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February 7, 2009

Singapore PM's wife to step down as Temasek’s CEO

The wife of Singapore's prime minister will step down after five years as chief executive of Temasek Holdings, one of the world's largest sovereign wealth funds.

AFP quoted the state firm as saying Friday that Ho Ching, the wife of Lee Hsien Loong, will be replaced by American Charles "Chip" Goodyear, 51, former chief of Anglo-Australian giant BHP Billiton, the world's largest miner.

She also will no longer serve on the company's board. Her departure comes amid questions over some of Temasek's investments, most recently the billions pumped into former US investment bank Merrill Lynch since December 2007.

Merrill Lynch suffered massive losses from high-risk US subprime mortgage investments, and Bank of America acquired it on January 1 after fears rose over whether the Wall Street firm would survive.

Temasek's chairman, S. Dhanabalan, however insisted there was no connection between Ho's departure and the Merrill Lynch stake or an earlier venture into Thailand's Shin Corp.

Dhanabalan told reporters: "I would ask you to be a little cautious in coming to a conclusion that these investments are losses because we have a long-term view of our investments. And it is too early to say."

Temasek said Goodyear would take over as CEO-designate from March 1 and on October 1 would succeed Ho, who has led the firm since January 2004. Temasek is a sovereign wealth fund, a form of government-created investment vehicle that has emerged as a potent force in global markets.

Such funds have sparked concerns that their policies are opaque and could threaten national security, but Temasek has claimed a record of transparency.

Asked last December about the performance of Temasek and Singapore's other sovereign wealth fund, the prime minister said they should not be judged only on their recent bailouts of troubled global financial institutions.

"The situation looks a lot gloomier now than when they went in, but these are long-term investments so we will see," Lee said. "It looks under water now but the situation can change."

In 2006, the overthrow of then Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra marked the culmination of a crisis triggered in part by Temasek's takeover of a major conglomerate from his family.

Temasek purchased 49 percent of the Thaksin family-controlled telecom giant Shin Corp for nearly 1.9 billion US dollars.

Temasek and Singapore officials were stunned when the takeover erupted into a scandal in Thailand following disclosures the Thaksin family paid no taxes on its windfall gains from the deal.

In the financial year to March 2007, Temasek said its net profit fell 29 percent, partly because of the impairment of its investment in Shin. Dhanabalan said the leadership transition was part of the normal succession process.

"It's got nothing to do with her performance," he said, adding the board, including Ho, "has been addressing succession planning annually since early 2005."

Song Seng Wun, a regional economist with CIMB-GK Research, said Ho's departure would distance Temasek's board from the Lee family, making it "politically less sensitive in terms of future acquisitions".

At a press conference with Ho and Goodyear, Dhanabalan said she had joined Temasek purely on the basis of merit, and had transformed the company.

"We will miss Ho Ching," the chairman said. Ho, who appeared relaxed, praised the "wealth of experience" which Goodyear brings to the fund.

She said she did not yet have plans beyond October. Goodyear said he would try to "grow the footprint" of Temasek, which reported last August that its portfolio had risen in value to 185 billion Singapore dollars ($122.8 billion).

Temasek has stakes in a wide range of major regional firms, from financial and telecommunications to media and transportation.

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