Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Singapore's rich splash out with a vengeance

SINGAPORE, April 25 (Reuters) - Celebrity-chef dinners, huge pay hikes, and hot properties with a garage for the Ferrari and a berth for the yacht...some people in Singapore are living it up.

The world's top banks have set up in the city-state, bringing plenty of rich clients in their wake. Now, thanks to a strong economy, a private banking boom, and the prospect of two glitzy casinos opening soon, the big spenders are out in force.

"The good times are back," said Roman Scott, a financial consultant. "There's been a sudden turnaround in confidence. Suddenly, people notice that the economy is growing, they find they can't hire a secretary, and housing prices are going up."

Singapore's immaculately groomed private bankers are having a field day, thanks to the government's policy of creating a one-stop banking centre-cum-playground for the affluent.

The focus on the rich has even spawned a new caste system -- of "high net worth individuals", or those with a mere million in financial assets, and the highly desirable "ultra-high net worth" who have millions or billions of dollars to their name.

Take Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi, Thailand's richest man, according to Forbes, who listed his whisky and beer firm Thai Beverage in Singapore last year.

He snapped up not just one, but 47 out of 48 flats in a new development for S$205 million, and four entire floors in another project for S$135 million, Business Times reported this month.

Singapore has more millionaire households as a percentage of total households than any other Asian economy, according to the Boston Consulting Group.

Now thanks to all the wealthy Chinese, Indonesians, Indians and Thais who turn to Singapore -- not to mention the Europeans who prefer to park their funds offshore -- there aren't enough private bankers to handle all this money.

Whole teams of "wealth managers" are hopping from one bank to another, lured by promises of ever-higher salaries and payouts.

"There's a shortage of really high quality bankers, so there's poaching and that pushes salaries up," said Chris Claridge, who runs a head-hunting firm.

"Most players are getting 20-30 percent more. One guy, an investment banker, ended up with 75 percent more because two banks were bidding for him. It was like ebay."


Bankers aren't the only ones getting a big pay rise.

Singapore's ministers, already among the world's highest-paid, just got a 60 percent pay hike, lifting their salaries from S$1.2 million to S$1.9 million ($1.26 million) on average.

The Prime Minister's pay jumped to S$3.5 million ($2.3 million) -- more than five times the U.S. president's $400,000 salary -- while his deputies will each get S$2.45 million. Two former prime ministers who retain cabinet posts will be paid more than S$3 million.

A few weeks earlier, the government said it would address a widening income gap with benefits for the poor. The bottom 10 percent of households had an average annual income of S$3,600 per member in 2006, up 6.6 percent from the previous year.

Ministers and civil servants are benchmarked against the best-paid individuals in professions such as banking, an area the government is encouraging as part of an economic overhaul.

Given the wealth in the financial sector, it's no surprise people are splashing out on expensive meals, cars, and homes.

Indonesian tycoon Oei Hong Leong hosted a S$50,000 charity banquet, flying in celebrity chefs Tetsuya Wakuda and Justin Quek for a 16-course meal that included poached foie gras and steamed tofu, as well as rare vintage wines, the Business Times reported.

Local media this month profiled a local businessman whose fleet of 20 cars includes Bentleys, a Lamborghini, a Ferrari and a Jaguar, and said that one Singaporean had paid S$3 million for a new Pagani Zonda F, a record for a sports car in the country.

Even Singapore's long-stagnant property market is getting a welcome shot in the arm, at least at the top end.

Such gains could start to erode Singapore's competitive advantage for international firms when compared with centres such as Shanghai, Hong Kong, or Tokyo, some analysts warn, while adding to the city-state's inflationary pressures.

Prices for new apartments in prime districts surged 25 percent in 2006, the strongest recovery in years, while landlords are demanding rent increases of 50-60 percent.

"The rental market has gone through the roof," said property agent Bee Bee Tan, with a central flat that rented for S$3,600 now commanding S$6,000 a month, an increase of 67 percent.

As for the millionaires, they can take their pick of projects offering butler services or a doorstep berth for that gin palace.

"It's Monaco in the tropics," said consultant Scott.

In Singapore, a local Switzerland for Asia's wealthy

By Wayne Arnold
Published: April 24, 2007

SINGAPORE: This affluent city-state of 4.5 million people is aiming to become a sanctuary for the world's wealthy and their money, Asia's answer to Geneva and Zurich.

