studied for 12 years, he had to look after his younger siblings.
“When I came home from school, I would put them into sarong hammocks and rock them to sleep. In the evenings, I took them out for a walk,” he says.
In between, he had to feed the family’s 80 chickens, collect the eggs and clean out the coops. The birds were sold during festive periods such as Chinese New Year to help supplement the family income.
Thanks to his father’s job, they always had fish for lunch and dinner but life was far from easy.
“One of the things which made me sad was my mother having to borrow money from neighbours when things got desperate,” he says. Fortunately, they had helpful neighbours and a kind granduncle.
“I would go to Siglap and ask this granduncle for help to buy textbooks for every new school year. Not only would he give me money, he would also buy me things to eat.” He excelled in school, always coming in first or second in his cohort. The only exception was a term in Primary 5 when he came in seventh.
“I walked home with my report card in great fear. I went into my room, lay in bed and cried. My father came in later and asked me what was wrong.”
“When I told him, he said, ‘And what’s wrong with that? You did your best, I know you studied very hard, you cannot be first all the time.’ I was so happy that he understood,” he says. He credits the Catholic church and his mission school for keeping him focused and on the straight and narrow.
“Kangkar was infested with gangsters. There were always clashes on the streets and many teenagers belonged to gangs,” he recalls. “But I fell under the influence of the church and the Gabrielite Brothers.” The order of Catholic brothers set up several schools here, including Montfort, Boys’ Town and Assumption English School.
Mr Ng, who was his school’s head prefect, contemplated becoming a priest in his early teens. After his A levels, he won a scholarship to study engineering in Canada but around that time, his father lost his voice and that cost him his job.
“Dad couldn’t bear to tell me, so he got one of my good friends to speak to me. He said the family could not afford to let me go abroad or to go to university and that I had to start working to support the family.
“I told my dad I would support the family by giving private tuition but I had to go to university.” He kept his word. He won himself a Public Service Commission scholarship to study physics at the University of Singapore, and gave private tuition to half a dozen students. The few hundred dollars he earned each month were handed over to the family.
But there was a reason why he did not entirely mind not going away. He had fallen in love with a schoolmate from Montfort, Patricia, who was to become his wife. He remembers the day in 1966 when the whole village knew they were an item.
“We went to Mass together one day. In those days, the males sat on one side of the church, and the females on the other. But she didn’t want to sit alone so she came and sat beside me,” he says.
News that Ah Soon (as he was called by everyone who knew him) had a girlfriend soon spread like wildfire. They went on to marry in 1972 and had three children, now aged between 21 and 39. She had stomach cancer and died in his arms on Valentine’s Day in 2005.
There is a lot of tenderness and affection when he speaks about his late wife, an economics graduate who worked briefly as a bank officer. When they were courting, they were so poor that he would pawn and redeem a Seiko watch repeatedly to finance their dates. It had been given to him by the father of two of his students.
“I would get $30 but the interest was $10 for a month. I did it seven or eight times,” he says. He still has the watch.
Although he knew next to nothing about economics, he ended up in the Ministry of Finance when he graduated in 1970. “I was told that Dr Goh Keng Swee wanted someone with a good background in maths in his Ministry of Finance which had a small department called the department of overseas investments,” he says.
As the investment analyst, his work was to compile data and information for his boss, former banker Elizabeth Sam, and Dr Goh to make investment decisions. He quickly grew to love his job.
“If you can combine your numerate and quantitative skills in economics and finance, it is very exhilarating,” he says.
Ms Sam remembers him well. “Right from the start, you could tell he had the potential to go a long way up the corporate ladder,” she says. “He had great intelligence and leadership qualities, was eager to learn, outgoing and could make his point effectively.” He was transferred to the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) which took over the reserve management function when it was formed a year later.
When MAS set up a London investment office in 1973, his bosses fielded Mr Ng to head it. The three years he spent there, he says, were invaluable. “London is a significant global financial centre. You see how the game is played at the higher level, how things are done. You also meet a whole spectrum of people.
“I formed a lot of important relationships which have helped me so much. When you work, you can read and study but at the end of the day, whatever you don’t know, you compensate by knowing people who do,” he says.
Mr Ng went on to become the founder chairman of the Singapore International Monetary Exchange in 1983. Three years later, he joined the GIC, which had been formed to manage Singapore’s foreign reserves.
“Initially, GIC was headed by American expatriates. After a few years, they wanted a Singaporean to be in charge so I went over to head bonds and equity, which comprised the bulk of GIC’s assets.” He held other posts, including managing director of public markets, before becoming GIC’s group chief investment officer in 2007, a position he has held since.
GIC is one of the largest investment management organisations in the world, investing well over US$100 billion (S$126 billion) in multiple asset classes in more than 40 countries. His job gives him great satisfaction, he says.
“We manage the savings of the people; what we do affects the well-being of the country. If we do our job well, the country will have more to build infrastructure, to make life better.
“It’s like a vocation; you get to do something interesting, yet contribute to national welfare. Over the last 20 years, we’ve managed a rate of return of 3.8 per cent on top of global inflation. That’s not easy,” he says.
Friends and colleagues describe him as a top-rate professional and a spiritual individual. “He’s a very honourable person and treats people very equally,” says top civil servant Lee Ek Tieng who was Mr Ng’s colleague at GIC for several years. “He’s also very spiritual, which makes him very balanced in many ways.”
Indeed, Mr Ng’s spirituality is well known. He made headlines three years ago as the “Christian friend” who taught a meditation mantra to former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew. He and his late wife discovered Christian meditation more than 20 years ago and it helped them cope when she was dying.
For several years now, the trustee of the World Community for Christian Meditation has been conducting a meditation class for beginners once a week at the Church of the Holy Family in Katong.
As chairman of the Lien Centre for Palliative Care since 2008, he is also active in interfaith work. He helped organise a two-day seminar called Common Ground earlier this year, where six religious traditions, including Taoism, Islam and Buddhism, presented their teachings on meditation.
Mr Ng, who lives in a bungalow in East Coast, is clearly pleased with all that he does. But what gives him the greatest pleasure, he says, are his five grandchildren, aged between one and seven. He is happy with how life has turned out.
Mr Ng Kok Song’s five grandchildren, aged between one and seven, are what gives him the greatest pleasure.
ST PHOTO: SAMUEL HE
His siblings have done well and work in different professions – from finance to engineering. They have given him more than 20 nephews and nieces. Most of them, as well as his 88-year-old mother, live in Hougang, a stone’s throw from Kangkar. He misses his wife, who was his soulmate in the truest sense of the word, but he does not feel lonely.
“I felt so much love from Patricia, it was enough to last me a lifetime. But having said that, one of these days, someone might walk into my life and I might fall in love again,” he says.
As Kangkar fades from his rear- view mirror, I ask Mr Ng what he feels when he reflects on his life.
He smiles and replies: “I’m now 64 and nearing retirement. I have the satisfaction of looking back and saying, How many people were given the opportunity to do what I did? “It was such an unlikely prospect for a young boy from Kangkar.”