Yesterday (30 Mar), at least 500 people went to Hong Lim Park to protest against Hyflux. Many are looking at losing 80-97% of their life savings and retirement funds which they have invested in Hyflux preference shares and perpetual securities (i.e, high-risk bonds).
In the case of Hyflux, under the current deal, investors can only get back 10.7 per cent of their original investments at around 3 per cent in cash and 7 per cent in equity. And by no means the value of the equity will rise in future.
Mr Tan Kin Lian, former NTUC Income CEO and former Presidential candidate in 2011, spoke at Hong Lim Park with regard to the Hyflux issue at length as no one else had dared to be a speaker for the event, according to Mr Tan.
Some 34,000 investors have invested a sum of around $900 million dollars in Hyflux preference shares and perpetual securities offered via two tranches in 2011 and 2016. Mr Tan noted that this sum is almost twice of the $500 million lost by the 10,000 retail investors in the Lehman Minibond saga back in 2008.
Mr Tan called for the government to take responsibility for the loss of investors by having the Public Utilities Board to take over the power generation plant of Tuas Spring and not just the water desalination plant. He also called for the plant to be paid at a fair price and not taken over at zero cost.
Heavy losses suffered by Ah Ma and Ah Pek
The media was at the protest yesterday to try to get stories from the individual retail investors.
Among them was 67-year-old retiree Mdm Koh Ah Kiw, who lost about $40,000 in Hyflux preference shares and perpetual securities. She thought by investing in Hyflux, he could “get pocket money for retirement”. She said she had been receiving dividends until they stopped last year. Mdm Koh was a civil servant with MOH for 42 years.
An elderly couple, Mdm Hong, 53, and her husband, Mr Ong, 55, who lost $200,000 of their retirement funds were also interviewed. They invested in Hylux because they thought Tuas Spring was a “strategic national asset”.
Mdm Hong said, “I’m voting ‘no’ on April 5. If someone takes away your money and then gives you back 3 per cent, and tells you that you should be very thankful, how would you feel?”
“I can’t believe they are telling us that something is better than nothing… Please don’t insult us further,” she added. The couple said they would vote ‘No’ to the deal in the coming general meeting, even if it means they might not get another deal and would lose everything.
“What’s the difference between getting 3 per cent (in cash recovery) and not getting it? If we sink, then we sink together,” Mr Ong emphatically said.
Another investor, Mr S H Lee, said, “I invested a significant amount of my retirement funds. I placed a lot faith in Hyflux, and also because water is our strategic resource. I thought this (investment) would give us sufficient funds to cover our expenses, our medical needs, for the rest of our retirement years.”
Mr Lee was also unhappy that PUB intends to take over Hyflux’s plant at zero dollars, saying, “I believe a lot of money comes from us investors were used to first build the plant, so you cannot just say okay, now I am going to take over for zero dollars. It doesn’t make sense to me.”
The worst hit investor whom TOC spoke with, was Mr Kuang who is 79 years old. He had invested $400,000 in 2011 together with his wife and subsequently $184,000 in 2016. His reason for buying the bonds was that Hyflux as a water producing company in Singapore could not fail and the perception that he would be paid before the shareholders. While that is true, but he was not aware that creditors would be paid before the preference share holders.
Where is MAS?
Some investors wanted justice to be done. An investor by the name of Michael who lost $10,000 thought that Monetary Authority of Singapore should have stopped Hyflux and the local banks from selling the perpetual securities in 2016. “MAS should have stepped in to investigate overzealous selling by the banks because the banks were paid a sum to sell these shares and got a substantial amount of commission,” he said.
Then there was Mdm B. Chua, 62, who lost $6,000 while her husband lost $100,000. They invested in Hyflux because “Temasek had invested” in the company. She said, “We invested in Hyflux because government support for the company was very strong. We invested because Temasek had invested. And Temasek must have done its due diligence.”
In other words, Mdm Chua thought the government and Temasek know everything and know what’s best for the country. The couple thought they could trust the government.
“When banks sold the securities to us, they told us ‘Temasek invested, so don’t worry. And if you don’t buy, somebody else will’,” Mdm Chua added. “Investors went in because it was a national asset.”
“Many of us had kept quiet initially. But I felt I had to come to the protest. We must voice that we do care,” she said.
It is true that Temasek had invested in Hyflux initially but by 2006, it was no longer on the list of Hyflux’s top 20 shareholders.
But indeed, many hold the same view as Mdm Chua. Pointing at the photos of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Ms Oliver Lum, along with the other Ministers placed on the ground, an investor said she had the confidence to invest in the company because of all the endorsement that the Singapore government was seen to be giving the company.
Investors want to push back date of townhall meeting
Hyflux has called the affected shareholders to come together on 5 April 2019 at The Star Performing Arts Centre to approve the debt restructuring scheme where they would get back 3% in cash. Ms Lum warned in an earlier town hall meeting that the investors would stand to lose everything if they do not approve the scheme.
Speaking to investors at the event, investors shared that while there had been ample notice time for the meeting but there is still not enough information for them to make a decision. A lady, speaking in Chinese, said that most of the information she gathered came from online sources and not from the company itself and even till date, new information is coming to her. She said to TOC that she would like to see more information before being forced to make a decision.
Mr Alex Leong, the organiser for the event, called for investors to turn up to the meeting and vote “no” to the scheme because it would mean the end of investigations by MAS into the matter and it is no fair to the investors.
An investor who came back to Singapore, spoke near the end of the gathering, asked why should the least sophisticated investors be asked to make a decision first and opine that the meeting should be moved back so that the investors can gather more information.
An investor, 41 shared with TOC that he is willing to forgo the 3% that he had invested and want to know what actually happened with the company.
Mr Kuang, who invested $584k, said that if the government and Hyflux is going to settle the matter as it is proposed, the government should be prepared to face 34,000 angry voters at the polling booth.