Does IDA really need a Temasek board member?

Robert Clark
10 Dec 2009

Singapore’s IDA last week announced its new board members, with another seven local worthies appointed for two-year terms.

Jimmy Phoon, senior managing director for strategy at the government investment arm Temasek, was one of these, filling the seat vacated by Temasek CFO Leong Wai Leng.

For those who are unaware, Temasek is the biggest shareholder in Singapore’s two biggest telcos, SingTel and StarHub.

It is hard to imagine a more blatant conflict of interest. Can the IDA be an independent regulator if those it is governed by those it is supposed to be regulating?

The IDA declined to say whether it regarded itself as an “independent regulator” But in an email to, the agency said it had given “due consideration” to the issue. A spokesperson said the IDA took steps to avoid conflicts of interest, but these were confidential.

You might say “so what?” Singapore has always cared more about results than the foreign conventions of transparency and accountability.

But regulation, like justice, should be seen to be done, especially now that it is becoming considerably more difficult.

New technologies and services might have proliferated in Singapore in the past 15 years – but they have everywhere else, too. Regulators need to structure themselves so they make the best possible decisions for the next 15 years.

For the next-gen broadband era Singapore has created a unique three-tiered structure – retail, wholesale and underlying infrastructure. It has never explained why this awkward arrangement is better than a mere wholesale-retail split. But by an amazing coincidence, the two NBN tenders – and S$1 billion ($719m) in taxpayer funds – have been split between the Singtel team and StarHub.

The way things get done matters as much as what is actually done. Processes have consequences.

In its willingness to have carriers overseeing regulators, or to make telecom markets even more complex, Singapore is on its own.

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