Oct 5, 2008

me & my money

She's one cool customer

Market dips don't scare Savills director who believes in long-term investments

By Lorna Tan, Finance Correspondent

Ms Sulian Tan-Wijaya, 43, who has just been appointed senior director of retail and lifestyle at property consultant Savills, with her son Andre, 14, and daughter Silvana, 15. -- PHOTO: JOSEPH NAIR FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

When markets turn bearish, it is usually the customer who is nervous and the fund manager who tries to keep the client calm.

But the tables were turned in 1989, recalled Ms Sulian Tan-Wijaya, 43.

'I was 24 then and I had given a substantial sum of money, a six-digit figure pooled from family members, to a fund manager to invest in,' she said.

'The market turned and it lost 40 per cent overnight. I told him to stay calm and not to call me again until my investment broke even. He called me 13 months later, when the portfolio was up 10 per cent, and I switched banks after that.'

It no doubt helped that she herself was in the financial world then, working in corporate banking at the Standard Chartered (Stanchart) Bank in Indonesia.

This 'grace under pressure' was something she learnt during her nine years working at Stanchart in Jakarta and Medan before she returned to Singapore.

From a young age, the Singaporean learnt to enjoy the freedom that financial independence brings.

A law graduate from the National University of Singapore, she earned her keep during her undergraduate days by modelling for Carrie Models as well as being a TV host and a deejay at the former Rumours disco in Orchard Road. 'The money was good and paid for my taxi rides, clothes and the vinyl collection I had as a deejay,' she said.

Ms Tan-Wijaya joined property consultant Savills as its senior director, retail and lifestyle, last Thursday. Before that, she was general manager of the Fullerton waterfront properties owned by Sino Land, the Hong Kong-based sister company of property giant Far East Organization, for 13 months.

Right after she was called to the Bar, she joined HSBC Singapore as she realised she liked dealing in numbers. After a year, she crossed over to Stanchart Indonesia.

When she returned to Singapore, she worked in several jobs, including as a director at the Singapore Tourism Board and general manager of Wisma Atria and Capital Square.

She is married to an Indonesian businessman who prefers to keep a low profile. They have two children - son Andre, 14, and daughter Silvana, 15. A regular on the party circuit here, she is frequently featured in society magazines.

Q: What are your money habits?

It is difficult to keep track when you are invested in properties and have two teenage kids to support. They are at a high-maintenance age and are more particular than I am about what they wear. I also contribute regularly to my church and some children's charities. Overall, I am comfortable because I am not highly leveraged, and I do not take any car loans.

Q: What financial planning have you done for yourself?

My portfolio consists of 30 per cent cash, 10 per cent bonds, 10 per cent in equities and unit trusts, 40 per cent in properties and the balance in insurance. My unit trusts are mostly in Asian and global equities, blue chips as well as bond funds. Citibank has some good unit trusts managed by top investment banks, which pay good dividends too.

I do not spend enough time tracking my gains and losses. Thankfully, I have helpful bank relationship managers who occasionally update me on the performance of the funds I invest in.

I usually pick up unit trusts and selected stocks after the market corrects or after a major downturn like the Asian financial crisis or the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. For more conservative investments, I go for bond funds and single-premium insurance policies which pay slightly higher interest rates than deposits.

During the 1990s, I also bought a few endowment policies which are like 'forced' savings plans and they pay rather decent returns. Recently, I bought some Pinnacle Series Equity-Linked Notes and SG Phoenix Series 16 Notes.

My annual investment returns have averaged 20 per cent including fluctuations and corrections.

Q: What is your investment philosophy?

I am generally a long-term investor and I seldom trade, partly because I cannot afford the time to trade. Once I lock in an investment, I tend to put it aside for years, so it can go through cycles of ups and downs and I do not really mind, because ultimately they do tend to trend up.

In my younger days, I was much more aggressive and opportunistic, more active and did many short-term stock and currency trades.

Q: Any other investments?

In the late 1990s, I bought two residential properties - a maisonette and a two-bedroom condominium unit in district 11 - one of which is rented out.

I also own some 10 watches which were bought a few years ago when I used to collect them. The watches have appreciated in value as they are mainly classic models of more well-known brands such as Cartier, Bvlgari, Franck Muller, Rolex, Chopard and Patek.

Q: Moneywise, what were your growing-up years like?

My dad, a senior civil servant, and my mother, a pharmacist, had always instilled in me and my younger sister (investment banker Tan Su Shan) the importance of being financially independent and the need to invest in properties. I grew up living in a semi-detached house in Upper Thomson and later in Bukit Timah.

When I was an undergraduate, I worked part-time as a television host, deejay and model. I also played in a rock band but did not find enough time to perform professionally. My parents never gave me credit cards. I paid for my own driving lessons and my first car, a Volvo 960, in Indonesia.

It was tough, but I am very grateful to my parents for letting me learn about money the hard way. It also made me realise that I can rely on music to make a living if I have to.

Q: How did you get interested in investing?

After graduating from law school and passing my bar exams, I went straight to banking and became very fascinated with investments.

Q: Your best investment to date?

When I was working in Indonesia, I sold my rupiah for US dollars during the start of the Asian financial crisis in 1997 against everybody's advice. The next day, the rupiah started to free-fall. It plunged from 3,000 rupiah to US$1 to 20,000 rupiah to US$1 during that period. It was quite a challenging time for investors as nobody could predict investment trends.

Q: What is your retirement plan?

I am trying to earn and save as much as I can now, for a more comfortable retirement. I think I will be quite a simple retiree, spending most of my time in the country club gym, watching movies and just spending time with the family. And the occasional travelling, of course.

Q: And your home now is...?

A semi-detached house in Bukit Timah.

Q: And your car is...?

An amethyst BMW 5 - great for chauffeuring my kids around.

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