Elizabeth Sam is the first woman to sit on the board of a Big Four bank. She mingles with the world’s great financiers. She’s spotted at the chic-est parties in town. That’s the Elizabeth Sam the public knows. For the longest time, banking’s leading lady has zealously guarded her privacy. Now she gives Her World a glimpse of her that few ever see
From Elizabeth Sam’s seventh-floor office in Chulia Street, you get an all-encompassing view of Singapore. At the top float the grey glass and steel highrises; at the bottom, anchoring them, the orange-roofed lines of old shophouses neatly ranged against the river.
The view is very much like the woman herself. At 50, she has risen to the heights of her profession, not just in Singapore, but internationally. Yet this Versace-clad banker still lives in the same house where she grew up. She mingles with the world’s great financiers, yet she’s very Chinese in her devotion to her family’s privacy.
She’s the Deputy President of OCBC Bank, the first woman to win a seat on the board of a Big Four local bank. Last year, she received a National Day award (the Public Service Star) for her contributions to the development of Singapore’s financial sector. Euromoney, an international finance magazine based in Britain, voted her one of the top 50 women in finance worldwide. And yet in all her years of prominence, this is the first personal interview she has given.
There is nothing forbidding about Elizabeth Sam. She is perfectly coiffed (Kim Robinson of Le Salon Orient is responsible for the flattering bob) and groomed (she keeps her nail varnish and make-up to the seasons: darks for winter, pastels for spring). But she herself serves the cold drinks to visitors to her office. Could this be the woman who, in the 1970s as Chief Manager of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, faced down a meeting of irate rubber traders and won?
According to a long-time colleague, in the tumultuous meeting, Elizabeth was pushing through some monetary system changes vehemently opposed by the barons of the industry. As the men shouted, her voice became softer and quieter. By the end of the meeting, one major trader staggered out of the meeting and exclaimed, “Who was that? Was that a woman or man who bested me back there?”
One of the first women who graduated in economics from the University of Singapore, Elizabeth found the banks’ doors closed to women. She rebelled against the suggestion that she become a teacher. Instead, she turned to the Ministry of Finance where women were not only hired but encouraged to excel.
Having the weight and the authority of the Ministry behind her made men sit up and listen to the soft-spoken woman. What they might not have known then was that Elizabeth Sam is a woman who knows what she wants and how to get it. She always has and she always will.
Take, for instance, her first days at school. Because of the disruption of the war years, Elizabeth (maiden name: Elizabeth Wee Kim Choo) started school a year early with her elder sister. Too young, said the authorities, and sent her back home. But little Elizabeth disagreed and raised a ruckus until they took her back.
The fourth of five children, Elizabeth enjoyed going to the Singapore Chinese Girls School. She did her homework, liked folk dancing and her school head, the irrepressible Tan Sock Kern, and went to university. She wasn’t particularly social, but even then classmates could tell she would be a rising star.
“If you had two little girls, from identical backgrounds, growing up at the same time, what would make one of them Elizabeth Sam?” muses Jennie Chua, General Manager of Raffles Hotel, who knew her from their civil service days. “I would say that one becomes Elizabeth Sam because she could recognise opportunities and make the most of them.”
Except for the view, her office overlooking Boat Quay isn’t an office to impress. The settee and armchairs are in rose pink and silk. There is no power desk, with an empty polished surface, to intimidate. Instead, the rather ordinary desk – what can be seen of it – is covered with neat stacks of reports and periodicals.
There are two computers—a PC with the latest market reports and a sleek black laptop. The floor around her briefcase (Louis Vuitton signature canvas with a well-carried leather handle) is a maze of even more material. Even so, there on the desk is a small bowl of dark, full-blown roses.
“One thing you must know about Elizabeth Sam,” says Ong-Ang Ai Boon, Director of The Association of Banks in Singapore, and a colleague in their MAS days, “she has always been able to combine being a lady, being very feminine, and being so very professional. Male bankers are amazed that the powerful woman they’ve met is so feminine and fashionable.”
