Foo Mee Har, Chief Executive Officer of the Wealth Management Institute (WMI) in Singapore, plays an influential part in driving and guiding the rapid expansion of the city- state’s family office sector.
The institute, which was founded by GIC and Temasek, is viewed by many as Asia’s center of excellence for education and research in the economically vital areas of wealth and asset management.
Under Foo’s leadership, it has grown to become a key provider of specialized training for private banks, wealth managers, asset managers, lawyers, trust professionals, regulators, family offices and members of high-net-worth families who need practice-based, industry- focused education. In the space of family office, this covers topics such as family office governance, leadership, investments and social impact.
“There has been much interest in the arrival of family offices in Singapore recently,” Foo noted in a speech to the nation’s Parliament, where she has served as an elected member since 2011. “They come from a diverse range of countries and represent some of the most successful entrepreneurs and business owners around the globe.”
Family businesses are choosing Singapore to establish their offices for a variety of reasons. Some are attracted by the safety and stability. Others come in search of new investment opportunities in Southeast Asia, good growth prospects, an uncomplicated regulatory framework, and steady returns.
“They have made money and need to manage it professionally,” Foo says. “But if you look at the literature, there is also a lot of talk about the great wealth transfer between generations. Trillions of dollars are involved across the world, and the family office is a very helpful vehicle to plan and organize that, segregate things away from the operating business, and invest for longevity.”
A trusted platform
With that in mind, other financial centers are now putting in place, or fine-tuning, structures to enable the establishment of family offices. But Singapore is determined not to lose ground.
Supported by government policy, and facilitated by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) and the Economic Development Board (EDB), the intention is to keep strengthening in ways which benefit investors and the local economy, while also enhancing overall levels of expertise.
“Singapore has been raising the bar to provide a trusted environment and support a sector where the money is active, not just being held offshore, and the participants contribute to a vibrant ecosystem,” says Foo, who is also a member of WMI’s Board of Trustees.
Singapore has recently introduced new requirements for hiring and minimum investment levels, including active encouragement to invest a certain amount in local enterprises. There must also be global connectivity and easy access to global markets. In broader terms, there is a desire to offer the amenities that are conducive to a high standard of living, from good healthcare and education to a pleasant environment.
Also essential is a corps of professionals who can provide the full range of services that will come into play. These include tax and legal, risk management, trust services, financial advisory with an eye for new opportunities, asset management, and philanthropy advisory.
“Every family has unique investment objectives, mandates and values, so there is really no magic formula,” Foo says. “We see some offices take a very conservative approach. They don’t like large swings and drops and let their investment managers take discretionary decisions and go for single-digit returns. Other family offices may be comfortable taking more risk and larger positions. But family office capital tends to be patient and takes a long-term view, even though the structures are built to be agile and decisions can be taken quickly.”
WMI aims to use its influence to help tackle some of society’s most pressing challenges and issues. It is achieving that through the Impact Philanthropy Partnership (IPP), a joint scheme with the Private Banking Industry Group (PBIG) and supported by MAS. The plan is to bring together family principals and offices to build greater awareness and momentum, and to focus attention on newer models of impact investing and venture philanthropy.
The thinking behind the initiative is that many families want to give back to society, and they have the means to deploy resources to respond to emergencies, such as natural disasters, or to back purposeful projects which can genuinely change lives for the better. They can also provide catalytic capital and support more innovative approaches, as well as invest to back promising social entrepreneurs and changemakers.
“We want to inspire a broader movement for more strategic and impactful giving,” Foo says. “There is more work to do, but it is clear that our stakeholders are keen to move in this direction. Making money is one thing, but the real goal is to galvanise purposeful wealth. Many next-generation family members are passionate about social impact, and we want to help them be part of the community and the capacity building initiatives.
A force for good
In line with this, PBIG has included philanthropy advisory as a new technical skill and competency, while WMI has added a certificate course in philanthropy and social impact to its own list of training programs.
The course is expected to touch on key IPP concerns ranging from climate action and poverty alleviation to inclusive education and health care, showing how families can use their wealth as a force for good.
It will sit alongside WMI’s signature “Certified Family Office Advisor” program, which uses practice-led discussion to teach communication strategies and key steps needed to establish a family charter, understand governance tools and structures, and manage the transfer of assets. Altogether, WMI delivers over 20,000 training places annually to meet burgeoning demand across its entire programme suite.
A typical family office class might include wealth and asset managers, lawyers, trustees and tax accountants. The participants learn from practitioners at the cutting edge. “We teach concepts and cases, and we ask the class to advise on structures and issues the client should consider,” Foo says. “A family office is complex, it needs a team, and the rules change. So you have to be alert.”
In Singapore, the sector’s speed of growth, and how far it can go, is definitely a hot topic. “My argument is always quality versus quantity. I’m less worried about the numbers and more about how we support these families so they can achieve all their goals and aspirations,” Foo says.
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