Email gaffe highlights Temasek’s image sensitivities

Wed Mar 29, 2006 2:59 PM GMT

By Sara Webb

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Reporters rarely get a glimpse behind the scenes at Singapore’s notoriously secretive state investor Temasek Holdings.

But the company accidentally revealed more than it intended this week when it emailed an internal document to journalists that set out how Temasek officials should reply to tough questions from the press.

“We are trying to find out what happened,” said Temasek spokeswoman Eva Ho in an email to Reuters on Wednesday.

The briefing document, received by Reuters and other news media, covers 59 potential questions ranging from the firm’s government ownership and potential conflicts of interest to its motivation for buying banks and telecoms companies overseas.

While it is standard practice around the world for company officials to be briefed by “spin doctors” on how to handle the media, the document shows which areas Temasek considers particularly sensitive.

The 13-page briefing spells out what to say when the media ask whether the appointment of Temasek CEO Ho Ching — the wife of the prime minister — was “politically motivated” and whether there are conflicts of interest because Lee also heads the Ministry of Finance, which owns Temasek.

“We are not here to discuss politics since we are not politicians or a political organisation. Our CEO is accountable to the board of directors, who is headed by an independent chairman just like any other commercial organisation,” is Temasek’s official response.

SNAPPED UP

Temasek’s chairman, S. Dhanabalan, is a former cabinet minister who entered politics in 1976 and who held several cabinet positions between 1980 and 1993 including Minister for Foreign Affairs, and Minister for Trade and Industry.

He was also chairman of DBS Group Holdings , Singapore’s biggest bank, which is partly owned by Temasek.

Temasek, which has been snapping up stakes in banks and telecom companies in Asia, already has major holdings in Singapore’s blue-chip companies such as Singapore Airlines and telecoms firm SingTel, whose CEO is the Prime Minister’s brother.

The document, which mainly covers Temasek’s purchase this week of an 11.55 percent stake worth $4 billion in emerging markets bank Standard Chartered, shows how sensitive Temasek is about its image at home and abroad, as well as its relationship with Singapore’s government.

“The Singapore government, as a shareholder, is not involved in our investment decisions and business operations, much less in the businesses of our portfolio companies,” is the official reply to questions about the government’s involvement in business.

Temasek has helped spark a political crisis in Thailand and attracted hostility when it led a consortium that paid $3.8 billion for Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s Shin Corp..

“Our investment in Shin Corp reflected our confidence in Thailand’s long-term growth,” is the answer to two different questions — question 46, on the Shin takeover, and question 47, which reads: “Now with Standard Chartered, you are seen as taking over Thailand’s financial services as well. Isn’t this politically motivated?”.

One stock reply in the document sounded all too familiar to reporters covering the firm. In case of a news leak about the StanChart deal before the signing of the deal, Temasek spokespeople are instructed to say: “We do not comment on market speculations.”

All 59 Questions available here.

Upgrading should be a separate issue from the General Election

To: The Secretary-General of the People’s Action Party

We are concerned about the linking of public housing upgrading and estate renewal programmes to electoral support for the PAP in a constituency.

The prioritisation of upgrading programmes should be based on sound criteria and be kept a separate issue from the general election.

These are the reasons:

1) In selecting a precinct for upgrading, the age and condition of the estate and the flats should be foremost considerations. As national agencies, the HDB and the MND have the responsibility to improve the living environment of all Singaporeans.

2) Residents in the opposition wards are fellow citizens and they contribute to this country just like you and me. It is against national cohesion and irresponsible for the government to alienate them by denying them of upgrading programmes and public amenities in their constituencies. The people of Singapore certainly have not entrusted the PAP government to misuse public funds to advance its self-interests.

3) It is important not to turn our parliamentary elections into local council contests. The government should be elected based on their policies and plans for Singapore – not municipal issues. To intimidate voters with withholding upgrading programmes seems to suggest that the ruling party is trying to avoid serious debates on national policies.

The elected government of the day should work for and together with all Singaporeans transcending political factions. The provision of upgrading programmes and public amenities must not be dominated by narrow party self-interests.

We, the undersigned, request that the vote in a general election not be linked to upgrading programmes.

Sincerely,

The Undersigned

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Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Committee Movie Screening

DEADLINE: The Screening
Guinness Theatre, Substation
8 pm. Wednesday, 5th April, 2006
Free Admission.

