Ng Teng Fong
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Ng Teng Fong (b. 1928, Fujian, China – d. 2 February 2010, Singapore) rose from humble beginnings to become one of Asia’s richest men due to his property empire comprising Far East Organization (FEO) in Singapore and Sino Group in Hong Kong. Known for his foresight in the property market and aggressive approach to acquiring and developing land, Ng started FEO in Singapore in the 1960s. Within two decades, it was Singapore’s largest private property developer while Sino Group was a major player in Hong Kong’s property market. At the time of his passing, FEO and Sino had developed over 1,000 properties, and financial magazine Forbes ranked Ng as Singapore’s wealthiest man with a fortune of S$11.3 billion.
Born in Putien in China’s Fujian province, Ng was the eldest of 11 children in a family of the Henghua dialect group. At the age of six, he moved to Singapore, where his parents set up a soya sauce factory and grocery shop at Weld Road.
With little formal education, Ng worked at his parents’ factory and as a bicycle repairman for a while. As the eldest son, he was expected to carry on the family business, but Ng decided to seek his own fortune in the 1950s, much to the disappointment of his father.
Ng’s first foray into business with a provision shop failed, and he was said to be so poor that he had to give away one of his eight children. However, the business of property development was where his dreams lay and he managed to raise enough capital to establish FEO around 1960, reportedly with assistance from billionaire Eliya Thamby. FEO’s name came about as Ng was inspired by the success of two large movie-producing companies at the time, Cathay Organization and Shaw Organisation.
FEO’s first development was at Jalan Pacheli in Serangoon Gardens, where 72 terrace houses were completed in 1962 and sold for S$20,000 each. The following year, Ng ventured into the hotel industry with the construction of the S$5.5 million Singapura Forum hotel on Orchard Road, which was sold in 1982 for S$178 million. Further residential developments at Katong and Watten Estate followed in the late 1960s.
As he moved into larger developments, FEO reportedly ran into financial difficulties when a local institution withdrew credit facilities and Ng nearly went bankrupt. However, he managed to arrange new lines of credit with the Moscow Narodny Bank and continue FEO’s business. Hilton Hotel on Orchard Road followed in 1969, Ng’s first venture into a publicly listed company.
Ng also oversaw FEO’s diversification into a number of different businesses, mostly related to the property industry. A report in 1967 listed FEO’s associate and subsidiary companies, including Lucky Realty, Far East Land & Housing Development, Far East Curio Centre and Far East Finance. FEO’s activities were in the areas of housing and hotel development, finance, planting commercial industries, departmental stores and real estate.
Move into Hong Kong
In 1970, Ng set up base in Hong Kong with a number of companies that would become the core of the Sino Group, listing Tsim Sha Tsui Properties, Sino Land and Sino Hotels from the 1970s through the 1990s. Midway through the decade, he purchased reclaimed land in Tsim Sha Tsui East, anticipating that the former wasteland would become a thriving retail and commercial district. This was indeed the case and when a property crash depressed the market in the early 1980s, Ng moved aggressively to acquire more land. Far East Organization’s success in Singapore meant that Ng was able to fund more purchases in Hong Kong and support his companies through downturns. In 1994, Ng and his family were estimated to own HK$60 billion worth of property in Hong Kong, about double the value of listed Sino Land’s properties then.
Among the Sino Group’s more prominent developments in Hong Kong are the Conrad Hong Kong and Royal Pacific hotels, Central Plaza in Wanchai and The Centrium in the Central District. At the time of Ng’s passing, Sino Land was the fifth-largest developer in Hong Kong by market capitalisation.
Such was Ng’s standing in Hong Kong that he was the only Singaporean businessman invited to the historic signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration for the handover of the island to China, between then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang in 1984.
King of Orchard Road
Having established FEO on Orchard Road with the Singapura and Hilton hotels, Ng ventured into retail development with Far East Shopping Centre, built in 1974 and FEO’s first retail/office foray. Having seen the potential of the area as a shopping district, Ng continued with the construction of Lucky Plaza (1978), Orchard Plaza (1981), Far East Plaza (1983) and Claymore Plaza (1984).
These developments earned Ng the nickname “King of Orchard Road” for his dominance in Singapore’s prime shopping district. His shopping centres also boasted a number of firsts – Far East Shopping Centre was the first mall in Singapore to feature an atrium and external escalators, Lucky Plaza was the talk of the town with its see-through bubble lifts, and Far East Plaza offered serviced apartments besides its retail facilities. Ng’s sense of timing proved to be astute – when Far East Plaza first opened for bookings, all 114 shops were snapped up within two hours.
By the 1980s, FEO was reckoned to be the largest private landowner and developer in Singapore, having completed an estimated one-fifth of all private residences on the island. FEO also possessed a sizable land bank, and gained a reputation for its “buy-high-sell-high” strategy that saw it through a number of property downturns. Ng also had property investments in China, Malaysia and Taiwan, including bargain buys in Chinese cities after the Tiananmen crisis in 1989.
After handing day-to-day control of FEO and the Sino Group to his sons Phillip and Robert in the 1990s, Ng continued to oversee his property empire’s strategic direction. He reportedly flew in from Singapore to visit Robert in Hong Kong every week, and was personally present to bid at land auctions. Ng also hit the headlines in 1995 as he won the takeover battle for the Yeo Hiap Seng (YHS) company, fending off interest from Malaysian tycoon Quek Leng Chan. YHS was well-known for its beverage business but also possessed plots of land awaiting development.
In 2001, Ng’s family’s net worth was estimated at around US$3.5 billion but by 2007, after a property boom, this had swelled to US$6.7 billion. This brought him to the top of the Forbes magazine list of Singapore’s richest people. Ng remained at the top of the list until his passing in 2010, his wealth having increased the year before to US$8 billion.
Personality and business style
Ng was known for regularly working 18-hour days, and there are stories of him bringing a penlight into movie theatres while on dates with his wife so that he could read property reports. He was also known for extensively researching potential acquisitions, both calculating their potential on paper and visiting sites regularly.
Despite his great wealth, Ng displayed a number of frugal traits. He reportedly eschewed a briefcase, carrying his work papers in a plastic bag instead. Ng did spend on interests like racehorses – his Lucky Stable produced several champion horses – and automobiles, with a newspaper report once publishing a photograph of the garage at Ng’s Watten Estate home containing at least five Rolls Royce limousines.
On 23 January 2010, Ng suffered a cerebral haemorrhage after a fall at home. He underwent surgery but remained in a coma and eventually passed away on 2 February 2010. His funeral was attended by over 500 people including business leaders, politicians and employees. On the day of his funeral, as a tribute to his accomplishments, his cortege passed Far East Plaza and Lucky Plaza, two of his iconic developments on Orchard Road. He was buried in the Choa Chu Kang Christian cemetery.
Wife: Tan Kim Choo
Children: Of his 7 children, Ng’s two eldest sons Robert Ng Chee Siong and Philip Ng Chee Tat head the Sino Group in Hong Kong and Far East in Singapore respectively.
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The information in this article is valid as at 2010 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
Ng Teng Fong, 1928-2010
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