January 19, 2019
10 min read

Keynote address by Ho Ching at St Gallen Symposium Singapore Forum 2019

Good morning
Excellencies, friends, distinguished guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

You know, one of the things when I grew up as a young student was the pride I felt when we were first addressed as “ladies and gentlemen” rather than kids or students!

Fifty years ago, in 1969, five such students, then thinking adults, from the University of St Gallen in Switzerland, set out to foster a better, more inclusive and less divisive future.  You have heard just now how the St Gallen’s Symposium was born.

I am honoured to be here, for the Singapore chapter of the Symposium this year.

The theme today is on Capital for Purpose. 

It is a timely topic – simple yet wide ranging.  It’s fun for me, because I’m given the liberty to wander off to my pet subjects, while sticking to the topic!

Let me start with Capital.  What is Capital?

I shall touch briefly on three aspects of Capital: financial, human – as the Ambassador just mentioned – and knowledge.


Financial or Economic Capital

Many of us are familiar with financial or economic capital concepts. 

Capital formation is driven by the needs of people or communities for a better life. 

We are familiar with stories of tycoons, who started life poor.  They scrimped and saved in their early life, and invested astutely over time.  They husband their capital carefully, and plowed their profits back into their businesses. 

For instance, one such founder tycoon in Asia continued to fly economy class, even when he became a billionaire.  Another household name flew his children in economy, before they started earning and paying for their own fares.


Human Capital

However, financial capital on its own is inert. Someone needs to value it, and put it to work. 

Dr Goh Keng Swee is one of our founding pioneers.  He was a practical economist, an able administrator and an honest politician.  His deep interest in the real world has shaped many facets of the modern Singapore. 

He postulated in the early 1970s that population size is not the key driver for economic development.  Otherwise, China and India would not have languished in the past few centuries. 

He also noted that natural resources are not a key driver either.  Otherwise, Africa would have been the most advanced continent.

Dr Goh concluded that the key to progress was human capital.

At the simplest level, a hawker can invest in some basic equipment and start a business by herself.  As her business grows, she may rope in family members, or hire employees, and train them. 

When her business expands to several locations, she may need a central kitchen.  She will also need systems and organisation to manage ingredients, recipes, supplies and delivery. 

To deliver quality consistently to multiple outlets, her business grows in complexity and function.  This complexity requires human capital – people trained in different functions but, also as important, working together as a team.

But human capital is more than just skills.

It is also about individual and societal values.  Do we work together as one team for the larger goal?  Or do we push for selfish gains at the expense of others, and end up as a scrabbling, quarrelsome mess?

If all of us try to extract the maximum amount of grass to feed our own sheep, the village green, or the commons, will soon be bare – there will be no more grass for our sheep, and we may even starve.

Ms Ho Ching, CEO, Temasek Holdings

A society makes progress when there is trust – this requires a fair and just system of norms and values among its members and institutions.  Without trust, society breaks down.

If all of us try to extract the maximum amount of grass to feed our own sheep, the village green, or the commons, will soon be bare – there will be no more grass for our sheep, and we may even starve. 

This is a problem of the commons – we all end up worse off when it is each man for himself, with no regard for the whole. 


Knowledge Capital

The commons problem reflects the importance of knowledge capital.

How did humans progress from small nomadic families, to sending robots to Mars or probes into deep space?

The ancient Greeks were an amazing people.  They woke up in the morning, and looked out to the world to try to understand it better or discover new knowledge.  The Greeks made assumptions about sunlight, and measured the length of shadows to figure out the size of the Earth.

Such knowledge accumulated in different parts of the world, and was passed down over generations.  These enabled us to design machines, build modern cities and provide cutting edge medical care.

Yet, such knowledge can be lost. 

Europe went into the Dark Ages after Pax Romana.  In 1633, the Roman Church condemned Galileo for his observation that the Earth revolved around the sun, and not the other way around.  They held him under house arrest for the rest of his life.  Such is the oppression of the Dark Ages.

Indeed, Europe has had to rediscover some of the basic knowledge known to the ancient Greeks.  The Europeans, of course, added new knowledge, and dominated the world economy in recent centuries as a result. 

Elsewhere, the Arabs and Chinese were great discoverers, before they froze the search for knowledge, and regressed.  Other civilisations, like the Mayans, rose and fell into oblivion.

In the modern era, misinformation is still doing harm.  For example, the cult of anti-vaccination is causing measles to spread again in some communities.  Ignorance, false rumours and corruption in just a handful of countries – three countries to be specific – have delayed the full eradication of polio for all humankind. 

Knowledge and facts can be lost amidst the mire of prejudices, ignorance and bigotry.

But we must not give up.  We must continue to learn and discover, as individuals and as a society. 

We need the intellectual humility to recognise when we are on the wrong path, and have the intellectual honesty to discard wrong knowledge or assumptions. 

This patient and robust process of seeking truth from facts is how we expand our knowledge capital to enable progress.


Financial, human & knowledge capital

I have briefly sketched out the three aspects of capital: financial or economic capital; human capital; and knowledge capital. 

Financial capital needs to be activated by human capital.  Human capital, in turn, depends on knowledge capital to apply financial capital effectively in the right direction.  Capital in isolation is not sufficient.

This brings me to the “purpose” of Capital.



One of my friends chairs a research institute.  Several years ago, he wanted to know what the purpose of a research institute should be.

Apart from their research and publications, should they be developing the next generation of researchers and scientists?  Should they also contribute to the wider community?  In what ways can they do so? 

In short, what is their purpose beyond their primary mission of research?