Singapore, with its reputation for authoritarian order and safety, has long relied on luring multinational corporations for manufacturing jobs and economic growth. But with China's rise as an industrial powerhouse, it started chasing a succession of economic fads - from technology to pharmaceuticals to stem cell research - in search of a fresh elixir.

Now Singapore, is trying to carve out a new niche for itself in the global economy by beefing up banking secrecy laws and offering generous tax incentives.

Almost 40 private banks now have regional operations here, including Swiss stalwarts like Bank Julius Baer. Citigroup's headquarters for all private banking outside the United States is now in Singapore, as is the global banking headquarters of Standard Chartered Bank of Britain.

"I can't think of any other place where private banking is growing so much as in Singapore," said Henrik Mikkelsen, a private banker at Commerzbank in Singapore. "We want to be the Switzerland of Asia."

It may not have the stunning Alpine scenery, but officials here hope that luring the wealthy and their bankers will not only diversify the economy but also help to offset a declining birthrate and increase the island's stagnant population with what is known here as "foreign talent."

"It creates jobs, it builds a service industry, it generates income and, on the immigration issue, it also supplements our shortfall in fertility," said Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore's minister for community development, youth and sports.

The estimated $150 billion in private wealth the banks manage here is still just a sliver of the $1.7 trillion managed by bankers in Switzerland. But by all accounts it is growing quickly, fed by new wealth pouring in from Asia's fast-growing economies, Middle Eastern oil money, and Japanese and Europeans fleeing new efforts to tax their offshore earnings.

The bankers cater to people like Robert Chandran, who emigrated to the United States from India and made fortunes in California real estate and the fuel oil business. In 2005, contemplating retirement, he moved his company and family to Singapore, bought a luxury condominium downtown and space in a waterfront resort with berthing for yachts. He traded in his American passport for one from Singapore.

Chandran said he was lured by Singapore's blend of Western conveniences with Asian values and by the government's zeal for keeping Singapore competitive.

"They don't have global taxation," he said, which means that his capital gains and interest income from outside Singapore are not taxed here.

Singapore's vision for the high-life can be found at Sentosa Cove, a secluded development on the edge of a small island theme park off Singapore's coast. Chandran is building his home there, among sites that sold for as much as $9.9 million each. Sentosa Cove has a 400-berth marina with 10 spots for mega-yachts, two golf courses so far and a casino resort on the way.

"The government wants to create Sentosa as a playground for the rich and famous," said Joseph Tan, director of residential property at CB Richard Ellis. "They're trying to build it as our Monte Carlo."

Roughly 60 percent of the buyers at Sentosa Cove are foreigners.

Providing services for Asia's super-rich is undoubtedly a growth market. The booming region is churning out at least 200,000 new millionaires a year, according to a recent report from Merrill Lynch and Cap Gemini, prompting comparisons to America's Gilded Age.

"The wealth of the wealthy in emerging markets is no different than the wealth of the wealthy in the Rockefeller days," said Roman Scott, who left a job analyzing the industry for BCG, a management consulting firm, last year to start his own investment advisory firm, Calamander Group. "It's the robber baron thing."

In a region known for its poverty, corruption and political turmoil, Singapore has long served as a refuge for wealthy ethnic-Chinese from Malaysia and Indonesia, who rely on its top-notch health care and schools. For many, Singapore's gleaming infrastructure, efficient bureaucracy and stable government more than compensate for its lack of press freedom, political debate and artistic ferment.

While the latest influx of wealthy foreigners is pushing costs up, property prices are still low compared with London and New York. Tax rates are low as well. Singapore does not tax capital gains or interest income. Its top income tax rate is 20 percent, and it does not tax income earned outside Singapore.

Much of the decision to promote private banking was the result of official soul-searching in 2002 in the midst of the global recession and China's investment boom. Singapore convened an Economic Review Committee from the private sector and government to chart a new course.

"They were facing China with no real game plan," said Robert Stein, a former head of Deutsche Bank's Asian operations who headed the committee's financial services working group.

The panel recommended that Singapore focus on luring hedge funds, private equity firms, insurers and private banks. Afterward, Singapore exempted foreign-earned income from taxation and modified its trust laws, guaranteeing the right of trust holders to determine who inherits their estate.

