It Changed My Life

It Changed My Life: Grades do not equal talent, says Danny Yong, one of Singapore's richest men

Look beyond grades and be open-minded when hiring, hedge fund founder urges bosses

American author Daniel Handler - under the pen name Lemony Snicket - wrote a series of dark children's novels called A Series Of Unfortunate Events.

If Mr Danny Yong were to chronicle his rise from poor boy to millionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist, he would probably call it A Series Of Fortunate Events instead.

Luck and Serendipity were always present at critical junctures in his life. They nudged him down the right paths, intervened to make sure he made the right education and career choices, and even saved his neck on more than one occasion.

In fact, the founder of hedge fund firm Dymon Asia says he owes his very existence - his mother wanted to abort him during Singapore's two-is-enough era - to Fate.

The 47-year-old has more than made good. In 2017, he was placed 47th in Forbes' list of the 50 richest people in Singapore.

To show gratitude for his good fortune, he has decided to give back to society. In memory of his late father who died when Mr Yong was 10, he set up the Yong Hon Kong Foundation, which has donated millions to charitable causes.

Together with former Singapore Exchange chief executive Hsieh Fu Hua, he has also set up The Majurity Trust, a charity which provides philanthropic advice and grants, and creates solutions to tackle social issues.

The trust has launched several initiatives including Ray of Hope, a fund-raising platform for donors to help Singaporeans who have fallen through the cracks.

"Singaporeans can and should help one another more and stop relying on the Government to do everything," he says.

Then there is Tangent, a social enterprise which champions more enlightened hiring practices instead of one which prizes only good grades.

This initiative is especially close to his heart.

"Grades are not the best way to find traits like hunger, adaptability, resilience and EQ. Those skills tend to be honed by the University of Life."

Amiable and articulate, the youngest of three children of a store supervisor and a nurse was born in 1972, the year that Singapore introduced the now defunct two-child family planning policy.

His mother wanted to abort him, but in those days, pregnant women seeking abortion needed to get approval from the Termination of Pregnancy Authorisation Board. Her request was rejected by the board, which was terminated only in 1974.

"From day one, I was lucky to be around," says Mr Yong with a grin.

Left to his own devices because both his parents worked, he developed a strong streak of independence from a young age.

"I had the freedom to just roam the streets. I'd often cycle to MacRitchie Reservoir from my home near Thomson Plaza. I was once nearly hit by a truck," says the former student of St Michael's Primary and St Joseph's Institution (SJI).

When he was 10, his father died from cancer.

"I still remember vividly my mother sitting me down in the kitchen and telling me: 'Don't let anyone look down on you even though you don't have a father'," he says.

He reckons his father's death galvanised him to work and push himself harder, although that resolve did not kick in until several years later. Breaking into a laugh, he lets on that he nearly "signed up" with a gang when he was in Secondary 2.

"Maybe my hormones were raging and there was some macho bullsh*t going on, but I went along with my classmate who wanted to join a gang." But on the day they were supposed to be initiated, his friend was told that he had offended a senior gang member and that the secret society no longer welcomed him as a member.

"Because he was rejected, I was rejected too," says Mr Yong, who has wondered how his life would have turned out if Fate had not nudged him back on the right path.

At 15, he "woke up" and heeded his mother's words.

"I also wanted to be rich. My mother went through the Japanese Occupation and was very poor and she always wanted us to make a decent living when we grew up. While we were not dirt poor and lived comfortably on her wages as a nurse at KK Hospital, financial security was something I wanted for myself and my family."

His strategy? To be good at everything he does.

Not only did he ace his studies, he also did well in sports, making the national badminton team when he was 17 and studying at Catholic Junior College. There was, however, no career plan.

"My ambitions kept changing. Because I was good in physics and chemistry, I once thought about becoming a genetic engineer, but I couldn't think of any genetic engineers who were rich," he recalls, grinning.

During his national service, he applied for and got an overseas scholarship from the Singapore Navy, which paid not only the fees for a university education in England, but also came with a generous monthly allowance.

Again, Fate intervened.

"On the day I was supposed to sign on the dotted line, my mother told me to phone my uncle who was a sailor. I told her: 'Mum, this is the Navy. Uncle is just a sailor.' But she said: 'Just give him a call and ask what he thinks.' It was probably the last time I listened to my mother as a 19-year-old, but I did what she asked," he says.

That call altered his destiny. His uncle told him his active disposition might not take to being at sea for weeks on end.

"Somehow, he injected enough doubt and I got cold feet."

Instead, he ended up studying business at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), a decision influenced by a platoon mate.

"I was from the Science stream and didn't even study economics, but he said it didn't matter," he says. His drive to excel saw him graduating with first class honours in 1996.

One of his professors from NTU got him a job in the finance engineering department of DBS when he graduated.

He stayed for a year before quitting to apply for the position of Asian currency derivatives trainee at JP Morgan.

The position attracted more than 1,000 applications. Along with 899 others, his application ended on the reject pile.

A bored trader at the American investment bank, however, changed his life.

Rifling through the 900 rejections, he chanced upon Mr Yong's applications and asked why the first class honours graduate was not deemed a worthy candidate.

