How ex-SGX chief regulatory officer is shaping the finance industry in the Middle East

If the eyes are the windows to one’s soul, Richard Teng’s lively gaze is not about to betray his state of mind. In fact, his bright complexion is seemingly exemplary of a good night’s rest. Truth is, he’s slept only four hours and has been up since 2.30am.

Blame jet lag. Over these two weeks, the chief executive of the Abu Dhabi Global Market’s (ADGM) Financial Services Regulatory Authority has made six brief stops in territories from the Middle East across the Atlantic and then to the Far East, before returning to Abu Dhabi where he is based.

Teng, who has just commenced his second term, does a similar travel schedule at least once a month, and dismisses any fuss made about his ability to keep up with the hustle.

“Many corporates do the same, if not more frequently. But if I ask you to repeat a question, you’d know I’d zoned off,” the 48-year-old says with a chortle, and sips his latte. It’s his second cup of joe – his daily quota is four.

“I try to follow the new time zone as quickly as I can. It takes a day or two, but, sometimes, you don’t have that luxury of time.”

The last three years have been a whirlwind for Teng, who’s the first Singaporean to set up and helm an overseas regulator and financial centre. He was handpicked to establish ADGM as part of Abu Dhabi’s aggressive diversification away from petrochemicals – the non-oil sector now contributes more than half of the capital’s GDP.

ADGM, which was named Financial Centre of the Year (Mena) last year for a second year running by leading financial publication Global Investor/ISF, is also on track to becoming the region’s largest asset management hub in the next two years.

That an Asian – and Singaporean to boot – has been tasked is no coincidence. Abu Dhabi and the region have their eyes on the talk of the town: China’s mammoth Belt and Road Initiative.

He says: “Many government officials I meet are surprised that an Asian is heading Abu Dhabi’s regulator. It shows that the Middle East understands the importance of Asia. They want to engage and connect with Asia to tap on growth opportunities.

“I’ve benefited from the Singapore brand story and my past associations. I’m really an extension of this brand. I think we bring with us a certain professionalism and being best in class. Many countries are looking to emulate Singapore’s success.”

To do that, Abu Dhabi sought one of Singapore’s own, who was involved in the latter’s own metamorphosis into a global financial powerhouse.

Training ground

The timing could not have been any better. Fresh out of Nanyang Technological University with first-class honours in accountancy, Teng joined the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) in 1994 – right in the thick of the nation’s internationalisation and diversification of its financial services industry.

During his 13 years at MAS, where he rose to become director of corporate finance, he was part of the team that kick-started initiatives such as GIC/Temasek providing capital to encourage the growth of the asset/fund management scene, consolidating local banks, opening up the banking sector to international players and building the private banking sector, and merging Singapore International Monetary Exchange, Securities Clearing and Computer Services and Singapore Stock Exchange to become present-day Singapore Exchange (SGX).

He was posted to New York where he spent two years setting up an MAS outpost to promote Singapore as a financial centre in overseas markets.

“I’ve been very fortunate to have been part of that transformation journey. Those were exciting times: the adrenalin rush, rolling out new efforts and initiatives,” Teng recalls.

He left MAS in 2007 for SGX where he became chief regulatory officer in 2014. At the bourse operator, he established a direct listing framework for Chinese companies, introduced a regulatory framework for secondary listings and augmented safeguards in the stock market.

Yet, less than a year after assuming the role of chief regulator, he quit. Abu Dhabi had come calling and it was an opportunity that was too alluring.

“I’ve seen how Singapore has benefited so greatly from these initiatives, something I was able to be a part of. The opportunity to create a new financial centre that creates value for that region and financial intermediation to support the real economy to bring about the betterment of lives – that really excites me,” says Teng, who beat top dogs from Europe, the US, the UK and Hong Kong to clinch the hot seat.

“Since I’ve been given another chance to do it, why not? Sounds fun, if you get it right. It will have my fingerprints all over it by the time I leave.”

CHART-TOPPER

Forty-five minutes into this interview, and the effects of caffeine are starting to wane. Teng, who’s dressed casually in a T-shirt and jeans, shifts more frequently in his plush armchair, but he’s determined to keep the conversation lively with animated gestures.

And, no, he has not asked for a question to be repeated.

Being on the road so frequently can be tough, even for the seasoned traveller.

Teng, who’s due in Japan and China the following day before returning to Abu Dhabi after living out of a suitcase for two weeks, recalls ruefully a recent trip to San Francisco where he spent nearly half of the 16-hour flight vomiting.

He relies on a daily dose of vitamin C, and does yoga and Hiit workouts at least four times a week to keep fit.

“I try not to fall ill during travels. And to fend off sleep, just don’t go back to the hotel room until it’s time for bed,” he says with a chuckle. Which will explain why he is heading straight to lunch with an old friend right after this interview.

Teng has tirelessly promoted ADGM on the global stage, creating many firsts for the region, including a private real-estate investment-trust regime, a calibrated venture-capital framework for fund managers to facilitate seed and early-stage investments, and an aviation financing scheme, which makes sense since the region is home to three of the world’s top commercial airlines – Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways.

This year will see the opening of International Chamber of Commerce’s first Middle East representative office, a move that will bolster Abu Dhabi’s legal infrastructure and its greater economy. So to say that he’s having “a go at it” would be an understatement.

To date, ADGM has over 800 registered companies whose combined assets under management are over US$5 billion (S$6.6 billion).

Last year, the capital was listed as the world’s top 25 financial centres by the reputable Global Financial Centres Index report.

The latest coup it’s set to score is Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, the world’s third largest sovereign wealth fund, which announced plans last month to establish a presence in ADGM.

TO SCORE BIG, GO LOCAL

It is a textbook tale of success through hard work.

“I always say that we’re a regulatory start-up and we know the pain of start-ups. The first year was tough. We were often asked, ‘Who are you? What is ADGM? Never heard of you.’ We spent a lot of time explaining our dual roles as regulator and financial-centre developer. You have to be thick-skinned to field all sorts of questions and doubts. Now, people ask why we weren’t set up earlier.”

“The most effective way to do business is through local knowledge. Who are key local partners? What are the rules, regulations and processes? How do you approach things in a fashion that helps you open the right doors in the local environment? You need to be in right networks to open the right doors, in order to speak to the right party to get things done.”

Once regarded with scepticism, the new kid on the block is setting trends in the region. It embraced fintech when no one else did and set up the first regulatory regime and first regulatory laboratory in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) to encourage innovation within the UAE financial services market.

To this end, it has partnered Silicon Valley tech accelerator Plug and Play, whose past investments include Google, Paypal and Dropbox, so that the firm’s portfolio of fintech start-ups can connect with regional and local financial institutions.

Given that the Middle East and Africa combined will account for more than half of world’s population by 2050, he is readying the capital and indeed Mena to meet the impending demand for more financial services.

“Prosper thy neighbourhood so it will look more attractive to others,” he says.

“What we do is not just for Abu Dhabi’s benefit, but also for the region.”

The homeboy hasn’t forgotten Singapore. When ADGM – named top fintech hub in Mena by Deloitte last year – was looking to increase collaboration with other fintech hubs, the first MOU it signed was with MAS.

“We’re looking to do more with Singapore. As a Singaporean, I’m always looking at ways to benefit both countries,” says Teng, who’s frequently asked to share his knowledge with Latin American regulators and at global fintech conferences.

More than 10 fintech MOUs have since been signed with territories such as Australia, France, Hong Kong, China and Kenya.

HOME SWEET HOME

The deal-maker in him relishes the rush and gratification of ADGM’s achievements, and the Abu Dhabi government must be pleased with his work. But he reckons the next three years would be his last in Abu Dhabi.

His wife, who manages a family office, daughter, 19, and son, 13, live in Singapore. The couple did not want to disrupt the kids’ education by relocating to Abu Dhabi.

“My family needs me. It’s a sacrifice for them. When my boy went through his PSLE last year, I felt guilty about not being with him,” says Teng, who tries to be back home once a month and Skypes with them daily.

The precedent he’s set – and the ensuing pressure – has not lost its significance on him, even if he claims “I just do the best I can”.

“I’m best judged by stakeholders and board members in terms of what I’ve done for them. As long as we’ve managed to create a credible regulatory framework and jurisdiction such that institutional investors are willing to participate, and support financial intermediation and infrastructure needs of the region, I think we’ve succeeded in what we’re doing.

“We’re all flying the Singapore flag in our own small way.”

REST AND RELAX: HOW A FREQUENT FLYER STAYS FIT

Teng got into Bikram Yoga five years ago, after his knees hurt from years of running. The first session was a dizzying nightmare. Fifteen minutes into a 90-minute session, he felt nauseous and breathless.

“The instructor refused to let me leave the 40 deg C room. It was miserable,” Teng recalls with a chuckle.

“I didn’t realise that you had to take long, shallow breaths, which was totally different from running. Yoga is about controlling breathing and heart rate. So my heart rate must have gone through the roof while I was trying to do the poses.”

Despite that, he’s kept up with the practice for its calming effect. “It helps me to relax after a long day. I can also train my core so I maintain a certain level of fitness.”

HIS GO-TO POSES

01 DOWNWARD-FACING DOG

“It is a foundation pose that provides deep stretch and gets the body ready for more challenging poses.”

02 LORD OF THE DANCE

“This requires balance and symmetry. It is a great stretch and improves posture.”

03 SUPPORTED HEADSTAND

“Doing this works on the core, strengthens the body and helps to achieve proper alignment. It calms me as a lot of focus goes into controlling my breathing and being conscious of the slightest body movement.”

WHAT THE PRIME MINISTER TAUGHT ME

During his time at MAS and SGX, Teng worked for and with Singapore’s top government and business leaders, including PM Lee Hsien Loong, DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Minister of Finance Heng Swee Keat, Teo Swee Lian, Tan Kim Kway, Yeo Lian Sim, Magnus Bocker, Hsieh Fu Hua and Gan Seow Ann. Here, his takeaways.

MENTOR THE NEXT GEN

“Despite their busy schedules, they always have time if you need help. They are always willing to impart knowledge and they want to help others succeed. They also set aside time to check on the well-being of their key people, even if they are no longer working for them directly. We need to invest in our future talent to make sure that the next generation is better than the present.”

CLARITY

“The leaders I have worked with exhibit clarity of vision and purpose, have the ability to articulate them and are fully committed to achieving them.”

ABILITY TO ADAPT

“They also demonstrate the ability to adapt their approaches to take into account rapidly changing circumstances, without losing sight of the goal.”

TIRELESS

“There is a sparkle in the eye and fire in the belly, regardless of age. They are generating new ideas, thinking out of the box, connecting dots and making things happen. They are always thinking of what’s next and planning ahead.”

This article was first published on The Peak's website on May 1, 2018.