'You Cannot Have a Ownself Check Ownself Situation' — Former Gic CIO NG Kok Song & His Thoughts on the Presidency
As most Singaporeans should know by now, the Presidential Elections are right around the corner.
And we at Seedly got the rare opportunity of interviewing one of the candidates, Mr Ng Kok Song!
Aside from wanting to know why he wants to run for the presidency and if he has the right qualifications, we also had the chance to pick his brain with his years of investment knowledge and his thoughts on financial literacy in Singapore.
So, if you’re keen to find out what the former Chief Investment Officer (CIO) of the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC) has to say about the presidency and finance, read on!
And no, CIO is not Chief Information officer.
TL;DR: Former GIC CIO Ng Kok Song on The Presidency and Finance
Unlike most interview articles, with a simple question-and-answer transcript, this article will be a little different. Thus, do note that the responses are not in chronological order and are grouped based on the various sections to provide you with a better reading experience!
- Who Is Ng Kok Song?
- Why Does He Want to Run For President?
- How Qualified Is Ng Kok Song in Managing Our Reserves?
- What Will Ng Kok Song Do If He Was President?
- The Four Factors That Affect The Stock Market According to the First GIC CIO
Who Is Ng Kok Song?
For the uninitiated, Mr Ng Kok Song is the founder of Avanda Investment Management, along with two former GIC colleagues. By 2022, its assets had more than doubled to US$10 billion, making it one of Singapore’s fastest-growing investment firms.
That alone is impressive, but his history has even more to boast.
As a fresh graduate, Mr Ng attained an investment analyst role at the Ministry of Finance managing Singapore’s reserve in 1970. After that, he spent 15 years at the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) in charge of the reserves, management and market operations.
He then moved on to his iconic role at GIC where he worked for 30 years and helped build up and invest Singapore’s reserves. He was appointed GIC’s first group chief investment officer in 2007 and held the post until his retirement.
Why Does He Want to Run For President?
When asked why he wanted to run for president, Mr Ng gave us two reasons.
The first was that he wanted the people of Singapore to be able to exercise their right to vote.
…we had a walkover in 2017, When, you know, there was no contest. We’re talking about the office of the elected president, elected president. How can you say you have an elected president if there is no election? So I was very concerned as a citizen, that the people would have lost their right to vote.
For context, when Mr Ng decided to contest, there was only one candidate, Mr George Goh. Fast forward to today, we know that Mr Goh has been disqualified. And if Mr Ng had not come in, there would have been another walkover.
The second reason was that he feels “safeguarding our reserves is extremely important because of the uncertainty that lies ahead of us”.
But in order to safeguard Singapore’s reserves, Mr Ng said that a president needs to have two qualities.
The first quality is domain expertise, “a deep knowledge of global economics and the situation of the Singapore economy“. He explained that as president, he/she will have to “make an assessment as to whether to approve or to veto (reject) the government’s request. To do that the president must be able to ask questions and make an assessment of whether the request is justified, whether the amount requested for is reasonable.”
According to Mr Ng Kok Song, the president needs to know the answers to questions such as
- If there’s a crisis, how serious will it be?
- How would the international economic environment affect the Singapore economy?
- What is the likelihood of unemployment?
- How many jobs will be lost?
- How much relief?
- Do you need to go give to the lower-income group?
He needs to have an understanding of the reserves, why the reserves are strategically important to Singapore, and how the reserves benefit present and future generations of Singaporeans. So my work at the GIC gives me the domain expertise to fulfill this particular responsibility of the President, which is to safeguard our reserves.
The second one is that the president should be independent of the governing party.
Basically, you cannot have a “ownself check ownself” situation, right? That will be the case if the President is somebody who has been with the People’s Action Party with the governing party for so long, right. And I had never belong to any political party. So I feel that it’s better for Singapore, if we have a president who is truly independent. In other words, he has not belong to the People’s Action Party, the Workers Party or whatever. He’s not political. And therefore, he’s better able to exercise objective judgment. He’s also better able to unify the people.
Author’s commentary: After hearing his responses thus far, I found Mr Ng’s points to be very compelling. I too agree that the president should act as a counterweight to the government. And given that the other candidates were former members of PAP, Mr Ng does indeed have an advantage here. That said, there’s no point in picking anyone who is independent of the governing party but does not have the domain expertise right? Thus, I went on to ask him for his take on our current economic climate, the reserves and investments throughout the interview. This not only allowed him to showcase his expertise but to learn from him as well.
