This column series known as Chew on This debuted in the 1,000th edition of The Edge Singapore last September. Long before that, 21 years ago, to be exact, I also wrote a monthly column in the rose-tinted world of print media. In 2000, Bee Ong — the precocious editor of Smart Investor, one of the first homegrown magazines focused on finance and business — approached this then rookie associate director at OCBC Securities.
Back then, I had just little more than five years of working experience in the custody department of DBS Bank, lending shares to hedge funds and arbitrageurs trading on CLOB (Central Limit Order Book) and other institutional platforms.
When I joined the broking industry with OCBC Securities, I set about creating products and services to level the playing field for the retail investors in the markets. For example, we launched the first retail stock lending service — essentially a way for the Retail Joe to do their own Big Short.
Several of my controversial “short calls” at the end of 2000 have all gone the various ways of the dodo, as dot.com faded to become dot. con for the most part. Unsustainable business models and tough waves in competitive industry saw values evaporate in some instances close to zero over time.
They include, for example, Chartered Semiconductor Manufacturing (sold for a song), Datacraft Asia (delisted by parent company) and MediaRing (restructured, reinvented and renamed numerous times). Needless to say, alternative investing or trading was not popular then as it is now. It drew the ire of many corporates who felt targeted and complained to the then OCBC CEO David Conner. Nevertheless, the team at OCBC Securities’ research unit then, helmed by Lim Say Boon (chief investment officer of DBS before his retirement two years ago), Carmen Lee (current head of research at Bank of Singapore) and Sunita Sue Leng (who was also an editor of The Edge Singapore), found my “product” right on the pulse of the market, and a refreshing shoot from the hip. While not most remisiers in the house cared for it, Ong of Smart Investor did.
To her — and for her readers — it provided a lens different from fundamental and technical research. This was also a product that complemented the range of offerings pioneered in Singapore by the dream team at OCBC Securities in the early 2000s. There was Jeffrey Goh, then head of alternative investments. He would go on to become head of equities at Maybank Kim Eng and eventually, its CEO. He introduced equity-linked notes and public listed structured warrants. The latter were facilitated by the proprietary trading desk that I ran. We were backstopped by the most advanced institutional dealing team supporting names like Bear Stearns, Crédit Lyonnais and Lehman Brothers.
Next, there is TK Yap, who was heading OCBC Securities’s institutional desk. He is still going strong at CGS-CIMB as its chief transformation officer, responsible for improving product and service delivery and client engagement. The OCBC Securities team then made its mark often. According to Bloomberg’s then head of sales Christopher Teo — who went to be CEO of KGI Securities — Bloomberg TradeBook’s first trade in Asia was done by me “hitting” a first generation Singapore Exchange (SGX) Single Stock Futures trade against Lim Wah Tong’s proprietary trading team then at Phillip Securities.
The Devil wears Prada
The financial industry has evolved and thrived, but the passage of time on the print media business is brutal. The former monopoly Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), for example, was forced to hive off its media business into a so-called company limited by guarantee.
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Panpac Media — which published Smart Investor — was founded in 1994 by entrepreneur turned art collector Chong Huai Seng. In its heyday, the Sesdaq-listed company carried some 30 titles in Singapore and Malaysia. Over the years, the publishing business has been scaled back. It is now operating only in Malaysia, whittled down to just three titles, including Smart Investor.
Panpac Media itself underwent a series of reverse takeovers and incarnations, adding (or ditching) businesses such as electric vehicle (EV) charging stations, property and most recently, moneylending. It is now called Arion Entertainment.
Panpac Media did try and grow a synergistic business to its core magazine publishing. In 2002, it acquired 25% of stock portal Shareinvestor.com, whose founder Dr Michael Leong posted regularly under the user name “Oldman” on the portal’s popular online forum. Leong’s death in 2016 was sorely missed by the community who benefited much from his voice of reason. In 2008, Shareinvestor.com was sold to SPH and in 2018, went through a management buyout under Christopher Lee.
