Foreign tycoons and foreign talent in Singapore

Poor Eduardo Saverin. The Facebook co-founder, Singapore’s eighth richest man in 2012, according to Forbes, was dissed by an Independent reader. The reader wrote: “PM Lee said, ‘Billionaires bring business, they will bring opportunities, they will open new doors, they will create new jobs’. PM Lee is right! Saverin, one of Facebook founders who renounced his US citizenship to become a Singaporean PR , invested in Miss Singapore Universe winner Rachel Kum’s cosmetics firm! So I guess Saverin is a jobs creator!”

The reader helpfully linked to a Daily Mail article, published just days before Facebook’s initial public offering (IPO) in May 2012, about Saverin’s “playboy lifestyle” in Singapore and his link with Rachel Kum. The article went on to quote from a Wall Street Journal report which said, “Eduardo doesn’t invest in much. He doesn’t invest in Singapore companies.”

That’s old news. We don’t begrudge the Brazilian his billions and what he chooses to do with them. His name wouldn’t have come up at all unless the Prime Minister had spoken about the benefits billionaires bring.
Speaking at the DBS Asian Insights Conference, PM Lee said: “In fact, if I can get another 10 billionaires to move to Singapore and set up their base here… I think Singapore will be better off because they will bring business, they will bring opportunities, they will open new doors, they will create new jobs…”

That may be so. But with unemployment hovering just around 2 per cent, does Singapore need more foreign billionaires or top-flight executives and managers?

Consider people like Nanyang Technological University president Prof Bertil Andersson, DBS CEO Piyush Gupta, Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore board member Bruno Lanvin, who is also executive director of Insead Lab and has been associated with the World Economic Forum (WEF). Their talents are manifest. NTU has shot up in the world university rankings under Prof Andersson, who was appointed president in July 2011. Lanvin was one of the three editors of the Global Information Technology Report 2013, which ranked Singapore second in the Networked Readiness Index, same as in 2012.

No country should have to choose between tycoons and talented managers. Both are necessary.

Still, it would be interesting to know how much foreign tycoons have contributed to Singapore. Jim Rogers, the American investor, moved to Singapore in 2007 and has been one of its ardent admirers. But he is not another Warren Buffet whose investments are widely reported in the press. Richard Chandler from New Zealand, Singapore’s fifth richest man in 2012, according to Forbes, heads Chandler Corporation. Based in Singapore, it invests mostly in emerging markets.

There is no reason why foreign tycoons moving to Singapore should be expected to make the bulk of their investments in the city-state. That’s not how business operates. Even GLCs like SingTel and DBS have substantial foreign stakes.
Tycoons, local or foreign. are free to live it up in Singapore and scout opportunities abroad.There’s money to be made as the playground of the rich, too.

The ghosts of past Singaporeans may shudder at the changes. But you can’t be the same-old, same-old forever. You have to go with the flow, bend with the winds of fortune. The old Singapore had to go and change into this glitzy fleshpot by the sea, where rich playboys go clubbing while the government collects GST and the tips go to foreign workers.

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