How Qualified Is Ng Kok Song in Managing Our Reserves?
As can be seen from his responses above, Mr Ng does indeed have domain expertise with his work at the GIC to safeguard Singapore’s reserves. But I wanted to find out more about his views on the role. For this section, I wanted to give the full response so you may form your own opinions, with only slight edits made to ensure readability.
Question: What is your leadership philosophy and how do you envision applying it to the role?
Leadership is about responsibility. It is not about yourself. And responsibility means you have to care for others. Right? So if you are the leader of an organization, you have to care for the people who work for you, you have to care for the people you’re serving, it could be your customers, for example. In the context of the presidency, the President has the responsibility of safeguarding our reserves, the President has the responsibility of making sure that certain appointments of the public service, the integrity is not compromised, that that, you know, incompetent or untrustworthy people are put in those positions. So this is a responsibility. Then in addition to responsibility, the president must have a clear mind, clarity of mind. By clarity of mind, I mean, he must know what his powers are, what he can do and what he cannot do. And then when he has to make a decision, he must be clear what questions to ask the government. And then, finally, I think, the president must have the will to lead, the will to exercise, he must have the steel in the spine. That in times of difficulty, in times of contests, in times of disagreement with the government. He’s able to stand his ground. That’s what I call steel in the spine.
Question: Do you think that we would need to dig into our reserves in the coming years or in the foreseeable future?
We cannot say for sure, but we only have to look at in the last 20 years. In 2008, during the global financial crisis, we had to tap into the reserves in order to protect jobs, and to relieve the low income part of the population during the GFC. The President also had to agree that the government should guarantee bank deposits, you know, it was not a drop in the reserves. But if the guarantee was triggered, it would be a draw on the reserves. So there was one instance, a very deep and prolonged recession that followed the GFC of 2008. And then in 2020, we had the pandemic crisis, again, the government had to draw on the reserves in order to to enable Singapore to be resilient during the pandemic. There was a much bigger draw on the reserves than during the GFC. So those are two instances. The point is that, it’s very difficult to predict such crisis. But we know from the experience over the last 15 years, that from time to time, there will be crisis like this. And therefore, we must build up our reserves in order for us to weather those storms when they arise.
Question: Jumping on to that, what do you think of the current economic climate?
There are cross currents going on in the global economy. But it seems pretty clear that the days of high economic growth are behind us, the American economy is slowing down because of inflation. So the Federal Reserve has got to tighten monetary policy in order to bring down the rate of inflation. So that’s going to slow down the American economy. The Chinese economy is also slowing down, partly because of the aging of the population, the working age population. And also because there has been a loss of consumer confidence, business confidence, investor confidence. So the two most important economies of the world are slowing down. And then on top of that, we have just this geopolitical conflict between China and America, which, you know, has the risk of getting out of control. Notice we could move from peace to a cold peace, cold peace to a cold war, and hope not, but maybe a hot war. So compounding the slower growth environment, where we’re just we have got this very serious geopolitical conflict. So I think we are going into a very uncertain and potentially very risky environment, which means that our reserves will become even more important in the future.
What Will Ng Kok Song Do If He Was President?
To start things off, I posed a question about the strategies he would propose to tackle income inequality and social welfare in Singapore.
In response, Mr Ng gave a very in-depth answer that I found intriguing.
First off, he made clear that the president does not have the power to make policies and that the president can only play an indirect role as the approver of a draw-down in reserves to relieve the plight of the low-income.
He then goes on to give an analogy of the “three escalators”
There’s the escalator of the very rich, the Ultra Rich. There’s the escalator of the middle income. And then there’s the escalator to low income. So, as long as there’s economic growth in Singapore, all the three escalators are moving up, but at different speeds. So the Ultra Rich, the very rich, including the foreigners who come to live in Singapore, they’re the ones who benefit the most, because they have the most wealth. They probably are the people who have a lot of properties, and the value goes up. So that escalator is moving up very fast, the more Singapore prospers.
The middle income, the professionals, for example, they are also moving up at a slower rate than the ultra rich. But I think it is the low income, the escalator is moving up but slower than the other two escalators.