"So I became candidate 101. And then one of the final three," says Mr Yong, who snagged the coveted position. "I thought I got the job because of my first class honours until one day, the guy came over and said: 'You owe me your job.' He told the story. My jaw dropped. It was serendipity."

His early days at JP Morgan were humbling.

"I thought I had bitten off more than I could chew. I had first class honours but didn't know what my colleagues were talking about. When we met for beer, I felt like the dumbest guy in the room."

But he learnt quickly. In fact, he thrived while some of his peers - including graduates from Ivy League institutions like Harvard and Wharton - crashed out.

"Hand to heart, 96 per cent of what you learn is on the job," he says.

It explains why he is so passionate about Tangent. Beyond grades and experience, he believes that what a person's life experiences and what he learns from the University of Life are equally important.

"These are things that form your character."

But more about that later.

In his first year at JP Morgan, he also nearly died. He was goalkeeper in a friendly football match with another financial institution.

"I ran to catch the ball and this guy came and kicked me in the face," says Mr Yong who suffered multiple fractures in the face and a blood clot in the brain.

He went through eight hours of brain and plastic surgery. The surgeon told him he needed at least six months to recover, but he was back at work within two weeks.

"I looked like the Elephant Man but I felt okay and my team was shorthanded."

Over the next decade, his career flourished.

He spent six years with Goldman Sachs as Head of Trading for South-east Asian FX and derivatives in its Hong Kong and Tokyo offices.

He was also a managing director at Citadel Investment Asia in Hong Kong where he set up and ran the Asia Macro trading business for two years until 2007.

After that he co-founded Abax Global Capital - a hedge fund based in Hong Kong - with several people including university classmate Keith Tan.

In 2008, the two friends co-founded Dymon Asia, which is now a leading Asia-focused alternative investment management firm.

Headquartered in Singapore, Dymon manages US$5 billion (S$6.8 billion) in assets, employs about 200 people and has offices in the United Kingdom, Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong and Japan.

"We hope to become one of the largest and best managers of alternative investments," he says.

Professionally, he has seen much turbulence - the dot-com crash and the Lehman Brothers debacle for instance - in the last two decades.

"It has affected how we run the business and how I think. You have to believe anything and everything can happen and will keep happening. You have to be fleet-footed."

Candidly, he lets on that he started out as a capitalist, but over the years, has become more socialist. "The world is not entirely fair. I've lucked out, but it doesn't mean that the person who is less successful is any less capable than me."

About 10 years ago, he decided he has to "help others" but not by merely writing cheques.

Having decided he does not have the patience to be a public servant, he decided he would "make money from the markets and use it to effect positive social change".

He started a foundation in his father's honour. Among other initiatives, the Yong Hon Kong Foundation provides scholarships to SJI students from single-parent families.

"Growing up, I'd felt insecure because I didn't have a father. I'd sit with some of these kids and tell them I went through what they are going through. I think it could be a positive experience," says the entrepreneur who has three children from his first marriage and two stepchildren from his second marriage to a businesswoman turned housewife. The children are aged between eight and 15.

He broadened his charity efforts by setting up Ray of Hope in 2012, a fund-raising platform for donors to help needy Singaporeans.

By the end of this year, the charity would have raised more than $1 million to help Singaporeans in need.

"My focus is entirely on Singapore. Sure, there are poor people in neighbouring countries, but many fall through the cracks in Singapore and I want to help those."

The non-profit Tangent came about after a conversation he had with his cousins about what their children should study.

His conclusion? What matters is not what they study (after all, they will probably end up working in jobs that do not yet exist), but whether they have applicable skills.

"It's about being adaptable, being open to experimentation and being comfortable with failure. It's about being resourceful and resilient," he says.

Just as parents should change their mindsets and not focus on hothousing their children to get straight As, so should employers who, he feels, should look beyond grades, experience or age when they hire.

"We need creative risk-takers to work with our scientists and engineers to create good jobs for our future," he says. "We need to give street-smart and unconventional Singaporeans a chance at good jobs too."

Tangent's first pilot programme involved Dymon taking in eight wildly different characters as finance associates last year, including a candidate with a poly diploma and another with a PhD in chemistry. They were chosen from a pool of 1,200 applicants who took a sophisticated psychometric test which helped to determine their characteristics and their suitability for the job.

"They were given one year apprenticeships with no guarantees. If within that period, they find a role, they'd be offered a job. They started in August last year, and as of now, I can safely say the majority of them will be offered a permanent position."

This year, Tangent will be working with 10 organisations, including Virgin Active and EDB Singapore, to help them hire based on traits.

 
 

The irony that he - a first class honours graduate - is lobbying for employers to look beyond grades is not lost on him.

"I'm saying be open-minded. Talent comes in all shapes and sizes."

His hope is that one day, the majority of companies in Singapore will hire at least 10 to 20 per cent of their staff based on traits, and not grades or experience.

"Employers must hire differently, not because of corporate social responsibility or publicity. They must believe that diversity improves our chances of survival and ability to thrive.

He says: "Do it for your own self-preservation."

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