Corporate Histories

Amongst Singapore’s government-linked companies, there is much interesting corporate histories that is worth exploring, understanding and appreciating. I wonder why we don’t document this things more, and to learn lessons from them. Sometimes it could be because we think the past is not relevant, or that we don’t want to seem like we are digging into ‘mistakes’ made by CEOs. But I think we are missing great stories and lessons by shying away from these.

Sembcorp is one of the companies I have been looking at for a while. Today, they are a sustainability solutions company with business across Europe (UK), Middle East, India, China and Southeast Asia; focused on Energy, Water & Wastewater, as well as development of industrial parks (China, Vietnam and Indonesia).

It is interesting to note that just a couple of years back, they also do have businesses in South Africa, Chile and Panama – mainly water concessions where they were basically retailing municipal water to ordinary people and businesses. These businesses were divested in a bid to focus.

But this idea of focusing is not new to Sembcorp. When it was formed in 1998, it was actually from the merger of Singapore Technologies Industrial Corp (STIC) and Sembawang Corporation. At that point, the newly formed company had businesses in the area of infrastructure, marine engineering, information technology, and lifestyle. It was a proper conglomerate, a popular sort of business structure in Asia and also early days of nation-building. Network, capital and influence all comes together to allow businesses to be built and expanded.

It might be unthinkable this day but in the early 2000s, Sembcorp actually entered the waste management business in Singapore (which it is still involved in), on top of owning the Sembcorp Marine business, Sembcorp Utilities with the various utilities plants in Batam, Jurong Island. It also owned Pacific Internet (one of the first Internet Service Provider in Singapore), the Delifrance franchise in Singapore, Sembcorp Logistics (subsequently acquired and rebranded by Toll Logistics). You can see what’s with the lifestyle as well as the information technology involvement they had.

My personal favourite in terms of the random mix of business that Sembcorp was, is their full ownership of the Singapore Mint (which continues till today). It wasn’t super clear to me how Singapore Mint which was started by Dr Goh Keng Swee in 1968 ended up in the hands of Sembcorp. This probably warrants a separate article itself but I speculate that it came through ST’s acquisition of Chartered Industries of Singapore (which held Singapore Mint). So ST must have structured Singapore Mint into STIC when it merged with Sembawang Corporation resulting in it residing with Sembcorp.

So what if we know all of these history of corporations? I think it is important to recognise that corporate histories have an impact on the company’s culture, identity, and the complexity. In fact, it probably is extremely complex from a human resource point of view with non-uniform salary scales and all kinds of standards or protocols which are not rationalised. After all, when you’re dabbling with so many different industries, you can always trot out arguments about having to compete in the different spaces. These nuances also help us appreciate Singapore’s nation-building efforts and subsequent impact on local capabilities better.