Trading halt fuels talk of restructuring by banker Wee Cho Yaw

Dr Wee Cho Yaw at the NTU Commencement ceremony.
Dr Wee Cho Yaw at the NTU Commencement ceremony. PHOTO: ST FILE

Market observers suspect veteran banker Wee Cho Yaw is about to consolidate his companies, just as the property market is picking up after the Government relaxed some cooling measures.

Three companies that are substantially owned by Mr Wee - UOL Group, United Industrial Corp (UIC) and investment holding firm Haw Par Corp - called for a trading halt yesterday, sparking speculation that the tycoon may be about to restructure his holdings.

That could mean a potential privatisation, partly because many listed property companies here are deemed undervalued.

It is not the first time Mr Wee's firms have attempted to go private.

In 2014, UIC, which is controlled by Mr Wee and Philippine tycoon John Gokongwei, offered to take its Singapore Land unit private due to the stock's low trading liquidity and to ensure more optimal use of its capital resources. SingLand was privatised in 2014.

There is speculation now that UIC may be delisted if Mr Wee can buy out Mr Gokongwei's 37 per cent stake. UOL owns about 45 per cent of UIC, with Haw Par holding a sliver as well. UIC in turn owns almost 80 per cent of Singapore Land. The Wee family held a 49.65 per cent stake in UIC as at March 15.

Mr Wee and Mr Gokongwei have tried to buy out each other's stakes in the past decade, but the attempts failed.

But things may change as Mr Gokongwei had said he would retire once he turned 90 last year and hand over control of the family business to his only son Lance Yu, who may be more open to cashing out of UIC. Mr Gokongwei has retired from Robinsons Retail Holdings, according to reports.

"This could possibly be a trigger point that leads to an opportunity for Mr Wee to take over UIC, if Lance's stance on UIC were to change. This is not substantiated at this moment," DBS Vickers Securities said yesterday.

Other than its stake in United Overseas Bank, UOL and UIC, Haw Par sells Tiger Balm plasters and ointments and rents out commercial and industrial properties.

Privatisation fever has not abated here. Major shareholders of property group United Engineers are said to be mulling over block sales of their stakes.

In May, developer and lifestyle group Wing Tai Holdings mounted a RM290.7 million (S$94 million) offer to take its Malaysian-listed counterpart Wing Tai Malaysia private.

Last August, a consortium led by Mr Kuik Ah Han, founder of Sim Lian Group, took the property developer private. In 2015, conglomerate Keppel Corp acquired Keppel Land and took it private.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2017, with the headline 'Trading halt fuels talk of restructuring by banker Wee Cho Yaw'. Subscribe