On Princes, Generals, and Temasek

Balding's World

Leo Tolstory wrote in his epic masterpiece on Russian aristocracy War and Peace, while generals and princes believe they determine the course of history it is the soldier and unknown man that create the events we come to know as history.  The deterministic evolution of history resigns princes and generals to actors in their own play.

The announcement that Lim Boon Heng would replace S. Dhanabalan as the Chairman of Temasek Holdings is the changing of generals with nothing but the delusion of control over the course of history.  It is an announcement full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

From my personal conversations with people, I have actually heard generally complementary comments and anecdotes about Chairman Dhanabalan.  However, the control over Temasek is dominated by a small number of people and filling the Chairman’s seat requires above all the ability to know how and when to say yes.

The appointment of Lim Boon Heng ultimately comes as no surprise.  With no experience that would appear to suit him for the chairmanship of a major institutional investor other than being a PAP loyalist, he will fulfill the most important mandate of executing the policies faithfully as they are handed to him.  The position could have ultimately gone to any number of PAP men that know where power lies and what their role is within the larger power structure and at Temasek.

More problematic is that Temasek is beset by an insular culture.  It is noteworthy that  the only significant outsider in recent history at Temasek are Chip Goodyear and Gregory Curl.  Goodyear has quite literally vanished after a few months preparing to head Temasek.  Curl is the Temasek President focusing on its America’s business who helped bring Bank of America to the edge of bankruptcy with their ill fated acquisition of mortgage lender Countrywide and the investment bank Merrill Lynch.  In short, PAP sycophants and failed retired American bankers are the backgrounds of Temasek executives.

Given the enormous discrepancies concerning the claims of Temasek returns and Singapore public finances coupled with the staggering debt load, leadership cannot run the risk of having people who ask questions or want to change things.  Acceptance and compliance are what is required.

Despite the announcement flourish and the expectation for change, I doubt this will result in any significant impact to Temasek.  You do not rise to the top by questioning authority.

In the end, the history of Singapore will be made by the people not the princes and generals.  The people of Singapore control their fate and what they expect of their leadership.  It is the people of Singapore with the sound and the fury signifying the values they hold and the future they want that matter, not the whims of princes and generals.

This change in leadership will in time be viewed as sound and fury signifying nothing.