As people, we are not one dimensional individuals.  We have many circles of interest and relationships, which can change over time.  We have many dreams, for ourselves, our families and our communities. 

Likewise, I would like to suggest that we think of the Purpose for any organisation, institution or society, along three dimensions: the primary mission, People and Planet.


Primary mission

Organisations are set up for a reason.  These can be businesses, self-help groups, or non-profit institutions. They can be regulators, governments, or nations. 

To deliver their primary mission over the longer term, they need to be wise and prudent in the use of capital, be it economic, human or knowledge capital. 

In any mission, people need to earn a living and be paid, systems need to be maintained, and services need to be delivered. 

In short, financial viability is crucial for any primary mission.  This means the financial discipline to live within our means, and also the patient accumulation of reserves to survive unforeseen shocks and setbacks.

For businesses, profits are just a shorthand notation of financial strength and viability.  Businesses can thrive only if they succeed in meeting the needs of their customers, as their primary mission. 

But that alone is not enough for longevity.



The 2nd P, of people, is critical for all – that includes businesses, non-profit organisations, governments as well as societies.   

This means valuing our people, investing in them, training them, giving them the knowledge, not just to fish, but also the know-how to design and build better fishing boats, and in time, to lead the future.

Investment in people can never stop.  It isn’t enough to train once in schools.  Technology will both obsolete old skills, and create demand for new ones.  Imagine you were trained only to process negatives into photographs in a dark room: what would you be doing now?

So re-training and re-skilling is really about helping our people transition into a future that’s fast-changing.

Governments can help support basic early education, but industries and organisations, who know where the needs are and where the technology is driving towards, must all play their part in the continuing education of our workforce.  Even retirees should be upskilled and reskilled for the new world to remain active and engaged in their silver years.



Finally, we have the 3rd P of planet – this can be found among the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.  In your package this morning is a little card to show you what the 17 goals are.  They are meaningful goals.

Singapore and nearly 200 other UN members signed up to deliver these 17 goals by 2030.  They aim to promote inclusive prosperity, while protecting our planet.

2030 – that’s just 11 years away!

Among the Goals for a better world, I want to highlight Goal 13:  Goal number 13 on this card says climate change. 

The elaboration is to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.

Last year, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a special report on 1.5 Degrees Centigrade – this is the scenario of being one and a half degrees warmer than our pre-industrial past.  It is the tipping point for a livable Earth.

The conclusion of the report is sobering – we have barely 10 years left to turnaround our carbon intensive way of living and production.  Instead of emitting more CO2, we need to reduce global CO2 emissions by 2030, to half of our 2010 levels. 

If we succeed, we have a fighting chance of capping global warming to below two degrees, for a livable world.

A warmer Earth doesn’t just mean melting ice from the polar caps, or higher sea levels.  We are already seeing more destructive hurricanes from warmer oceans.  More frequent mega storms have also started more wildfires through lightning strikes.  This isn’t just about seasonal weather changes.

1.5 degrees is about half a degree warmer than our present average global surface temperatures.  In other words, we’re already two-thirds on the way to the tipping point. 

At 1.5°C warmer, 70-90% of coral reefs will die.  At two degrees, coral reefs will be practically extinct.

Warmer climate means faster mosquito breeding cycles, and higher risks of mosquito-borne diseases like dengue, zika, malaria, chikungunya, and more.

Cool, high altitude places like Nepal never had any dengue cases until about 10 years ago.  Dengue in Nepal is a clear result of global warming.

Global warming is impacting life on Earth, and endangering human lives.

In Singapore, we got warmer by about a quarter degree every decade since the 1940s.  But in the last five years, our central district got one degree hotter.  One degree hotter over five years instead of a quarter of a degree every decade.  This rate of increase is eight times faster than before.

Today, 30% of Singapore’s energy consumption is for air conditioning.  Apart from offices and industry, 75% of our households now have air conditioning. 

We can halve such energy usage by providing more efficient large scale district cooling systems.  One major building in the Marina Bay area, for instance, saved over 40% of their electricity consumption by tapping into the Marina Bay district cooling system.

Such bold solutions can help cool our homes, offices and living spaces, in a much more efficient way, and save us money. 

Can we move faster to transit into a cooler, more energy efficient, and lower carbon Singapore?  I think we can.  The example is Switzerland.  Today, our carbon efficiency is about 0.2 million tonnes [of CO2] per billion dollars of GDP.  Switzerland’s is 0.6; more than double our efficiency.

2030 is just barely a decade away.

Global warming is one clear and present danger to Earth and mankind.  We have only about 10 years to reduce our carbon footprint.

There is, as you know, no Plan B for us, because there is no Planet B.



Friends, Ladies & Gentlemen,

We now know about the severe danger to our planet and our future – our collective future.  We have a duty to hand a viable planet to our future generations, do we not?

The purpose of financial, human and knowledge capital is to serve the needs of society and make lives better. 

That purpose is multi-dimensional, and includes the 3 P’s of: our Primary mission, our People and our Planet.

I put to you the proposition that whatever our business – whether it’s for profit or non-profit, whether it’s for society or governments – or whatever ambitions, we must all embrace Goal number 13 as that one common purpose that we share: to take urgent action on climate change and its impacts. 

Ultimately, the Purpose of our Capital – whether economic, human or knowledge capital – MUST be to ensure life can survive on Earth.

I look forward to your support to take urgent action in the decade ahead for a clean, cool Earth.  That livable tomorrow starts today.

Thank you.

ANNEX - Countries with GDP above US$300B ranked by CO2 emissions per US$GDP (2017)


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