What does a failed real estate deal in New York City have to do with an island nation 9579 miles away?

In 2006, Tishman Speyer Properties and BlackRock Realty bought housing projects in Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village (both in Lower Manhattan) for US$5.4 billion. Built in the 1940s, it was meant to provide affordable housing in a city where costs were constantly going up. Laws were enacted to stabilise and regulate the rent.

Pic: AP.

The two real estate companies thought that money could be made from buying the housing projects, getting the rent-regulated tenants out and moving new tenants in at market rates. But when they were blocked after the tenants association went to court, the whole deal fell apart.

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In its report, the NPR interviews Charles Bagli, a journalist who covered the purchase and went on to write the book Other People’s Money:

“They pretty much went through it unscathed,” Bagli says, “but CalPERS [the California Public Employees' Retirement System], the largest pension fund in the country, lost $500 million. Poof — gone. … Another pension fund down in Florida lost $250 million. The government of Singapore, well, they lost the most — over $600 million. It all just went poof.”

Over $600 million. This was Singapore’s loss from a deal that collapsed in 2010. In fact, an article published in January 2010 in The New York Times said:

The Government of Singapore Investment Corporation, which made a $575 million secondary loan, and invested as much as $200 million in equity, stands to lose all of that.

This is not the only time Singapore’s sovereign wealth funds have lost money; plenty more have been written off through failed investments like in Wall Street banks.  In 2008, Temasek Holdings – the country’s other sovereign wealth fund – admitted to losing over US$46 billion in just eight months, from March to November. GIC is expected to have lost at least the same amount.

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Every time such a loss occurs, a small fuss – usually online – may or may not occur. Coverage in the local press will probably come in the form of a straight report without much more – after all, Singapore’s press doesn’t usually subscribe to the ‘Fourth Estate’ role. Then the whole thing will fade away and things will continue with little or no significant change.

It’s a situation that may work out very well for those who have escaped taking the rap for botched investments, but doesn’t help Singapore or Singaporeans in the long run. The lack of accountability makes it a dangerous game – large amounts of money have already been lost without anyone really being the wiser, making one wonder if we will ever hit that moment when too much money is lost. If that ever happens, it will be far too late for us to demand accountability.

All we’ll be able to do then will be to ask ourselves, “Why didn’t we pay attention sooner?”