Bankers in Singapore say this is especially attractive to clients from Europe, where courts often overrule wills to give relatives a fair share, and from the Middle East, where Islamic courts sometimes pass over wives and children to hand over entire estates to the father and brother of the deceased.

Singapore had already beefed up its banking secrecy laws in 2001. While many banks are moving their back offices to India, bankers here say Singapore's secrecy rules are so tight, they are moving the data centers handling their private banking transactions from India to Singapore.

Concerns have emerged, however, that Singapore may also be attracting wealthy individuals who have something to hide.

Before his arrest in 2005 on charges of corruption and fraud, Gianpiero Fiorani, the former chief executive of Italy's Banca Popolare Italiana, stashed some of his assets in Singapore.

The Japanese fund manager and shareholder activist Yoshiaki Murakami moved his fund, MAC Asset Management, to Singapore before his arrest last year on charges of insider trading. And in December, the police in Shanghai arrested an unidentified Singaporean for running an underground bank that shuffled money between China and Singapore.

Singapore bankers say they are under pressure to know the nature of their clients' wealth - Singapore's secrecy rules do not extend to anyone involved in terrorism or smuggling. And the authorities say they are not trying to attract tax evaders.

"The Singaporeans have done an excellent job of balancing a pro-business stance with a regulatory environment that creates a well-disciplined environment for private banking," said Stein, now a director in London at German bank WestLB.

Still, some foreign governments are unhappy. A "Stop Tax Haven Abuse" bill, introduced in February by three U.S. senators - Democrats Carl Levin of Michigan and Barack Obama of Illinois and Norm Coleman, Republican of Minnesota - includes Singapore in its list of "probable locations for U.S. tax evasion." (Hong Kong and Switzerland are also included.)

Meanwhile, the European Union has been trying to persuade Singapore to follow the lead of Switzerland and other European tax havens, which have agreed to share information on accounts or collect a withholding tax.

Germano Mirabile, a policy officer at the EU Taxation and Customs Union Directorate-General, said Singapore had not yet responded to Brussel's overtures.

Because tax rates in Asia are generally low, Singapore's lure to Asians is less about escaping taxes and more about protecting assets from political vagaries. Many Chinese, for example, keep some of their earnings in Hong Kong. But for those who fear that Hong Kong is still within reach of Chinese authorities, Singapore has become increasingly popular.

Singapore's proximity to South Asia is also luring ethnic Indians, both those from the subcontinent and those from the Indian diaspora, like Chandran.

Friday, March 30, 2007

SingTel's new CEO annual pay around S$5m

SingTel's new CEO to get S$75,000 a month, annual pay around S$5m
Posted: 30 March 2007 2234 hrs

SINGAPORE: SingTel's incoming CEO, Chua Sock Koong, will be paid a base salary of S$75,000 a month. Ms Chua is set to start her appointment on Sunday.

In a statement to Singapore Exchange, the telco says her salary will be reviewed at the board of directors' discretion each year.

In addition, she will be paid car and driver allowances amounting to S$5,500 per month.

Besides annual short term incentive payments, she will be entitled to participate in SingTel's long term incentive plan through performance shares.

SingTel's statement adds that the on-target total remuneration for Ms Chua is expected to be around S$5m for the financial year to next March.

If she exceeds her prescribed targets, SingTel's board can decide to pay her more based on her performance and market benchmarks.

Meantime, SingTel threw an in-house staff party for outgoing CEO Lee Hsien Yang.

In a speech, Mr Lee said his time at SingTel has been "incredibly fulfilling".

"If I could turn the clock back, I'd do it again. But let me say that, I suppose at some point in time, I need to move on. I know it's good for me and I know it's good for the company. Let me say that I've really enjoyed my time here," he said. - CNA/yy

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

M1 CEO paid up to $1.5m in 2006

Published March 21, 2007

M1 CEO paid up to $1.5m in 2006

MOBILEONE, the smallest of three mobile-phone companies in Singapore, paid chief executive officer Neil Montefiore between $1.25 million and $1.5 million in 2006, according to the company's annual report.

Mr Montefiore, 54, was given 880,000 share options last year. In 2005, he was paid a similar salary and awarded one million share options.

