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Shall we bear with smoke or do we want a cigarette in the eye of our heritage?

Chew Sutat
Chew Sutat • 9 min read
Shall we bear with smoke or do we want a cigarette in the eye of our heritage?
A mural of a samsui woman on a Chinatown shophouse by Sean Dunston. Photo: Albert Chua/The Edge Singapore
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Last week, controversy arose in Chinatown, near where I live, over a mural painted by an American artist on a shophouse wall. The samsui woman depicted was young, slender and — horror of horrors — elegantly puffing on a cigarette. This prompted the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) to raise an objection, citing long-established rules against public displays glamorising smoking. 

Cries of “reconsider” and “censorship” then exploded online. The public outcry was understandable. A high-handed government agency is again using anachronistic laws to snuff out creativity, innovation, artistic expression and, God forbid, the cigarette of a poor samsui woman merely taking a respite from the laborious work she was doing. 

Some also said a complaint lobbed to the URA — about the hardworking heritage lady in the mural looking like a prostitute — was prudish. I do wonder about the authenticity of the mural; her hands holding the offending cigarette were very well manicured for one who supposedly toiled day in, day out, carrying heavy bricks under the hot sun to build the foundations of modern Singapore.

Lost amongst the many who railed at URA was the fact that the artist, or those who commissioned the work, failed to follow the rules by getting the necessary consults and approvals, even upon request from the government department twice over.

Whilst there must be room for creative licence, and smoking does actually appear, incidentally, in everyday heritage scenes painted by local artist Yip Yew Chong just a street away, I believe the issue at hand is the willingness to respect rules and processes and legitimately push the boundaries to spark changes in societal norms according to the current needs of the day — as reflected in the advocacy in my previous two Chew On This columns on slaughtering some sacred cows in the way we allocate pension savings in our small country to recycle some capital domestically to secure our economic future. 

In my view, to wilfully break the rules with a “Just Do It” mentality, and then expect sympathy and a fait accompli compromise, is disingenuous, to say the least. 

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If we allow such acts to pass without consequences then we have no rule of law and that would be a greater disaster than the loss of a creative American rendition of a samsui woman in the name of helping to “preserve our heritage”. If we have to revisit rules to unshackle ourselves from time to time, then let us do so objectively first, before we just fire the bullet. 

The Wild Wild West

Consider the capital markets in the West. Caveat emptor is in full display as the animal spirits within the law of the jungle drove the S&P500 to its 39th new high thus far this year. The roller-coaster, which for the time being is still pointing net up, has been Nvidia-driven by all things hoped for in AI. Are we, as many as have been asking, primed for a fall then, as the heritage of the Wild Wild West includes rock and roll happening more frequently than not, in shorter time intervals? This AI bounce started only from 2023, after the two-third correction from the October 2021 meme stock highs!

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A few signs for the Cassandras to worry about have returned of late. Just like how we in Singapore recall the top of markets in the 1990s when the taxi drivers and shampoo girls of old were talking about the next stock to punt; just like how legendary investor Joseph Kennedy, father to the future US president, made money shorting stocks in 1929, supposedly upon hearing a shoeshine boy dispensing stock tips. The massive Superbowl ads and renaming of stadiums after crypto sponsors took place in 2021, just before the crypto winter commenced. This was curiously similar to how 17 dotcom companies paid millions of dollars for ad slots in the 2000 Super Bowl — when the April 2000 crash was just a couple months away. 

Roaring Kitty of GameStop fame in 2021’s meme stock frenzy has returned. As the stock bubbled up once again, he now has stock and options positions of a few hundred million dollars, whilst the loss-making company has used the present exuberance to raise US$3 billion ($4 billion) of new shares. If this was repeated on ShareInvestor.com’s forum involving some loss-making penny stock in Singapore, and not on Reddit, I am not sure he will still be purring all the way to the bank. 

To be sure, regulators in the West or anywhere in the world have always struggled with enforcement. A crime has to be first committed before they can react. Unfortunately, in the process, some people caught up in the speculation — and not all are innocent bystanders — lose money. There is certainly a lot of free play and volatility, and even more pump and dump that goes on in these unbridled markets. There are indeed no trade-with-caution rules like on our local market, and even whilst mainstream NYSE and Nasdaq markets have instituted speed bumps to slow things down when prices are moving too fast, other alternative exchanges are set up precisely to enable life only in the fast lane. 