For a couple of years, Smart Investor’s editor Ong — always immaculately well-presented with Ferragamo pumps — had to chase after this recalcitrant writer who struggled to meet his monthly deadlines. My excuse for the pontification was that I had to make sure what I wrote could remain sound for at least three more weeks.
At least with The Edge Singapore now as a weekly in a semi-digital age, I can be just a few days old thanks to an equally indulgent editor in Chan Chao Peh, whom I have known when he was a journalist at Mediacorp. Both of them were able to turn my rants into readable material, although Ong had to work with more of a greenhorn who probably wrote it on Fridays after drinks with clients.
Years later, I was told that apart from the tragic Sept 11, 2001 events that knocked markets out of joint initially, my opinionated and forward market views — with her sensible edits — were actually 80% predictive of markets between 2001 and 2002.
I stopped writing after 2003 when I left broking for Standard Chartered to join its wealth management unit. We kept in touch occasionally when I was not on the road.
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A far more meticulous, well researched and accomplished writer than me, Ong subsequently was director for fund research at Cerulli Associates and headed research and special projects at an Asian hedge fund started out of Singapore, till 2017. Thereafter, she went from project to project and pursued her life’s callings.
Angel of Harlem by U2
“Lady Day got diamond eyes She sees the truth behind the lies”
In 2009, Ong — or “Bee Monarch” as she dubs herself — founded Hapitalist, an organisation that seeks to fix broken parts of our economic system before handing it to the next generations. A sensitive soul who always sought to reconcile the corporate and commercial with her spiritual pursuits, she thought the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 was a catalyst for deep reflection for all involved in the ecosystem. She believes that capitalism is needed to create sustainable happiness, anchored on the environment and the communities around us. She was environmental, social and governance (ESG) minded before ESG become de-rigueur. I joined her as an advisor to an inspiring enterprise and met a few like-minded folks, who opened my eyes to brave new worlds.
Unfortunately, the early bird may not always catch the worm, and Hapitalist petered out by mid-2012, as the practical realities of paying bills served the constant and unwelcome distraction.
Ong and I shared a common love for travel to exotic places, although for her it was more about spending between up to eight months a year meditating alone in forests in Sri Lanka since the 1990s. In 2019, at Tibet’s sacred Mount Kailash, she had an epiphany that her task was to show others to reach a place within, to understand ourselves at the most fundamental level to make long-term, possibly permanent positive changes.
We also shared a love for cats. For more than six years, Ong nursed Mett, her feline companion and teacher, who was suffering from an incurable kidney disease. When Mett eventually succumbed, Ong captured the experience and lessons beautifully in the book To Tame a Human: A Dying Cat Taught Me How to Live.
When Covid-19 was upon us, it was devastating for many. Unable to travel and find peace, and with the void from Mett aching, Ong tried teaching meditation online in 2021 — which my wife benefited from.
This last week, Ong passed on and I lost an inspiration. She is someone who, in her own very private way, helped me along my own journey that sees me stay engaged in the capital market ecosystem, and try to symbiotically connect it to philanthropy.
As we enter the second half of this year, I hope the playbook described in my column last week will help everyone position for the opportunities that are coming in the markets. Boom, Busts, Tina, Fomo and Foho, are what we have seen in multiple cycles over the last 20 years. They will come, they will go. And I have to reiterate more directly — there are more important things in life.
Unfortunately, the punchline last week: “The friends you nurture, you will always have”, was a piece of advice I should have listened to myself. Last year, when I announced my retirement from corporate life on LinkedIn, citing my wife as the person who made this move possible, Ong cheered me on: “She’s the best of the best!”
I acknowledged her words with a “like”. And I got busy creating a new post-retirement life. I regret that I was not there for her in her final lap.
The capital markets are no more “real” and no less “spiritual”, than the forest monastery. — Bee Monarch
Chew Sutat retired from Singapore Exchange after 14 years as a member of its executive management team. During his watch, the exchange transformed from an Asian gateway into a global multi-asset exchange and he was awarded FOW’s lifetime achievement award. He serves as vice chairman for the Community Chest Singapore