M1 reported a 2.2 per cent rise in net income to $164.6 million in 2006 on sales of $773 million. Shares of M1 were unchanged at $2.19 at the close of trading yesterday. The stock has increased 1.9 per cent this year, compared with the 4.4 per cent advance in the Straits Times Index. - Bloomberg

Thursday, March 08, 2007

DBS paid CEO between S$7.5m and S$7.75m in 2006

DBS paid CEO between S$7.5m and S$7.75m in 2006
By Jeana Wong, Channel NewsAsia | Posted: 07 March 2007 2326 hrs

SINGAPORE : DBS has said it paid Chief Executive Officer Jackson Tai between S$7.5 million and S$7.75 million last year.

That was one-third more than in 2005, and in tandem with the group's earnings growth excluding one-off gains.

Last year, when DBS released its annual report, eyebrows were raised over the pay for head honchos Jackson Tai and Frank Wong.

They received big pay rises in 2005 despite the bank chalking up a 59 percent drop in earnings over 2004.

It was thus no surprise that their pay was in the spotlight on Wednesday, at the news briefing to release their 2006 annual report.

DBS Bank said the pay package for Mr Tai was being presented differently this year.

It is now reporting his total remuneration in a given year, regardless of when the actual payouts were made.

The variable component of the CEO's salary - such as bonuses and share plans - makes up 71 percent of the overall compensation.

This is sharply higher than the norm of just 30 percent in other corporations.

Chief Operating Officer Frank Wong was also paid between S$7.5 million and S$7.75 million.

Excluding Mr Tai and Mr Wong, the bank paid its 15 other management committee members a total of S$15 million in 2006.

DBS said it employed more senior management than its local rivals UOB and OCBC.

It also justified its decision to pay a director's fee of S$250,000 each for almost all its directors.

Mr Tai said, "Six of them are not from Singapore or not based in Singapore. I'm very proud of all 12 and it's quite a task to get these directors to chair our risk management committee, our nominating committee. We have a compensation committee, we have a credit committee, we also have a strategy and planning committee, so it's a lot of work involved.

"We look at industry practice. We want to make sure that we have the ability to keep and also attract the best directors we can."

A recent survey by human resources company ECA International revealed that senior managers in Singapore earned about five times more than junior-level managers.

At the press briefing on Wednesday, Mr Tai also dismissed rumours that he was hired on a contractual basis and might be leaving at the end of his contract. - CNA/ms

Saturday, February 03, 2007

CapitaLand CEO $9.8 million paper gain

CapitaLand CEO exercises options, ST, Feb 3,2007

CAPITALAND president and CEO Liew Mun Leong exercised options for a total of 1.8 million shares in the company at an average price of $1.67 per share on Feb 1. This has given him a direct stake of 0.065 per cent in the group. His deemed interest in the property group remains unchanged at 1.458 million shares or 0.052 per cent. Based on CapitaLand's $7.10 closing price yesterday, Mr Liew's 1.8 million shares from the options are sitting on a paper gain of about $9.8 million.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Malay Gals, 19, Own Peugeot Cars Woh!

Jan 28, 2007
Cheaper prices, so young snapping up cars
By Nur Dianah Suhaimi

OWNING a car used to mean careful budgeting and years of saving.

But vastly cheaper prices, fuelled by a bumper crop of certificates of entitlement (COEs), have put car ownership within reach of many young adults, a noticeable number of whom are barely a few months into their first job.

More parents, too, are buying cars for their adult children, some of them settling the bulk of the payment in cash.

Teacher Mazri Misawar, 26, bought his own set of wheels just six months after he started work. He paid $49,000, including COE, for his silver Toyota Vios last January.

Said Mr Mazri: 'I've been wanting to buy a car for a long time. Since cars are so cheap now and the economy is good, I decided to go ahead.'

The Land Transport Authority's decision to release more COEs has helped lower prices. Last September, LTA added 8,520 COEs, which will be released over six months.

In the latest COE tender this month, the COE price for the small car category was $11,881. Back in 1994, the price briefly hit $100,000.

Undergraduate Marc Lim's blue Toyota Altis was paid for by his retiree father, mostly in cash.

Said Mr Lim, 21: 'The car cost about $70,000. Since the bulk is already paid for in cash, my father took a one-year loan.'

