TOC interviews some people who turned up at Hong Lim Park, including some investors of structured products.
Update: TOC has been informed that some investors are planning a sit-in protest at DBS' Shenton Way office building this Wednesday at 10am.
“MAS should do what’s right”, says former NTUC Income chief, Tan Kin Lian, at Speakers’ Corner event which saw more than 1,000 people turn up.
Koh Yi Na
Former NTUC Income Chief Executive, Mr Tan Kin Lian, addressed a crowd of more than 1000 people at Speaker’s Corner in Hong Lim Park yesterday, speaking out for investors who were affected by the recent credit crisis and the loss of their savings invested in financial structured products.
Speaking to a crowd of rather bewildered Singaporean investors, many of whom had lost substantial portions of their life savings, Mr Tan made several proposals for them to seek some form of redress, one of which was a suggestion to organize themselves into groups where investors facing similar predicaments could discuss their respective financial situations and help each other out.
Following Mr Tan’s 10 minute long speech, financial planner and author Mr Leong Sze Hian, took to the stage, and spoke of the importance of diversifying one’s assets. He further explained the maxim “don’t understand, don’t invest”, and advised people to read the fine print on investment documents they signed.
The latter part of Mr Leong’s speech, which was delivered in Mandarin, was welcomed enthusiastically by the largely Mandarin-speaking crowd, largely consisting of middle-aged Singaporeans and retirees, many of whom came with their spouses, children and grandchildren. There were also a number of families and young couples present, all seeking a way to recoup the losses they had incurred, or at the very least, to find someone to explain the situation to them.
Many of the people that The Online Citizen (TOC) spoke to declined to be named, but the frustration, confusion and grief was nonetheless apparent when they spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We didn’t know that our money was going to investment banks,” one man in his 50s told us. “We thought all along that it was just like fixed deposits, very safe, but with a high interest rate. The bank representatives never told us that we could stand to lose so much, just like that.”
Financial structured products – low risk, high returns?
The entire affair began when local banks began offering credit-linked securities in the form of financial structured products, backed by investment bank Lehman Brothers. These structured products included Lehman Minibonds, DBS High Notes 5, Morgan Stanley Pinnacles Notes and Merrill Lynch Jubilee Series 3 LinkEarner Notes.
When Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy in September, Singaporeans, who had bought the structured products with the notion that they were low-risk, high returns investments resembling fixed deposits, found their hard-earned savings gone altogether. Unknown to many of them, the banks reserved the right to forfeit their principal payments should the investment banks fall, and fall they did. These investors found themselves missing thousands, and at times, tens of thousands of dollars, money that had been intended for their children’s educations or their retirement funds.
On 9 October, Mr Tan approached the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), the governing authority for banks in Singapore, with a petition bearing 983 signatures, addressed to Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, chairman of MAS. These signatures were gathered from individuals who had encountered the petition on his blog.
The petition appealed for MAS’ assurance that those who had invested in such financial products were not victims of misrepresentation or fraud by these financial institutions, and requested MAS to commence a full and independent inquiry into the sale of structured products by various financial institutions in Singapore. It also asked MAS to help the investors claim adequate compensation for their losses, caused by the misconduct of the banks offering structured products without providing sufficient information.
The event at Speaker’s Corner was meant as a gathering ground for investors who had suffered losses to voice their concerns and seek some form of relief. After the speeches by Mr Tan and Mr Leong at 5pm, investors huddled under various placards bearing titles such as “Pinnacle notes”, “Minibonds”, “High notes”, and “Jubilee notes and others” to discuss the proposals suggested by both speakers.
Redress and recourse
One of these was Mr Tan’s offer of an arrangement he had made with a lawyer for affected investors to make a sworn statement regarding the investment in the structured product, which could later be used to support investors’ complaint to their respective financial institutions and with the Financial Industry Dispute Resolution Center, or FIDREC. References were also made to a potential second petition, and particulars of investors were collected.
At 6pm, Mr Tan repeated his speech for the benefit of those who were unable to hear him the first time round because of the size of the crowd and the limited audio reach of the self-powered amplifier.
For the two to three hours that the event lasted, the field was flooded with people, undoubtedly the most that Speaker’s Corner has seen since it opened in 2001. Many looked lost as they tugged along entire families, and some approached strangers with sheets of paper, on which were written their structured products, banks and the amount of money they had spent on these investments. A substantial number of these were retirees who spoke little or no English, and had not understood the speeches, nor been able to access Mr Tan’s website and the advice located there.
Several passersby and onlookers milled around, listening in on groups of people, or discussing the credit market and structured products among themselves. One middle-aged man told TOC, “I didn’t lose any money from this, but I know some people who have lost their entire life savings, hundreds of thousands.” It was a sentiment that was echoed repeatedly around the field, as scenes of retirees, thirty-somethings and middle-aged Singaporeans breaking down into tears and pleading for help from Mr Tan or Mr Leong were seen.
Expectations of MAS’ actions
TOC met up with Mr Tan towards the end of the event, and asked him what he felt MAS could realistically do to help the investors. A direct answer was not provided, but what he said perhaps captured what most people could hope for: “…The government, MAS, should do what’s right. After all, these people have put their blood, sweat and tears into their jobs, only to lose it all at once.”
At the end of the event, a man in his 60s caught up with us, saying that he did not mind being caught on tape and having the tape aired on the Internet. “We spent our whole lives building up this country from scratch,” he said. “We worked for thirty, forty years, and we saved all our money to put into the bank. More than one hundred thousand dollars, over all these decades.
“Then they got greedy, and they decided to invest all our life savings into companies like Lehman Brothers. And now, we’re the ones who have to pay, because they’re not doing anything for us. We spent our whole lives working for this country, and now our money is gone.”
You can view the videos of Mr Tan and Mr Leong's speeches here.
Read also news agencies' reports:
Singapore investors decry losses from Lehman bonds - International Herald Tribune.
Pictures by Damien Chng and sj.
About Koh Yi Na (written report):
Yi Na is a Year 1 Arts student in Junior College. She is involved in debates and fencing, and enjoys reading and writing whenever possible. She would like to see more online platforms like TOC as an alternative voice to the mainstream media, and she believes that change in Singapore is inevitable.
About Teng Jing Wei (video interviewer):
Jingwei is a Year 1 Arts student in Junior College with varied interests. She hopes to study finance and economics at a tertiary level. She is grateful for the opportunities TOC gives her to pursue her deep interest in current affairs and challenge her preconceived notions about local socio-economic issues.
Mervin Lee (videographer, video editor):
Mervin is an 18-year-old student of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Art, majoring in trombone. His interests include Chinese orchestral music, film-making. He also teaches robotics to secondary students on a part-time basis.
Below is a video of Mr Tan Kin Lian's interview with the media. (TOC's own video of interviews will be up soon.)
Investors explain about how they came to invest in structured products: