Singapore finance ministers have never interfered in Temasek, GIC investment decisions: Heng

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat

As finance minister, he has never once interfered in investment decisions taken by the national sovereign wealth funds, Temasek and GIC, as doing so would lead to him losing the authority of holding them accountable for their performance, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said in an interview with a Swiss newspaper published last Friday.

Mr Heng told Neue Zurcher Zeitung (NZZ) that his predecessors also did not interfere in what countries or sectors to invest in.

"Because if I do that, I lose the authority to hold them accountable for (their) performance," he said, noting that in his role as stated in Singapore's Constitution, he is held accountable to Parliament for how the funds perform.

"If the board and CEO are not doing a good job, I have the duty to remove them and to change, but I do not micromanage how they do it."

He said such an approach, and an openness to foreign investments, has led to multinational firms having the confidence to invest here.

The minister was in Switzerland to attend the St Gallen Symposium, an annual conference bringing together young people, key decision-makers and thought leaders for discussions on economic, political and social issues.

The interview with NZZ covered a broad range of topics from Singapore's housing system and the 99-year lease policy to similarities in Singapore and Switzerland's development models.

Mr Heng was responding to a question on how the Singapore Government prevents crony capitalism from taking root, given that the People's Action Party (PAP) has been in power since independence. He said the PAP has regularly delivered on its promises to Singaporeans, and that is why it has won every election.

The Government has held regular elections, which are always competitive, free and fair, he said.

"The fact that the ruling party has been able to win elections is not because we have been suppressing," he said. "The fact is that we have delivered on what we promised, and that we have won the trust and confidence of Singaporeans."

Mr Heng said the Singapore Government does not claim to have answers to every problem.

"In fact, many of us, myself included, have been on record saying the Government cannot possibly have all the answers to all of the problems and that is why we have to mobilise our society to resolve many of these issues," he said.

Explaining the 99-year lease policy, Mr Heng said home ownership is an important part of nation building, as a sense of togetherness is forged when people own their homes and feel they have a stake in the country.

The 99-year lease policy is "rational" if one believes, or hopes, that Singapore will last forever. With the whole island just over 700 sq km in size, there is a need to renew its land assets.

"If we sell land as freehold and the moment you own it, you own in perpetuity, what it means is that children who are born in the future will never have any home or be able to buy anything," he said.

He also highlighted similarities in the development models of Singapore and Switzerland, both of which he called "multilingual, multiracial and multicultural".

While both countries are small in comparison with China, the United States and other major powers, they are able to flourish by maintaining their neutrality on the world stage and abiding by global institutions and rules.

Mr Heng said it was important to "focus on the big picture and to abide by a rules-based multilateral order", and also support international institutions like the World Trade Organisation, United Nations, International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

"These are important rules that smaller countries must subscribe to. And we hope that not just the smaller countries subscribe to these, but bigger countries too. Then we have a rules-based system."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 20, 2019, with the headline Singapore finance ministers have never interfered in Temasek, GIC investment decisions: Heng. Subscribe