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Kevin Lim & Saeed Azhar
Temasek CEO Ho Ching appears to be firmly in charge once again after a rocky year for the sovereign wealth fund in which it failed in its efforts to replace her by getting its first foreign chief executive.
The wife of Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is carrying on after the surprise exit in July of CEO-designate Chip Goodyear, formerly BHP Billiton’s head, who would have replaced her on Oct 1.
Since Goodyear’s departure, Ho is shedding her once-shy public image by appearing more at events such as Thursday’s news conference, where she declared the fund had recouped most of its losses from 2008 and is ready for dealmaking.
Ho may now be able to take some credit for the fund’s stronger position, and there is no timeframe for getting a replacement.
But the leadership issue and questions about investment strategy still cloud the fund’s global image.
“It might be good to have new leadership to inject some new ideas, change direction,” said Melyvn Teo, an associate professor of finance at Singapore Management University.
The city-state’s bloggers regularly criticise Ho and Temasek over what they see as the fund’s investment missteps.
“Without Goodyear, does this mean we’ll have another bad year?” asked blogger Joshua Chiang in a recent posting on Online Citizen, a popular Singapore news website.
But Ho said Temasek’s investment decisions are not swayed by public scrutiny.
“We are human beings so we do sort of track some of this but we try our best not to let that drive our investment decisions,” Ho said at Temasek’s annual review.
Forbes magazine, which ranked Ho as the world’s fifth most powerful woman last month, has credited Ho with converting Temasek from a Singapore-focused firm to a leading investor in Asia and said her dealmaking ambitions span the globe.
One of Ho’s colleagues once said it was her willingness to take risks, not her family ties, that won her the top job at Temasek, with a mandate to shake up the state investor and lead its overseas expansion.
Ho began her career at Singapore’s Ministry of Defence, where she met her husband, the eldest son of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
She moved to state-owned Singapore Technologies in 1987, running a mix of defence, technology, property and stockbroking firms which she restructured, divesting some units and listing others.
She joined Temasek as a director in January 2002 and became CEO two years later. Under her charge, Temasek’s assets have grown from S$90 billion at end-March 2004 to S$172 billion ($122 billion) at end-July 2009.
Ho has, however, also steered Temasek into making several controversial decisions in neighbouring countries.
In 2006, a Temasek-led $3.8 billion investment in Thai telecoms firm Shin Corp, then owned by the family of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, triggered a prolonged political crisis in Bangkok that led to Thaksin’s ouster in a bloodless coup.
“If you want to run life with regret, you will end up doing very little,” Ho said in February when she announced plans to step down. ($1=1.409 Singapore Dollar)