So the best way for us to deal with the challenges of the low income group is number one to ensure that we have economic growth. Because as long as the escalator is going up, things are improving. Alright, you do not want a situation where the escalator is not moving. All right. So my view is that we should put the first priority on growing the pie, have economic growth. And then we should address the issue of how do we distribute the benefits of growth. So I think it’s important for the government to make sure that the low income are not left behind. Maybe we should speed up the escalator. So I feel that this is is an important matter because Singapore is a cosmopolitan city. We welcome people from all over the world to come and live in Singapore to come and do business in Singapore, because that is good for our economy. Right. But we must make sure that Singaporeans the citizens benefit the most from this growth. So it is the distributional issue? How do you share? How do you distribute the fruits of economic growth?
Author’s commentary: As Mr Ng mentioned, the president does not make policies. Nonetheless, it is important for the president to also have the right mindset. After all, Singapore’s president is the unifying figure for the nation. At least to me, his views checks out (are satisfactory). So we then moved on to things that the president can actually influence.
The Three Things That Mr Ng Kok Song Would Do
Singapore’s previous presidents were all known for different social causes. President SR Nathan was associated with charitable causes (the President’s challenge was started by him), Mr Tony Tan championed social enterprises, while Mdm Halimah Yacob was associated with causes that related to social cohesion, such as the needs of the disabled.
When asked what he would advocate for, Mr Ng would want to do all that and land the weight of his office to such causes.
Aside from that, he thinks that we need to do two other things.
Interracial Community Health
Mr Ng wants to promote what he calls “interracial community health”.
I think there’s too much you know, each community tries to help its own and that is good. People are being held. But I think you will foster a greater sense of unity. If let’s say the Chinese community can also care about the Malay community, the Indian community, and vice versa. So that’s what interracial you know, cutting across racial lines, I think that will be even more powerful in order to unite us as a society.
Helping the Younger Generation
Lastly, Mr Ng hopes to help the younger generation in a variety of ways. He gets a sense that young Singaporeans are anxious and worried about Singapore’s future, despite having a “good government, good administration and social unity”.
I would like to see the younger generation be less stressed, to develop emotional resilience. Because when you’re sad, when you’re depressed, you know, then you lose your energy, you lose your incentives, you know. So it’s very important for the younger generation, especially to be at peace with themselves, all right, to know their value, their uniqueness, this is called emotional resilience. And I found from my own experience, that one good way of doing it, is to learn meditation.
The second way was to encourage young Singaporeans to become better at public speaking, even as far as implementing it into our school curriculum. Mr Ng remarks that public speaking is a skill which can be learned, similar to swimming.
I would like to see, young Singaporeans be become better at public speaking. Because that is a limitation on our part, you know, Singaporeans, by and large, are rather reluctant or shy, to speak publicly, they want to keep to themselves, they are afraid to, you know, to express themselves. And that that is not good, because I think you need to develop some self confidence to be able to express your views.
Lastly, Mr Ng wants the younger generation to develop financial literacy. He would like to see the younger folks being taught the basic principles of finance, the need to save, and investing money properly.
If Mr Ng were to be president, he would speak publicly about these issues and encourage the government to build this into our education curriculum.
Would Having Financial Literacy, Public Speaking and Meditation classes in School Work?
Question: So according to Etiqa, about 55% of Singaporeans have very low confidence in investing. And as you said, you wanted to incorporate, financial literacy into the education system. So how do you foresee that happening?
Well, you know, our education curriculum push to emphasizes academic excellence, or technical. And that’s good, okay. All right, technical skills and academic skills, but it’s incomplete. Right, I think the education system should bring out, should be the development of the whole person. So I would like to see a more holistic education approach, incorporating these three areas, emotional resilience, self-confidence in public speaking, and financial literacy.
Question: Are there any specific ways that you will see the education system incorporating such things?
Well, if you go back to my early days, when I was in school, I was in the science stream. And normally, people in the science stream, they are not, they don’t really, you know, spend much time you know, debating, or writing, you know, literary dramatic, and debating, for example. So unfortunately, I was the president of the literary dramatic and debating society in my school. And there I learned public speaking, right? And that is why I’m able to talk to you like this. If I had not had that formation, you know, in school, you know, I would not be able to develop this public speaking skill, and with a public speaking skill, I become more confident about myself, be able to express my views. So I think it’s very important. So it’s a matter of putting in some time, in the school curriculum, to encourage that. And even meditation. Five minutes before class begins.