Last year, Ngee Ann Polytechnic student Siti Nur Puteri, 19, received a brand-new Peugeot 307 from her businessman father before she even got her licence. Her car cost about $90,000.

This year, her father bought a $70,000 Peugeot 1007, this time for her cousin, Miss Mas Indah Puteri, 19, also from Ngee Ann Polytechnic.

Said Miss Siti: 'We chose the Peugeot because we liked the design. I need a car to get to school.'

Figures by the LTA show a total of 116,849 new passenger cars were registered last year, beating the previous year's record of 109,376.

Many of these new cars are owned by young people, said car agents.

The 10 car agents The Sunday Times spoke to said more young people in their early 20s are buying cars.

Seven said they have seen a 10 to 20 per cent growth in sales compared with five years ago, when COE prices were still relatively high.

Said sales executive Andy Sophian from AutoHub Asia: 'Five years ago, it was rare to see youngsters in their early 20s buying their own cars. But now that cars are cheaper, even those who can't afford want their own car.'

Almost half of those driving the China-made Chery QQ cars here are in their early 20s, said Vertex Automobile, the sole distributor of Chery cars in Singapore.

The 812cc QQ retails for about $31,500 (with COE) and is now the least expensive car available here.

Said Vertex's spokesman: 'The cost of driving a Chery is just slightly higher than the cost of travelling by public transport. It's also cheaper than travelling by taxi, which can cost up to $900 a month.'

Said 27-year-old assistant brand manager Mr Bernard Quek: 'The roads are more congested now, and not only during the peak hours.'

Image Caption: ALTHOUGH THEY ARE JUST 19, Miss Siti Nur Puteri (right) and her cousin Mas are already proud owners of Peugeot cars. Miss Siti's businessman father bought both cars for them. -- WANG HUI FEN

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Middle class wage stagnation could lead to social instability

SINGPAORE: Middle class wages have been stagnant in the past 5 years, according to economists, and this could lead to social instability

These concerns were shared at the annual Institute of Policy Studies Singapore Perspectives conference.

Economists believe a US economy slowdown in business and consumer spending may cause problems for Singapore, but as Singapore is tops in the ASEAN resilience index, it should be able to weather external shocks, thanks to a diversified economy and strong Asian demand.

They predict that growth going forward will be above 3 to 5 percent.

The long term growth speed limits for a mature economy was previously in the 3 to 5 percent range.

However, economists are asking who this growth is for. The income of the bottom 30 percent of the population has fallen. What is more worrying is the fact that the majority of Singaporeans in the middle class has only seen about a 1 percent increase in nominal income in the last 5 years.

It is not just Singapore - economists say stagnant wages is a global problem, and the chief reason for this is globalisation.

India and China are introducing a large pool of skilled and unskilled labour to compete with the labour forces of industrialised countries.

Singapore is susceptible to this because of its open economy.

123, 000 jobs were created last year and economists estimate some 70 percent of these jobs went to foreigners.

"With the rate of immigration even among unskilled and semi skilled labour at a rate twice of what we experienced in the 90s, at a rate fastest in the developed world, the question is does this dampen our real wages as we grow? Does the strategy itself dampen real wages and depress real wages at the low and middle end of the spectrums? They are sacred cows but we should step back and think about them," said Yeoh Lam Keong, Vice President, Economic Society of Singapore.

Another reason cited for middle class wage stagnation, is the move by the government to cut CPF employer contribution rates for older workers by 4 percentage points over the last 2 years.

"So if you were a worker in the 50-55 age group, you could have seen your wages fall as much as 10 percent over the last 3 or 4 years. Now with the economy improving, the government could bring that back, the increase is 1 or 2 percent. I'm in support of CPF tinkering but probably it happens far too often, but I think there's probably some justification to look back and think that the restructuring was a bit too aggressive on the CPF side and it has contributed somewhat to a very sandwiched middle class," said Chua Hak Bin, Director, Asia Pacific Econ & Market Analysis, Citigroup Global Markets Singapore.

The government is looking at increasing CPF by 1 to 2 percent in 2007.

Economists say workfare should become a more permanent pillar of the economy so as to cushion growing inequality.

Adding that long term middle class wage stagnation could lead to social instability. - CNA /dt