Deadline is a documentary on Illinois Governor George Ryan, who, with 60 days left in office, makes a decision on the fate of death row prisoners. Directors Katy Chevigny and Kirsten Johnson tackle the volatile topic of the American capital punishment system with intelligence, compassion and balance. Furthermore, they capture the extraordinary transformation of one man who holds the power of life and death in his hands.

Deadline is New York-based Big Mouth Productions’s sixth feature-length documentary film and both Johnson and Chevigny’s second film. Chevigny’s directorial debut was Journey to the West: Chinese Medicine Today (2002), distributed by Wellspring Media. Johnson’s previous film, Innocent Until Proven Guilty, premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1999 and was featured on HBO.

Among other awards, Deadline has won the 2005 Cine Golden Eagle Special Jury Award, the Thurgood Marshall Journalism Award, Best Feature Documentary and Best Director at the Black Point Film Festival, Lake Geneva.W!. It has also screened at Amnesty International Film Festival, Human Rights Watch International Film Festival and The Independent Film Festival of Boston.

This screening is organized by The Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Committee, which is a group of concerned individuals who believe that it is wrong for the state to take someone’s life. We have organized this film screening as part of our public outreach. We hope to show more people the facts and the myths behind the death penalty.

The Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Committee had gone all quiet since the hanging of Nguyen Tuong Van. When Took Leng How’s appeal was disallowed, the group did not push for Took’s clemency, in spite of the name of the group. Not sure if this constitutes to double standards for I believe if a group is against the death penalty, they should push for clemency regardless of the crime committed. Maybe Nguyen’s case was more unique, an Australian Vietnamese whereas Took is from a neighbouring country whom is about to erect a scenic bridge. Hmm.

More Openness needed in Singapore

In response to the TODAY online news report of, “Mystery of the no-go Feelin’ Good Party”, I wrote a letter to the press.

What appears to be a mystery about the no-go ‘Feeling Good’ Party is the lack of written or recorded documentation from the various parties.

Nevertheless, the episode appears to be a repeat of the PLU3 open/closed meeting at the new National Library’s Visitor Centre on 10 November 2005. The National Arts Council prevented the group from holding the event at the very last minute even though PLU3 has assured the body that the meeting will not touch on certain issues.

In both instances, it appears the “middle man” are forced into a difficult position in which they are forced to remain silent on the controversies.

Both episodes highlight the the need for local governmental bodies; whether be it the National Arts Council or the police to take an active approach in providing written documentation on their side of the story, so that they would not be accused of being prejudicial. Using phone calls to communicate is by no means professional.

Therefore, organisations which are either the middle-man or who are organising large-scale events should also be wary of further disputes and demand written proofs from the authorities.

While it appears that Fridae is the party that have suffered economic losses; we should also consider the party-goers who have been denied a chance to experience the music of Kate Monroe. As consumers, they have a right to know what has transpired.

This no go party highlights the need for more openness and transparency within our bureaucracies and business. To become a fairer society, whether to companies, consumers or citizens, the bureaucracy, especially, needs to be made more accountable.

==

This is the original article which appeared on TODAY online…

Mystery of the no-go Feelin’ Good Party
Advertised extensively, then cancelled at the very last minute
Tuesday • March 28, 2006

Vinita Ramani
vinita@newstoday.com.sg

THE party was to have taken place on Sunday, but it was called off at the last minute — on its eve.

And no one seems able to agree on why the Feelin’ Good Party, organised by gay and lesbian media events company Fridae.com, was suddenly cancelled.

Boasting Ministry of Sound as its venue, the party — which was advertised in local publications such as I-S and Juice, as well as on radio — was going to feature Australian house music DJ Kate Munroe.

According to a press statement issued and published on its website by the organiser, the same entity behind the banned annual Nation gay party, the “Ministry of Sound received a telephone call from local police demanding that the party be cancelled”.

Its CEO Stuart Koe added: “Feelin’ Good is simply a party, not unlike any other party held at clubs all around Singapore.”

A police spokesperson, however, denied that they had intervened in any way.

What they did after receiving “information from the public” about the party on March 24 was to contact the Ministry of Sound’s management to “obtain more details” to plan for possible “traffic or law and order situations that might arise”.

Said the spokesperson: “At no time did we advise the management of the Ministry of Sound to cancel the event.”

Mr Clement Lee, executive director of the venue’s parent company LifeBrandz, also said that Fridae.com’s statements were “not completely true” and hinted at other underlying reasons.

