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“Ho Ching is watching all of us” – Temasek CEO skirts question on the company’s plans for leadership succession

Instead of giving a direct answer as to what Temasek's leadership succession plans are, when he was asked to give details on these plans and on Mdm Ho's role at the company, Mr Pillay would only say that Mdm Ho is "very much now involved in the stewardship aspects of Temasek…she still keeps a watchful eye over all of us to make sure we continue to do the right thing"

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Temasek International CEO Dilhan Pillay appeared to skirt questions on Ho Ching’s role at Temasek and the organisation’s plans for leadership succession, at a recent press briefing.

Temasek International is the investment arm of Singapore sovereign wealth fund, Temasek, which is led by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s wife, Ho Ching.

Instead of giving a direct answer as to what Temasek’s leadership succession plans are, when he was asked to give details on these plans and on Mdm Ho’s role at the company, Mr Pillay would only say that Mdm Ho is “very much now involved in the stewardship aspects of Temasek…she still keeps a watchful eye over all of us to make sure we continue to do the right thing.”

The South China Morning Post noted that Mr Pillay also quipped, “Right now, she’s watching all of us,” and that this remark was met with laughter.

Mdm Ho joined Temasek Holdings as a director in January 2002 before she was promoted to executive director just four months later, in May. Two years after she joined Temasek, Mdm Ho became its Chief Executive Officer on 1 January 2004 – a role she has held for the past 15 years.

Interestingly, this year not only marks a decade and a half since Mdm Ho took the reins of Temasek, it also marks a decade since leadership succession plans for a new CEO to replace Mdm Ho fell through in a boardroom bust-up in 2009 – just three months before the new CEO was supposed to take over.

In 2009, public sentiment against Temasek Holdings was high after the sovereign wealth fund reported that the value of investments had dropped by over 30%. Due to mounting public pressure, the fund’s board announced that Mdm Ho would step down in August 2009.

Temasek Holdings’ board then brought in Charles “Chip” Waterhouse Goodyear IV to take over from Mdm Ho. The former CEO of multinational mining company BHP Billiton, Mr Goodyear – a US-born member of the reputed Goodyear family – was brought into the board in March and was due to become CEO in October.

According to international newspaper The Guardian, Mdm Ho was not happy about these plans: “But with just a few months to go until Goodyear was due to take the helm, it had become increasingly clear that Ho Ching had no plans to leave her post, and that her stance was supported by the government.”

Just three months before he was supposed to be installed as CEO, Mr Goodyear resigned following a boardroom bust-up. Citing analysts in Singapore, The Guardian reported that Mr Goodyear “had been squeezed out by Ho Ching, who was reluctant to leave.”

According to the publication, Mr Goodyear is believed to have become frustrated with the bureaucratic structure of Temasek Holdings and is thought to have left the organisation after it became apparent that he would not be granted the freedom of action that he sought after he was appointed to the board.

Noting that “Although it is nominally independent of government, Temasek has traditionally been viewed as an arm of the Singaporean state and symbol of the country’s growing economic power,” the Guardian cited Singapore analysts who claimed that the “Singaporean establishment had never been happy that Temasek would be headed by an outsider”.

Temasek Holdings and Chip parted ways after accepting that “there are differences regarding certain strategic issues that could not be resolved.”

Temasek Holdings’ then chairman echoed that Mr Goodyear’s resignation had come after a “clash of cultures” when he said:

“A future CEO has to be someone who understands and shares our values, and who is also a builder of people, institutions and opportunities. Unfortunately, at this halfway mark, both the board and Chip have come to the conclusion that it is in our mutual interest not to proceed with the planned leadership change.”

A decade has gone by since then and Ho Ching remains the CEO of Temasek, with no public signs of leadership renewal in sight.

The relationship between Ho Ching and the younger Lee siblings appears to be as fractured as ever

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