When they do act, whether self-regulated through successful class actions (where lawyers hit jackpots alongside investors through contingency fees if they win), or when the US Securities and Exchange Commission or Feds eventually catch up, the fines and penalties are also jaw-dropping, in the hundreds of millions. Our investor dollars seem to be okay with the notion of “caveat emptor” when we buy into Tesla, but baulk at the US$45 billion payout that Elon Musk is about to give himself after appealing against the judge stopping the proposal initially. 

The Western heritage appears to attract both our institutional and retail dollars, but we seem to cherry-pick when it comes to our local market, preferring to point to the regulators each time a corporate failure occurs — often not even distinguishing between business failure and governance failures. 

But it seems a tad too convenient for us to have double standards. Some of us may be prepared for the US heritage of unbridled volatile capital markets and lax regulation overseas, but we must expect those who show up here to play by our rules.

Our local brew

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My friends know that my mornings in Singapore are only complete with a 7.30am breakfast of eggs and Milo from Ya Kun after a walk or run. One of its outlets just opened this year on South Bridge Road — at the shophouse with the offending mural. It doesn’t stop me from going there for my fix as the alternative, the “original” Far East Square outlet, is flooded with tourists by 8am. 

With National Day rehearsals in full swing again, I thought it useful to revisit our Singapore market heritage. Notwithstanding the consolidation of the Straits Times Index (STI) back around 3,300 points these few weeks when our column was focused on ecosystem-related matters, it was heartening to see that against this backdrop, the “Sing” names we suggested to watch in early June appeared to have bucked the trend. 

Chief amongst these was Singapore Telecommunications Z74 -

(Singtel), which headed into the half year 10% above its long trading range of between $2.30 and $2.45. Was it the continued corporate activity including the partnership with KKR in STT GDS data centres, as capital is deployed into new-growth areas outside its heritage of traditional telco business which has been a drag in most developed markets? Or was it due to the commitment to sustainable extra dividends as it sells assets? Or have investors finally appreciated the simple fact that the sum of its overseas parts including Airtel in India is worth more than the stock price? If the latter is true, then Singtel’s Singapore heritage is priced at zero, which makes no economic sense. I suspect as prices accrete closer to street consensus to $3, analysts may revise up.

Treading waters since was Singapore Post S08 -

(SingPost), easing back from 50 cents after Alibaba reduced some of its stake via a block trade at 46 cents in mid-June. One has to admire the turnaround of its heritage postal business into the black. It is rare globally to run a profitable regulated postal business in our digital world today. Notwithstanding the drag, the transformation of SingPost to be a logistics business has been well underway. With the announcements of the strategic reviews of its Australian business, the massive real estate that comes along as part of its heritage — it will be interesting to see how the value unlocked will be returned to shareholders if so. 

A couple other “Sing”s have outperformed as well this half year. Sats is starting to realise the impact from its overseas transformation early. The stock has re-rated from a $2.50–$2.70 range to now $2.80–$3.00. Likewise, Singapore Airlines C6L -

, which paid off its mandatory convertible bonds ahead of time, continues to be a great way to fly and may lift off above $7 should the STI break out of its band. The Singapore heritage and better operating performance are having institutional investors take another look.  

By the book

Jardine Cycle & Carriage (Jardine C&C) — one of the earliest stocks listed in Singapore — is starting to look interesting too. Parent company Jardine Matheson has taken advantage of the MSCI-triggered sell off to steadily increase its holdings in Jardine C&C to above 80%. This counter has attracted some $60 million in additional institutional inflow and is now at around $29, up almost 10% from the MSCI-triggered sell off. Could it be another Great Eastern in the making, with a heritage windfall for patient investors should privatisation happen?

I am not bemoaning the potential future loss of a once-index stalwart. Or a brand like Eu Yan Sang, which was recently re-sold to the Japanese after privatisation several years back. Even Raffles Hotel has gone to the Qataris and I hear that the legendary Bar & Billiards room once frequented by Joseph Conrad and Somerset Maugham will soon be shut. That will be the subject for another column perhaps. 

If we ourselves do not value our heritage at the right price, we will eventually lose it to the eye of the beholder. He or she might put a cigarette in it, for all we know, too. As long as it is done fairly and by the rules, investors should not have cause to complain. The rule of law and trust is our heritage to preserve, not an individual stock or mural on the wall. 

Chew Sutat retired from Singapore Exchange S68 -

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 chairman of the Community Chest Singapore

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