1. Founder of The Silent Foundation, which is backed by a $50 million endowment fund.
2. Helps “silent sufferers” who are overlooked by society.
3. Supports environmental, welfare and under-theradar social causes.
4. Supported an eco-school project in western Mongolia with World Wildlife Fund, which will be expanded nationally.
5. Also founder of Target Asset Management.
Teng Ngiek Lian is brimming with energy when we meet for this interview. That buzz is from a seven-day trip to Papua New Guinea to assess a potential project with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), even as he recalls struggling through jungles and battling mosquitoes every night in the little hut he slept in.
But such a hands-on approach has been the feisty 66-year-old’s modus operandi since he started The Silent Foundation six years ago. Despite the personal discomforts, Teng, whose boutique fund manager Target Asset Management has about US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion) in assets under management, says his sojourn empowered him with first-hand knowledge of how locals lived.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Because why are we here in this world? There must be a purpose.” That was what he asked himself as he crossed his 60th birthday. “I asked myself, what is this life all about? I didn’t come from a well-to-do family so I wanted to make a lot of money. A lot of people helped me along the way.”
“But then I realised that life is not about accumulating wealth alone. Being able to redistribute wealth is a greater privilege.” So he set up the foundation to focus on “overlooked” causes and look after those “unloved” by society.
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Teng knows what it means to be an underdog. Born in Terengganu, Malaysia, he funded his own higher education by working as a bookkeeper by day and studying at night to qualify as a certified chartered accountant. He worked his way up to become the managing director at Morgan Grenfell Investment Management Asia and at UBS Asset Management (East Asia), before setting up Target Asset Management in 1996.
Teng’s family has donated $50 million to the foundation’s endowment fund, which supports various causes including environmental and animal. He’s also initiated The Silent Minority Compassionate Bursary, which offers children from minority races financial assistance to complete their education, in the event of a catastrophe like the death of the sole breadwinner. The foundation also supports the Malay Heritage Centre to promote Malay culture. “It’s very important that as we progress, we do not lose our culture; that we still know who we are.”
Teng, who is now a Singaporean and spends 20 per cent of his time developing the foundation, says it has entered its second growth phase, where it aims to do more in South-east Asia, including humanitarian support, and the conservation of environment and animals.
“I want to be impactful. This money is not easily earned. It’s not meant to be casually used.”
Last year, it partnered WWF to support an eco-school in western Mongolia to champion the endemic snow leopards. Locals are educated on how activities such as hunting, competition from increasing livestock herds and habitat loss are forcing these predators to prey on their livestock for food; that they can avoid conflict by leading them to graze in other locations that are not the habitat of snow leopards. Plans are now afoot to expand the project nationally.
The project also reflects Teng’s far-reaching perspective when it comes to impactful giving. “Mongolians are herders and nomads. Their animals are being eaten by snow leopards, which is why they trap them. You have to help the locals overcome problems of livelihood and give them a solution. If you cannot solve their problems, you cannot protect the environment. That’s why eco-tourism is important. An eco-school helps to create advocacy and awareness.”
Such wisdom is perhaps the fruit of Teng’s professional experience. “A fund manager has to be very strategic because there are so many companies to invest in. Philanthropy is similar. To be impactful, you have to think through how to do it, who to do it with, and guidelines, so money’s not wasted.”
Teng’s long-term concern is The Silent Foundation’s sustainability, whether it is headed by his family or others who share his goals. That is also why it doesn’t bear the family name. “It was started with passion and can continue with my son’s passion. But its longevity depends on whether one can institutionalise it. Hopefully, we can inspire other people to continue.”
In 60 Seconds
The one thing I hope the next generation can learn from my work is: To think about the purpose of life, before they even start their journey.
My greatest weakness is: Impatience. I like to get things done very quickly.
The last time I laughed out loud was: At this interview! Iʼm a very expressive person, whether Iʼm happy or sad.