Singapore ‘should nurture wealth creators, not just wealth managers’

Source: Todayonline  17 May 2012

Singapore has to decide, going forward, whether it aims to be a “Jurong Island” or a “Shenton Way”, said retired top civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow at a forum yesterday.

Pitting the two models against each other and as metaphors of “wealth creators” and “wealth managers”, Mr Ngiam expressed concern that Singapore might be nurturing more of the latter, at the expense of the former.

“I believe that, while many Singaporeans are competent in our jobs, few among us are brilliant,” said Mr Ngiam, the former Ministry of Finance permanent secretary, who is now Pro-Chancellor at the National University of Singapore.

What would differentiate the wealth creator from a wealth manager, he felt, would include attributes such as tremendous reserves of energy, the ability to think out of the box and “seeing possibilities where others can only see rocks”.

Speaking to a group of around 250 engineering students, academics and industry representatives at NUS Engineering Auditorium, Mr Ngiam was asked during the one-hour dialogue why Singapore could not possess both wealth creators and wealth managers. He replied that a job in the technology sector has got more multiplier effects than one in the services sector.

“Even if you take banking and wealth management, there’s no reason why people should come to Singapore to manage their funds. It can be in the middle of the Indian Ocean with a computer. The barriers to entry are very low,” said Mr Ngiam.

Lauding the late Dr Goh Keng Swee’s contribution to the wealth creation of Singapore, Mr Ngiam noted how Dr Goh, who was Defence Minister, had established Sheng-Li Holdings to build up Singapore’s defence technology. Sheng-Li was later renamed Singapore Technologies (ST) Holdings.

Under Dr Goh, Mr Ngiam said that ST engineers refurbished fighter aircraft and built battle tanks, which were comparable to others internationally.

“After Dr Goh retired from the Government in 1986, there is no one to replace him as our wealth creator,” he added. “The Government of Singapore Investment Corporation and Temasek (Holdings) are sovereign wealth managers for our national savings and reserves. They are not wealth creators.”

Temasek in particular, Mr Ngiam felt, is supposed to be a wealth creator, but are just being “fund managers”.

Going forward, Mr Ngiam said the direction Singapore takes will have an impact on its political, economic, educational and labour policies.

Asked what Singapore can do now to nurture wealth creation, Nr Ngiam said: “The engineering faculty should be given more resources.” Later, he suggested that the Government could provide funding for university final year students of any discipline to start their business aspirations.

“At the end of the day, if 10 per cent succeed out of 100, there will be 10 future companies,” said Mr Ngiam.

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