Question: But with Singaporeans being quite introverted, I would say like as a whole compared to say Western countries. And let’s say you put in maybe one lesson or like maybe 30 minutes on financial literacy, public speaking, all that sort of stuff, do you think students will be encouraged to do such lessons?
Yes! When they see their peers doing it. They must do it in the comfort of the classroom. Your friends, your schoolmates. So the teacher must learn the art of encouraging, slowly, one by one, you know, so once they see oh, my friends very shy, can speak, I also can speak, you know, I mean, so peer encouragement is very, very important. At home, parents should encourage the child, give the child some time to speak up. They may not be able to find the words or they’re very reluctant. So you must be patient, patient, wait, wait, and encourage, they can only get better. It is like learning any skill, for example, swimming, it takes a while. But after a few lessons, you get into the hang of it, you see. So any skill takes time and patience to learn. Teachers and parents have got to be patient, and encourage the child to learn at their own pace.
The Four Factors That Affect The Stock Market According to the First GIC CIO
Aside from asking him questions about the presidency, I wanted to snag this rare opportunity to learn from an experienced investor. After all, he is the first CIO of GIC and has his own successful investment firm.
I posed him the classic question “how would you invest if you had $10,000” in today’s market.
He goes on to say that there are certain basic principles. For young investors, he says that we must try to invest long-term and that the key is compounding. Moreover, he also explains the importance of dollar-cost-averaging and diversification.
This is very in line with what other great investors have mentioned which we have covered in our previous articles.
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Mr Ng also highlighted that investing should be kept simple. This means investing in the index as index funds are cheap. For those who don’t know, we are referring to Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) such as an S&P 500 ETF or a global ETF.
I won’t go too in-depth into these concepts here, however, Mr Ng says that there are four factors that effect the stock market, something I haven’t really heard of before. At least not in this form.
The first factor according to Mr Ng is growth, not so much economic growth but growth in earnings per share (EPS) because we are investing in companies.
At any one time, the stock market price already has discounted certain expectations. So as we are talking to the American economy going into recession, right. That’s what the market appears to be saying, or maybe not, whatever it is. So what matters is what actually happens relative to what is discounted. Alright, keep in mind that is very important. It’s not whether things are going up or down, it’s whether things are going more up, more than you expect or less.
Interviewer: So it’s all about expectations.
Expectations (agreeing). Because expectations is already built into current prices.
Second thing is inflation. When inflation goes down, both stocks and bonds go up. When inflation goes up, stocks come down. Like now, for example, inflation may not come down, so the stock market has sold off, in the last one. But expectations, you see. But if the Fed succeeds in bringing inflation down, the stock market is going to rebound.
And the third factor is what I call the risk premium. Risk premium is whether people are “risk on” or “risk off”, are people optimistic or pessimistic? Like in China, now, people are so pessimistic. So they are “risk off”, so the Chinese stock market sells off.
And then the final factor, the level of interest rates. So now, American, you know, long term rates 10 Year, 4 20, federal funds rate, short term rates, five and a quarter. They’re very high. If they come down, the stock market is going to go up. Right? So, in other words, keep in mind that these four factors, it doesn’t mean that the economy slows down, stock markets gonna go down, may not happen, may go up. Because because inflation will come down. And then secondly, interest rates will come down. And then people say “Aha” the economy will recover. So, risk on. So, I think the best thing, as I said, is to invest steadily, don’t go all in, in one shot, right? Spread it out. Diversify in time, diversify by markets, also diversify the time of entry.
All in all, I left with quite a different impression of Mr Ng Kok Song from when I first saw him on the media. As a personal finance nerd myself, he definitely knows what he is talking about and the tips that he gave were very similar to what other well-established investors have said.
So I have no doubts about his domain expertise. As for his arguments about why he should be president, they are indeed pretty compelling. But I guess in the end, the onus is up to you to decide! I hope this article has given you a better insight into who Mr Ng Kok Song is and that you have learned something from our interview when it comes to personal finance.