Elizabeth has definite ideas about clothes. While other bankers, male and female, retire behind the safety of grey suits, Elizabeth blazes forth in dark burgundy Versace—exquisitely cut, absolutely appropriate, but still, Versace. Another day it might be a flowing skirt and chiffon blouse paired with bright red Versace stiletto slides. Jennie Chua says that even when Elizabeth was in the civil service, she eschewed the safe blue suit in favour of what came to be known as Elizabeth Sam’s signature style.
Her image isn’t lost on the men she does business with. “She makes an impression,” says Goh Kian Chee, an old friend and a well-known consultant in stockbroking circles. He’s the son of former Finance Minister Goh Keng Swee. “When men are alone, they’ll talk about her fashion style. They like it.”
When she talks about clothes, her face glows. If she hadn’t been a banker? “I would have wanted to be something in fashion. But I would buy up all the clothes before I could ship them!”
She knows her designers, fabric and cut. She loves well-made things, the feel of a beautiful fabric. Shopping isn’t always buying – sometimes it’s just looking – but “on a bad day, it makes you feel better, on a good day, it’s a bonus.” She’s willing to put up with a certain amount of discomfort for a pair of stunning, oxblood red Versace heels (“A little hard to walk in”) and the matching bag (“A little too small for everyday”), but those shoes! That bag!
Part of Elizabeth’s legend is her high heels, her love for fine, un-banker-like clothing; the other part is her ability to get things done, to make deals happen, often with just a few phone calls. One remisier who works for her says, “With her connections, she can make just one call. And whatever it is she wants, happens.”
So what is it that Elizabeth Sam does with that one phone call? The simple answer: “She makes money for the bank.” Says a remisier: “One way to look at it is that there is hardly a single major financial decision made in Singapore that she doesn’t have a say in.” That’s because Elizabeth sits on many boards and committees that shape the direction of banking in Singapore, including B. G. Lee Hsien Loong’s banking committee.
“When you are very stressed, you must stop thinking about whatever it is, just turn it off,” she says. Her day starts around 9am, with meetings going on through lunch. More business is being done over lunch, rather than dinner. “It’s how you build the personal relationships you need in business.” But she still has a lot of evening functions, particularly with out-of-town visitors. Cocktail parties and dinner can account for two or three nights a week.
It was those job requirements that led young Elizabeth, divorced and with a baby, to head back to her parents’ home in the MacPherson neighbourhood. “I wanted Sherman to have a full family life, so I moved back home.” According to Sherman, she was home three or four nights a week. Even if she had to go to a dinner, she would try and get home to see him first. But it was Elizabeth’s mother who took him to the doctor: “I relied on my mother to do the mother things for Sherman.”
Sherman is a visual artist, and did his postgraduate degree in art history in the UK. It may seem strange that Singapore’s leading woman banker should have an artist son, but then look at their clothes: “I get my clothes sense from her,” he says.
Elizabeth’s taste for colour, line and “the sheer beauty of clothes” goes back even further, to her Peranakan mother. “Every Indonesian sarong seller knew my mother,” she says.
When Sherman was growing up, weekends were reserved for mother and son. Saturdays they would indulge in what is still her favourite pastime: Shopping. At 32, Sherman can still be persuaded to shop with his mum, even though they have wildly differing tastes. For a shopping expedition at one of Singapore’s finest boutiques, Elizabeth is “casually” dressed in a Gucci signature devore velvet shirt, black bootleg pants, silver and lucite slides and a silver leather bag. Sherman, on the other hand, is togged out in mountain boots, red and green socks, purple shorts and a faded tourist T-shirt. “She used to try to buy me nice clothes,” he says. “Now she just picks out the weirdest thing she can find and knows that I will like it.”
But knowing all this about her, more than has been published before, do we still know the woman? Before the interview, certain boundaries were spelled out: No questions on her divorce (when Sherman was a toddler) from journalist Jackie Sam, on the bank, on mahjong, on romantic interests, on karaoke.
Her friends are all essentially business associates who grew into friends; she says she hasn’t kept up with any old school chums. Her friends say they don’t go to films or shopping with her; it’s usually weekday lunches and dinners.
Yet, ask her what is the most important quality in a friend, and without hesitating, she says, “That she cares about me”.
