By Ganesh Sahathevan
In the commentaries concerning the proposed merger of the Singapore and Australia Stock Exchange companies much has already been said about the propriety of a Singapore Government linked company, which SGX Ltd is, owning an Australian monopoly with some regulatory duties, ASX Ltd.
It has been reported that the merged entity will be headed by JYM Pillay as chairman, and David Gonski, currently chairman ASX, as deputy. It has also been reported that the merger was Gonski’s idea. He is , as well , a director of Singapore Airlines Ltd and believed to have used that connection to bring forth the SGX-ASX merger.
However, the gulf between these two men’s curicula vitae raises questions as to whether David Gonski’s continued presence on the board of the merged entity would be detrimental to its reputation as a regulator of corporate affairs in Singapore.
While JYM is credited with creating the financial services industry in Singapore and making Singapore Airlines into what it is today, Gonski’s first large corporate venture, in the 80s ,Westfield Capital Corporation Ltd, lost hundreds of millions. in a relatively short span of time. Gonski was managing director of that company and is reported to have promoted its creation to the principal backer, Australian billionaire Frank Lowy.
Gonski is Chancellor of the University of New South Wales. More recently his deputy at UNSW , Fred Hilmer, and he, were involved in a very public spat with Singapore’s own Economic Development Board (EDB) as to who was to blame for the UNSW Singapore debacle in which Singaporean and Australian taxpayers bore the loss of millions of dollars.
There is evidence that Gonski was warned of the problems inherent in the UNSW proposal yet chose to ignore them. As reported in The Straits Times, Singapore,3 June 2007::
Mr Michael McGuirk, a consultant in higher education who previously taught at UNSW, thinks it was more a case of a bad business model.
/> He showed The Sunday Times a letter he wrote to UNSW chancellor David Gonski more than a year ago urging him to cancel the Singapore project and save UNSW and Australia many millions of dollars.
/> He received no reply.
/> Said Mr McGuirk, who was involved in a master’s programme that UNSW ran in Singapore: ‘The plan was ill-conceived from the start. And now the taxpayers in Singapore and in Australia have to bear the losses.’
JYM’s advice has always been that of the impartial civil servant, but the same cannot be said of Gonski who started his life as a corporate lawyer and continues to serve in an advisory role.As the Australian business commentator Stephen Mayne put it:
/> “…the incoming chairman (David Gonski) is very smart and well-connected but has been damaged by recent revelations that he helped Frank Lowy put money through tax havens.
( For a link to the recent revelations see http://www.smh.com.au/business/inquiry-sheds-new-light-on-old-lowy-case-20080720-3iaq.html)
Gonski, a champion debater, has proven unable to defend himself as evidenced by this response:
“When we’re talking about the affairs of somebody else I don’t feel I should comment,” Gonski told the ASX annual meeting. “There was, in a number of newspapers, a comment that I was in a meeting. That may or may not be the case – this is not the place to negotiate it.”
“But it was left suggested that I did advise on those things, nor that there were things. So, it’s again a little bit of a trump-up having said that.”
Gonski is best known in Australia for his networking skills. He replaced another well connected Australian, Charles Goode, on the Singapore Airlines board in 2006.
Membership of the boards of Australia’s largest companies tends to limited to a handful of persons and networking within that group is essential if one is to go far in Australian corporate life. Members of this little club have resisted all attempts to break the cartel and protecting the cartel has required tuning a blind eye to one another’s faults.This would probably explain why despite the above issues, Gonski remains well placed in the Australian market.
However, applying Australian methods in the Singapore context can prove embarrassing for all concerned. For example, Gonski was recently asked if he was close to Lee Kuan Yew and family. His answer: ”I’d be big-noting myself that I’m close to any ruling family.”
Any Singaporean, indeed Asian, can see the arrogance, indeed danger in Gosnki’s answer, even if elsewhere it is seen as a clever way of not denying the matter. A deputy to JYM ,perhaps one day his successor? Perhaps not in Singapore.