“If everything had been above board, the Ministry of Sound would have allowed the party to go on as planned,” he said, declining to explain what he meant.

Up to 1,000 tickets had been sold for the event, which was planned with a capacity of 3,800 in mind. The organiser is now offering refunds on the $20 tickets.

DJ Kate Munroe played at Happy, a bar in Tanjong Pagar, instead.

Last year, the Nation party, touted as Asia’s largest gay celebration and held here annually since 2001, was thrown into the spotlight after police here denied its organisers a licence.

The party was eventually moved to Phuket.

Copyright MediaCorp Press Ltd. All rights reserved.

Homophobic Lee

Spotted on Singapore Election.

Comments made in October 2005 by Lee Hsien Loong

PM Goh liberalises hiring of gays in Singapore Civil Service, 2003
Channel i
1 min 58 sec – Mar 17, 2006

Singapore Inc on the nose

March 27, 2006

Singapore’s Temasek is rich, powerful and on the prowl. But it didn’t count on the latest backlash from Thailand, Eric Ellis reports.

IF IT looks, walks and quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck, as goes the old axiom.

And as effigies of Singapore’s leaders burning in the streets of Bangkok suggest, millions of grumpy Thais haven’t needed a zoology degree to work out that Singapore’s Temasek Holdings is a government-owned duck.

Temasek’s $3 billion deal to buy Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra out of his family business, Shin Corp, has precipitated Thailand’s most serious political crisis in more than a decade.

Thais have poured into the streets demanding “Asia’s Berlusconi” resign his five-year rule and pay taxes from the deal on his way out. Thailand’s baht wobbles – its collapse prompted Asia’s 1997 financial crisis – and worries economists, while deals are put off. The twitchy Thai military stays in the barracks, for now, while Thaksin toughs out this high-stakes game of brinkmanship versus the people.

But what of Temasek, Singapore’s self-styled paragon of transparency whose opaque deal making has precipitated South-East Asia’s latest economic crisis?

One of the world’s most powerful investors, boasting an $US80 billion ($110 billion) portfolio, its Thai adventure is looking increasingly like a spectacular misjudgement for its boss, Madame Ho Ching. She’s the wife of Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, whose family’s authoritarian 50-year rule of Singapore inspired the inner autocrat in Thaksin that could now prove his undoing.

Temasek’s tactic is to effect an air of “Crisis? What crisis?” and deny it has anything to do with Official Singapore. Indeed, its descent to duckdom is never more absurdly displayed as when its army of immaculately groomed spinners demand the world’s press and market analysts stop referring to it as “Singapore government-owned” and call it instead an “Asian investment company”.

But Thais simply join the dots: Temasek is 100 per cent owned by Singapore’s Ministry of Finance. Singapore’s Finance Minister is its Prime Minister, Mr Lee, and his wife is Temasek’s chief executive.

Thais would probably be furious with whoever did such a backroom deal with Thaksin. But every insistence by either Singapore side that they have nothing to do with the other simply further ignites the Thai touchpaper.

“Come on,” says Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “We Thais aren’t idiots.”

Indeed, as Asia moves to wind back government involvement in the private sector, Thais view with alarm what they see as Thaksin’s sell-out to the Singapore Government of their economy: hotels, banks, airlines, property and, now, the main telephone company, a strategic communications satellite and a popular television station. Notes one columnist in the Thailand’s The Nation newspaper, “Singapore might change Bangkok’s Sathorn Road into Orchard Road and declare it a bubble-gum-free zone”.

Sometimes Temasek is its own worst enemy. As Thais raged, a placatory Temasek presented its “managing director, investments,” Mr S Iswaran, as the go-to guy to explain the Shin deal.

As a veteran Singapore civil servant, Iswaran was once responsible for Singapore’s negotiations at the World Trade Organisation and APEC. He is also the Parliament’s deputy speaker and a loyal lieutenant of the Lee family-led People’s Action Party. A more faithful flack of the ruling clique would be hard to find.

Singaporeans aren’t Thais but they know a good deal when they see one, and many would like to see Temasek out of Singapore’s economy too, where government companies control as much as 60 per cent of the action.

They privately question what in fact it was that Ho brought to Temasek in 2001, apart from a powerful husband they already knew. She was hired in 2001 to enliven Temasek’s sluggish returns but, in Bangkok at least, the value she purchased for Singapore disappears by the day as protesters vote with their pockets by cancelling subscriptions to Shin’s main asset, Thailand’s leading mobile phone company, AIS.

