Fake News is What the Singapore Government Says it is

The Singapore government’s first use of its new law against “fake news” raises a critical question about the country’s definition of news and the relationship of news to demonstrable facts.

Opposition politician Brad Bowyer was ordered by Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat to make a “correction” to a posting on his Facebook page which was alleged to have smeared the reputation of the Government Investment Corporation (GIC) and Temasek, also a government investment company, by making “false and misleading statements.”

In a 15-point “rebuttal” that Bowyer was required to post it was asserted that the government “does not influence, let alone direct, the individual investment decisions made by Temasek and GIC. Which companies they invest in, or divest from, is entirely the responsibility of their respective management teams.”

This official claim is bizarre as it seems to imply that the boards of these companies, which are only investment and not operating companies, do not supervise the decisions of the managers who report to the board. Both GIC and Temasek are of such size that most investment moves they make are of on a scale to be significant and hence reflect the broader long-term interests of Singapore as seen by its leadership.

The gap between government and its investment companies, is that between lips and teeth, as Mao Zedong once said. At the GIC, management is headed by Chief Executive Lim Chow Kiat, a GIC employee since graduation. Nor is GiC given a free hand with the board as a rubber stamp. Its website specifically states that investment proposals from management must first be vetted by committee of the board and then by the board itself, whose chairman is Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister. The deputy chairman is Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Senior Minister and former Finance Minister. Other board members include past and present ministers.

As a sovereign wealth fund which holds Singapore’s reserve assets, the GIC is quite secretive about its portfolio, and total assets. Some of its less successful investments have received publicity, such as in Swiss bank UBS. But its overall rate of return may be seen as satisfactory if unexciting. Its 10-year to 2017 rate of nominal return as measured in US dollars was reported as 4.3 percent and 7.7 percent for twenty years. In real, inflation adjusted terms, the 20-year rate was 3.7 percent.

The other investment fund, Temasek, is rather more open but its proximity to the government whose assets it invests is such that major investment decisions cannot in practice be made without the foreknowledge of the most senior officials. Although the official owner is the Minister of Finance (a corporate body) Temasek states on its website that the Minister is not involved in its investment decisions.

However, the Chief Executive Officer is Ho Ching, wife of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Ho joined government service – the Defense Ministry – after graduation, married Lee in 1985, moved to government-owned Singapore Technologies in 1987 and became chief executive of Temasek in 2004. The other executive director, Lee Theng Kiat, was also formerly with an arm of Singapore Technologies.

The board is chaired by Lim Boon Heng, a cabinet minister between 1993 and 2001. He had entered parliament in 1980, previously having worked for government-owned Neptune Orient Lines at the time when Goh Chok Tong, prime minister from 1990 to 2004, was NOL’s managing director.

Like any investment company, Temasek has losers as well as winners but overall appears to have a satisfactory rate of return, though one that has slowed due to the broad nature of its current portfolio and Singapore’s own slower growth. Net portfolio assets now total S$313 billion (US$229.14 billion), 26 percent invested in Singapore, 40 percent in other Asia and 34 percent in the rest of the world.

Total shareholder return for the year to March 2019 was 1.49 percent in Singapore dollars but minus 2 percent in US dollars. However, nominal annual US dollar returns over 10 and 20 years have been 10 percent and 9 percent respectively

Discussion of the details of its investments is, however, difficult due to a shortage of data.

GIC, the Monetary Authority of Singapore and Temasek form NIR, a group of institutions which together currently provide 19 percent of Singapore’s budget revenue. Under the Net Investment Returns (NIR) framework, the government can spend up to 50 percent of the long-term expected real returns (including capital gains) on the relevant assets. Temasek is currently not contributing to this transfer so its dividend returns are being reinvested. But how long this can continue is debatable given the increasing strains on the government budget faced by an aging Singapore.

Temasek has been able to grow partly because Singapore’s main savings scheme is the Central Provident Fund, whose principal asset is Singapore government bonds – S$374 billion worth. As AAA bonds they historically paid low interest rates, at least compared with returns equity invested funds. Thus the government borrowed cheaply and invested through Temasek and GIC in commercial enterprises.

Now, however, these special-issue, non-tradable bonds carry interest rates which reflect what the CPF is having to pay to its members to give them some chance of retiring with income they can live on. The CPF is now paying between 2.5 percent and 6 percent on members’ balances (the top amount for retirees) while 10-year Singapore publicly traded bonds yield just 1.75 percent. Payback time is approaching when the government budget and hence the citizens will need a chunk of Temasek’s cash generation.

In the case of Bowyer’s Facebook message, the accusation of fake news seems almost to highlight the general dearth of news, let alone debate about the government’s investment giants. The PAP leadership is hyper-sensitive to any implied or perceived criticism of the way the government handles funds which properly belong to the people of Singapore as a whole. This is particularly the case given that Lee Hsien Loong is chairman of GIC and his wife, the CEO of Temasek.

Such unwillingness to look in the mirror should not have come as a surprise to those who followed the use of libel actions by the Lee family, the late Lee Kuan Yew and his son, the current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, for example against those who referred to “dynastic politics” in relation to Singapore (and other Asian nations). More than once the Singapore courts have awarded the family with large damages for simply pointing to the facts of political succession, with the younger Lee, who became deputy prime minister in 1990, at the age of 38, and prime minister in 2004.

The family is not known to have had similar success in courts outside Singapore. Indeed, in an infamous case a few years ago Singapore tried to persuade the UK Medical Council to disbar Simon Shorvon, who had been recruited to head the Singapore Neurological Institute and work with LKY’s neurologist daughter Lee Wei Ling. Not long after, he was accused of professional misconduct and found culpable in Singapore. Singapore then tried to have him disbarred by the UK’s General Medical Council, which rejected the Singapore claims whereupon Singapore took the case to the High Court in London. Shorvon was supported by major figures in his field and the court dismissed the Lee-initiated allegations out of hand. Shorvon today remains one of the world’s leading neuroscientists. Lee Wei Ling is now better known for joining with her younger brother Lee Hsien Yang in a very public family quarrel over LKY’s legacy.