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Risk-taker Ho Ching criticises Boeing over a “lack of balls”

She was referring to a news article that linked the crash of the Ethiopian Airlines to a lack of proper training for the pilots to fly the Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft

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In a Facebook post on Saturday (16 Mar), Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s wife Ho Ching criticised the management of US aircraft manufacturer Boeing over a “lack of balls”.

Ho was referring to a news article that seemed to link the deadly Ethiopian Airlines crash that killed 157 people last Sunday to the lack of proper training for pilots to fly the Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft.

The Australian reported that the only requirement for pilots to fly the Boeing 737 MAX 8 was simply a 56-minute training video – not simulator trainings or flights with supervising captains.

Pointing out that the low-cost training proposition and the transitional ease for pilots – combined with the increased capacity, range and better fuel efficiency – made the craft sound “the perfect aircraft for cash-conscious airlines with expansion on their mind,” the publication published a quote by aviation consultant Neil Hansford who said:

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“They have sold this aircraft on the basis that if you can fly a 737-800, you can fly this. It’s engineering arrogance.”

The Ethiopian airlines crash is the second deadly crash of a Boeing 737 MAX 8, after the Lion Air crash that killed 189 people in October, last year.

Linking The Australian article on her Facebook page, Ho Ching disagreed with Hansford that the crash could have occurred due to “engineering arrogance.” She, instead, felt that the crash was a result of “marketing over safety, and the carelessness of engineering, and the lack of balls up and down the chain, and across organisations to shout out any concerns.”

Ho Ching’s use of the word “balls” likely refers to the vulgar slang that refers to “courage or bravery to take risks.”

Ho Ching, herself, has been known to take risks – especially in her role as chief executive of Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund, Temasek. International publication, The New York Times, once wrote that it was not her marriage to Singapore’s head of Government but her willingness to take risks that won Ho Ching her top job.

Citing one of Ho Ching’s colleagues who made the observation, the New York Times reported in 2007:

“That penchant for risk-taking came to the fore this week with Temasek’s unexpected £2.1 billion, or $4.34 billion, investment in Barclays, the U.K. bank that is locked in an increasingly costly bidding war for ABN AMRO in what would be the world’s biggest bank takeover.”

The New York Times interviewed a former (unnamed) advisor to Temasek who warned that Temasek’s strategy of buying big chunks of companies exposes it to potentially deep losses if markets turn.

That warning appeared to turn prophetic. In March 2009, the Ministry of Finance reported that the Singapore sovereign wealth fund lost S$39 billion – 31 percent of its value – in just eight months. It’s portfolio shrank from S$185 billion to S$127 billion between March and November 2008.

In 2009, public sentiment against Temasek and Ho Ching was high. Due to mounting public pressure, the fund’s board announced that Ho Ching would step down in August 2009.

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

According to international newspaper The Guardian, Ho Ching 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 government.”

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

According to the publication, Chip 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”.

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

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