Shin shares have fallen 25 per cent since Ho’s deal. Her stewardship of Temasek since she became CEO – an appointment her spinners insisted was on merit – has been unremarkable, with some big misses offsetting a handful of medium successes.

Many of Temasek’s deals have a strong whiff of national interest about them and Temasek’s forays abroad come as Singapore’s political leaders worry their developed but tiny economy is maturing, exhorting its business community to secure the city-state’s future offshore.

In Jakarta, influential politicians want the Singapore Government to exit its two-year-old investment in one of Ho’s better deals, the communications giant Indosat, particularly as another Temasek company, Singapore Telecom – owner of Australia’s Optus – already has half of Indosat’s competitor Telkomsel. That’s too much strategic telecommunications in Singapore hands for their taste and Jakarta has offered Temasek $1.2 billion to buy back the Indosat stake.

But as dissent simmers with the threat of political sanction hanging over it, Temasek has so far refused to sell.

In Beijing too, bureaucrats are questioning last year’s wisdom of allowing Temasek a $2.5 billion stake in the Bank of China, believing it might have got it too cheap while wondering what Singapore brings to the table apart from cash.

In New Delhi, the Indian Government recently denied Temasek approval to buy into mobile operator Idea Cellular, India’s fifth largest, because SingTel already part-owns another, Bharti, the largest.

Temasek struggles too in the US. It paid $US250 million in 2003 for 62 per cent of ailing cable operator Global Crossing, believing it got a bargain for a fibre optic network that cost $15 billion to build. But the company has since been dogged by one disaster after another and Global Crossing lost $US600 million in 2004-05.

There have also been setbacks in Australia, where Canberra recently denied Temasek’s 57 per cent owned Singapore Airlines access to the lucrative route between Sydney and Los Angeles.

Surgery is needed at home too. Temasek-controlled DBS Bank recently took an unexpected $700 million charge on its Hong Kong operation, the former Dao Heng Bank.

Its wafer business, Chartered Semiconductor, has been a headache on Ho’s watch, accumulating losses of more than $1 billion, while its share price has fallen 90 per cent since 1999.

Temasek’s own figures described shareholder returns of just 1 per cent over the five years to March 31, as against the gain in Singapore’s Straits Times index of 2.7 per cent over the same period.

Still, at least Singaporeans now know what’s happening to their money. Notoriously secretive, Temasek only first publicly revealed its accounts in 2004.

Says Thai academic Pongsudhirak: “This is the last straw. Temasek has underestimated the political fallout here. This deal has not been transparent, everything has not been fully accounted for. Whether they like it or not, Temasek has made itself a player in Thai politics and that puts its investment at risk.”

Meanwhile, Asia looks on with a bemused combination of mild concern that Thailand’s worries could again spill outside its borders as in the late 1990s but more Schadenfreude at Singapore Inc’s discomfort. As many in the region tactfully like to say, wealthy Singapore is admired by its neighbours if not necessarily always loved.

Eric Ellis is Fortune magazine’s South-East Asian correspondent.

Tired election strategies

A party desperately clutching at straws.
An election gimmick that didn’t quite work the first time round.
The same election gimmick used yet again this year.

Gentle readers, I refer not to the “by-election” strategy in this post, but the Whiteshirt “lifting of the whip” strategy.

This year, Mr Peanut Goh has promised to allow Messrs Eric Low and Seetoh Yih Pin, the challengers in the opposition-held Hougang and Potong Pasir ridings, freedom from the party whip in the next Parliament if voters deliver these two long-time oppo wards to the Whiteshirts.

Never mind that some political experts in the Channelnewsasia article see Peanut Goh’s move as inconsistent, unprincipled, and damaging Whiteshirt credibility and party discipline – we’ve been here before. Cue to the previous general election, where Mr Peanut Goh promised to select new MPs to form a Shadow Cabinet to keep policymakers on their toes.

When criticised during the recent General Elections of a lack of checks and balances on the Government, PM Goh Chok Tong had this response – the People’s Action Forum. The group, described by the PM as a Shadow Cabinet, is to ensure more debate in parliament. However, unlike other countries where the Shadow Cabinet is formed by the Opposition, Singapore’s Shadow Cabinet will be drawn from the ruling party, with 20 PAP MPs and Ministers serving a 2-year run. The Party whip will be lifted so they don’t have to toe the party line and can even vote against party decisions.

Whither Peanut Goh’s Shadow Cabinet today?