EYE ON THE ECONOMY

Property still propels Singapore's rich lists

Real estate remains the core of billionaires' wealth in Singapore. Can Singaporeans make it big in tech and innovation?

RICH lists might generate envy among many, but they do provide a useful snapshot of a country's economy. One look at Singapore's league table of the wealthy and it is clear that this is a nation where creativity and innovation take a back seat to bricks and mortar.

You won't find any JK Rowling, the creator of Harry Potter, on the Singapore segment of Forbes' Billionaires list released last month. There is no one akin to the founders of Amazon or Google either.

Singapore's rich have taken a more traditional path to their billions by that most basic of economic activity - real estate.

Half of Singapore's 16 billionaires on the Forbes list derive their wealth from property development and hotels. And on Singapore's Top 50 Rich List, released by Forbes last August, nearly half were property tycoons too.

Forbes wealth editor Luisa Kroll notes that "markets like Singapore with a finite amount of land and rising property values find that a larger proportion of their tycoons' fortunes are tied to the valuable real estate".

She adds: "While entrepreneurs in these cities make their money in various industries, real estate stands out as a strong asset class."

Coming top in Singapore is Far East Organization founded by the late Ng Teng Fong and now run by his sons Philip and Robert Ng. Another is Mr Kwek Leng Beng, whose wealth comes from listed City Developments as well as other companies in the family's unlisted Hong Leong Group. Other property families include the Kwee brothers, whose Pontiac Land owns five-star hotels such as the Regent Singapore as well as office buildings like Millenia Tower.

Real estate has also given a leg up to an entire range of entrepreneurs in Singapore.

There is father-son pair Raj Kumar & Kishin RK, whose Royal Holdings and RB Capital portfolio contains assets such as Gallery Hotel. Son Kishin is also developing Farrer Park Medical Centre in Little India.

Even the humble budget hotel chain has given Mr Koh Wee Meng of Fragrance Hotel and Mr Choo Chong Ngen of Hotel 81 a path to fortune, at No.17 and 23 respectively on Singapore's 50 Richest List. And another player is Oxley's Ching Chiat Kwong, who popularised "shoebox" units or very small apartments.

Like in Hong Kong, Singapore's success as a financial and trading hub has made property a sure bet in recent decades.

Singapore's transformation from British colony to developed economy benefited property developers as the population grew, fuelling demand. Singapore's strength as a trading and financial hub has also propelled the values of property assets higher.

Even the banking families behind OCBC Bank, United Overseas Bank as well as the former Overseas Union Bank can attribute some of their wealth to real estate. A buoyant property market would have benefited their home, construction and business loan units for example.

Even the billionaires who made their money from non-property interests have benefited from Singapore's success as a trading centre. The low-key founder Lim Oon Kuin of oil trader and shipper Hin Leong has seen his fortunes rise as Singapore developed as a commodity hub.

Singapore is not, however, without its share of successful entrepreneurs. These have taken an existing product, improved on it and successfully marketed it. "Popiah King" Sam Goi makes his billions from his privately held Tee Yih Jia, which markets frozen popiah skins, wanton wrappers and roti pratas around the world.

There is also Osim's Ron Sim, who has made the massage chair an object of desire.

But no one has yet come close to delivering an innovative success on the scale of WhatsApp or Facebook. It is telling that Creative Technology's Sim Wong Hoo is one of the rare technology entrepreneurs to have ever featured on the Singapore list. He was on the list in 2006 and 2007, although the global financial crisis after that hit his firm's fortunes hard.

Is Singapore short of entrepreneurs and innovators?

To be fair, there is no shortage of innovative companies. Singapore Airlines is a global leader in its field. But as part of Singapore investment firm Temasek Holdings, it has no swashbuckling figure at its helm like Virgin Airlines owner and global entrepreneur Richard Branson. Equally, Keppel and Sembcorp, with their world-class oil rigs, are not held by private individuals or families.

The lack of a domestic market could also explain why Singapore is unable to generate enough demand to sustain large sectors apart from property and banking.

Many of Australia's rich, if you discount the obvious sectors such as mining and property, have made their money from agricultural products, fashion and travel.

To be sure, Singapore businessmen should not be ashamed of developing businesses which play on the country's strengths such as its safe haven status and being an efficient transport hub. Activities such as banking, financial services, investments, logistics and higher-end manufacturing are businesses that give entrepreneurs a headstart in attaining Forbes' rich list status.

But property may not remain a ticket to riches for long. In Hong Kong, tough curbs have hit the market, reducing tycoons' fortunes. With the property market slowing down in Singapore, the same story will be played here.

Future aspirants to the rich list may find it harder to gain entry based on the low-hanging fruit of property development. They will find it hard to get financing in an overcrowded field. Already, property developers are seeking new areas of growth overseas - in the United Kingdom, Australia and even the United States.

Technology may be the new frontier for future billionaires.

The start-up scene is already thriving. Block 71 in Ayer Rajah industrial estate, a tech hub with a Silicon Valley feel, has a burgeoning start-up community of some 100 outfits and is expanding as Singapore aims to become a regional hub for start-ups.

Technology is one sector where good ideas and products can go global easily, unhindered by the lack of a physical hinterland.

So rather than lament the slowdown of the property market, future entrepreneurs can aim to make it big through another kind of property: intellectual.

sushyan@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 1, 2014