GIC’s 1st Managing Director didn’t have chair & staff when he started work
Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.
Yong Pung How, Singapore’s second Chief Justice, passed away yesterday (Jan. 9).
Yong Pung How: GIC’s first Managing Director
Apart from serving as Singapore’s Chief Justice from September 28, 1990 to April 10, 2006, he was also GIC’s first Managing Director.
In a condolence statement, GIC CEO Lim Chow Kiat stated that Yong began his tenure at GIC in 1981 “amidst humbling, daunting circumstances”.
His “foundational” contributions to GIC turned it into what it is today.
Chapter eight of GIC’s e-book Safeguarding the future: The story of how Singapore has managed its reserves and the founding of GIC, “Whippersnappers Inc.”, details Yong’s beginnings as the first Managing Director of GIC where he began his tenure with only a desk and an unusable telephone.
We have reproduced sections of the chapter here:
By Freddy Orchard
On 9 March 1981, Dr Goh released a press statement on the recent appointments he had made at the Monetary Authority of Singapore and at the proposed government investment company.
Dr Goh also announced the appointment of Yong Pung How as Managing Director of the yet-to-be-named investment company. Yong was to be released on no-pay leave from OCBC, where he was Vice-Chairman.
Only had a desk & an unusable phone
Yong began his first day at his new job at the MAS offices in the old SIA Building on Robinson Road. The investment corporation he was to head did not as yet exist; hence, it had no office of its own. Yong was met by Herman Hochstadt,
who could add little more than what Yong knew.
Hochstadt showed Yong to a room formerly occupied by Dr Goh. Dr Goh had vacated it only recently to move to the Ministry of Education headquarters.
The room was bare save for a huge desk and an odd looking contraption that turned out to be a telephone scrambler. Hochstadt explained that the phone was connected directly to the Prime Minister’s office and had been used by Dr Goh
to call Lee.
A key that nobody seemed able to locate was needed to activate the phone.
There was no chair. So Yong had to sit at his desk and lean over with a pencil to write his memorandums, before walking a few floors down to the pool of typists to get them typed up.
Subsequently, Yong found a chair in an unused room and dragged it to his office.
Insulted by Lim Kim San
As if this was not enough of an inauspicious start, Yong’s ego was to take a further battering when Dr Goh introduced him to Lim Kim San.
Lim had just been appointed Managing Director of MAS a few days earlier, on 1 March, and had his office on the same floor as Yong’s.
It was a “terrible introduction” , Yong recalled. Lim had brusquely asked Dr Goh why he had brought in “this young whippersnapper” who would only be interested in “empire building”.
Yong was mortified – and doubly so when he found out, upon checking the dictionary later, what “whippersnapper” meant:
Whippersnapper: n., an unimportant but offensively presumptuous person, especially a young one.
Eventually turned it around, impressed Lim
To Yong’s credit, he did not let all this get to him.
Soon, he would impress Lim with his business-like ways and lapidary submissions.
Yong knew that the relationship had turned when one morning Lim offered to “belanja” or treat him to lunch. Later, Lim would support the idea of Yong taking over from him as Managing Director of MAS.
And when Lee sought Lim’s opinion about Yong’s suitability to be a High Court Judge and later Chief Justice, Lim seconded the proposals, remarking that it would be a case “of fish returning to water.
But all that was in the future.
Building a team from nothing
In his first months at the company that had as yet no name, Yong had to forage for staff.
He asked Hochstadt for advice and Hochstadt pointed him in the direction of Tan Teck Chwee, then Chairman of the Public Services Commission (PSC).
The PSC was in charge of awarding government scholarships to deserving students and posting them to various government departments upon their graduation.
Yong called on Tan, who told him that the PSC was short of scholars.
Indeed, at the request of Dr Goh, it had only recently sent some of its best officers to MAS. Nevertheless, Tan did manage to secure one fresh graduate for Yong.
Yong also enquired about getting a secretary for himself.
Strangely, he was told that the government had no provision for a secretary for his position. Yong eventually brought over his secretary at OCBC.
Together, they then “cleaned up the room, bought some furniture, arranged for a telephone, typewriters, shredding machine, copying machine and so on and we got started”.
In recruiting staff, Yong sought fresh graduates with outstanding academic records from the best universities. He did not mind their inexperience in fund management but felt they would be an investment for the long term.
Yong also invited serving MAS officers to apply.
From GOSIC to GIC
The name of the company had been decided earlier, almost by default.
Dr Goh had always referred to the proposed company as the “outfit” or “unit”, while the press had called it the “government investment corporation”.
Civil servants had adopted the latter, but added the words “Government of Singapore” as the term connoted “respectability”.
After all, international credit agencies had given Singapore an AAA credit rating, citing its large reserves and the government’s provident fiscal policies as the reasons.
Taking advantage of that brand, it was decided, more or less tacitly, to call the new “outfit” the “Government of Singapore Investment Corporation Pte Ltd”. It was duly incorporated as such on 22 May 1981.
While external parties would and did use a variety of abbreviations for the company – one was GOSIC – the abbreviation used within the establishment from the beginning, and the version now accepted, was GIC.
Top photo via NAS, GIC.