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Singapore Airlines CEO won the battle but lost the war

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It is akin to winning the battle but losing the war. Current chief executive of Singapore Airlines, Goh Choon Phong, got the top job after upstaging his former boss, Bey Soo Khiang in a four-horse race back in 2011. Bey was the former Chief of Defence Force of Singapore and having lost to his subordinate, resigned promptly from the national carrier.

Goh Choon Phong is the The Chosen One, thats for sure. But whether he is The Special One to take Singapore Airlines to another level is another question altogether. Make no mistake, this is Singapore Airlines we are talking about, the pride of our nation. For someone to lead the company, he must be distinctly special to take on the monstrous task of handling the world top airline. Ideally, he must be someone who possesses that magic to lead and return Singapore Airlines to former glory.

Recent incidents involving the credit card surcharge and insurance fiascos indicated that Goh Choon Phong may lack this unique ability.

Singapore Airlines

The Chosen One

On looking back, the decision by the board of Singapore Airlines to appoint Goh Choon Phong as the chief executive was correct. You would need someone with strong understanding of the core business to handle the nature of the job. Goh fits that bill, though parent company, Temasek Holdings may share different views.

In 2011, Ng Yat Chung, also another former Chief of Defence Force of Singapore, was appointed as the CEO of Neptune Orient Lines (NOL). And then in 2012, Desmond Kuek, yet another former Chief of Defence of Singapore, was appointed as the CEO of SMRT.

Singapore Airlines, NOL and SMRT are all transport companies if you think carefully about it. Thus, it is not difficult to second-guess what those higher powers in Temasek Holdings had in mind when the position of CEO of Singapore Airlines was up for grab. Temasek Holdings is the parent company of Singapore Airlines.

On hindsight, it is a blessing that a former army chief did not lead Singapore Airlines. Under Ng Yat Chung, Singapore’s shipping carrier, NOL suffered from years of losses and was sold to French giant, CMA CGM in 2017. But what riled many Singaporeans was that the French shipping company managed to turnover NOL and made it profitable within a year. Under Desmond Kwek, SMRT was plagued with numerous operational issues that it was delisted from SGX. To be frank, I am surprised that Desmond Kwek refused to resign as CEO.

Widely considered by many to be a dark horse, Goh Choon Phong was never in the race. The public perception was that Bey Soo Khiang was shoe-in for the job. After all, he was Goh’s boss and the Temasek Holdings’ culture of dispatching army chiefs to head strategic assets certainly reinforced public perception.

But perhaps the board of Singapore Airlines had someone else already in mind and had planted Goh as the successor under Bey. Suffice to say, the upset proved too much for the former army chief to take. He was left with no choice but to resign “to pursue other interests”. In life, the higher you climb, the harder you fall. Bey paid a heavy political price for losing the battle. But then again, he had his fair share of ride in Singapore Airlines.

Singapore Airlines

Wind of Changes

To be fair to Goh Choon Phong, when he took over from former CEO Chew Choon Seng in 2011, Singapore Airlines was not exactly in a good shape. Once the world number one airline, our national carrier has lost that bragging rights to Qatar Airways and other Middle East carriers in recent years. Suddenly, our national carrier lost that aura of invincibility and the brand, “Singapore Girl” becomes no longer so prestigious among consumers.

Chew Choon Seng ended his tenure as CEO with the entry-in-service of super jumbo aircraft, the A380. Being the first nation to fly the A380, Chew’s legacy had been cemented forever among many Singaporeans. But in my opinion, during the latter stage of his tenure, he took things for granted and allowed the Gulf carriers to catch up on Singapore Airlines.

Perhaps the stress of managing Singapore Airlines over the difficult period of SARS in 2003 had taken a toil on Chew. Perhaps the emergence of low cost carrier had knocked the wind out of SIA Group. Whatever the case it was, Chew did not seem to foresee the threat of the Middle East and Chinese carriers. This oversight subsequently created a mountain too high for the younger Goh to overcome.

At that point of time, the market trend had already changed. With fuel cost hitting USD100 per barrel, flying a four-engine aircraft like A380 was suicidal in terms of operational cost.  Even though the aircraft has capacity to address lucrative market, when demand fell below supply, Singapore Airlines would likely to suffer losses. When Goh took over as CEO, the damage was already done.

Return of the King

It has been seven years since Goh Choon Phong took over as CEO and I do think it is time to judge his performance. In my opinion, his performance has been mixed. There were hits and misses of course. Goh’s biggest achievement should be [This is a premium article. The rest of the content is blocked and can be accessible by SG Wealth Builder Members only. To read the full content, please sign up as member.]

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Updated: March 6, 2018 — 1:05 am


Add a Comment
  1. Interesting read, lots of food for thought.

    What do you think will be required for SIA to turn things around? At the premium end there is competition from middle East carriers, and at the budget end the budget carriers are here to stay. How can SIA stay competitive and retain market share?

  2. Hi Financial Horse,

    Thank you for your comments.
    My response is in the rest of the protected content. You may want to join as member to read the full article.


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