Past vacations were spent either visiting Sherman at his overseas schools or with family in Vancouver and Switzerland. Now it’s more likely London and New York for theatre, opera and shopping. She lives next door to her brother, his wife and young daughter who, at 10, is mad about eating suckling pig with her favourite auntie. She is a woman who cries at the end of old movies. Her mother’s youngest sister, who still lives with her, says in Hokkien, “So silly to cry.” But Elizabeth says, “If I laugh, then why not cry?”
“She isn’t someone who makes a project out of her friendship with you,” says Jennie Chua. “But if you say you like something, she will notice. Three months later, she might say, ‘Oh, and by the way, I saw that shawl you were looking for at …’” She’s also a good sport. “She has no airs,” says Ong-Ang Ai Boon. “What you see is what you get, down to earth.”
After 17 years working for her, Elizabeth Yeo, her executive secretary, knows how to read her boss. “There are some days I tell people, if you have bad news, come back later.” On Secretary’s Day, the two Elizabeths lunch together. Says the second Elizabeth of her boss: “She’s fair. Do your work and she will reward you.”
Don’t do your work, or let something go wrong, and you’d better be prepared to fix the problem and shoulder the responsibility for it. “I don’t want someone to beat around the bush and tell me a long story about who and what and how,” says Elizabeth. “At the end of the day, it has to all add up.” And while she admits to a certain amount of luck in business dealings, she is still a firm believer in the bottom line, in figures and logic: “Sometimes I do go with my intuition, like when a market may be right for a particular move. But in the end, what excites me are profit and loss figures.”
“In the banking business, there’s a lot of professional jealousy,” says Goh Kian Chee. “I think most men like her. Some women may not, maybe because she gets on so well with the men, bantering with them. Men aren’t afraid of her intellect.” And if someone had to fault her for something, he says it would be her aggressiveness: “She is aggressive in the sense of knowing when and where to get you. She pounces. She will make her point and you’re left without a comeback.”
Interestingly enough, without my telling him that Elizabeth was born in the year of the Tiger, Goh Kian Chee cites what he calls her feline qualities. “She has the grace and power of a jaguar. But because she has so much charm, she can be very disarming. I’ve watched her in meetings. Someone will be going on and on and I think, ‘He’s going to get it now!’”
The trait she most admires in her son is his “independence”. Even though, “I would have preferred him to choose a more precise science for a career, a career where he would be guaranteed a job after graduation, a career where I could have helped him.”
She and Sherman still go out for dinner and drinks several times a week. Quite often it’s Japanese food, which he adores. What they don’t talk about: Sherman and women and future grandchildren. He says, “Ten, 11 years ago, my mum asked me if I had any questions about girls. I said no, and that was the end of it. Once she asked me about grandchildren, and I told her that there were too many children in the world already.”
More important to Elizabeth is her friendship with Sherman and the things she’s learned from her son: “Through him, I’ve learnt about painting. And he’s impressed on me that there is more to life than material things.” For his part, he’s grateful for her support, which he calls “subtle”. He had to convince her that his desire to study art was not a passing phase he picked up in school in Switzerland: Money for his education was not a foregone conclusion. “Most kids dread asking their parents for money. I had to ask my mum, Mrs Central Banker.” Nor did he grow up spoilt. “I always thought we were very well off. But compared to some of the kids I know now … Like twice in my life I’ve flown first class, once because I was upgraded and once because it was the only available seat. And both times I was scolded: ‘You think money grows on trees?’”
But despite Elizabeth’s avowed dedication to the bottom line, it doesn’t take much to make her laugh. She has a mobile face and when she laughs, it’s whole-hearted. Yes, she’s been known to sing karaoke at home and with friends. The remisiers who work for her cite a company trip to Hong Kong: “She made time to talk to each of us, but it wasn’t the boss-talking-to-employee talk. She was a lot of fun.”
In the last 10 years, she’s been taken by Western opera, teaching herself all she can about it. She loves Verdi and Puccini; now she feels confident enough to tackle the complexities of Wagner. By her bedside is a book on opera, right next to one on diet and exercise. She tries to work out three times a week at the Tanglin Club, where her personal trainer has put her on the treadmill and weight-training circuit.
And while she still gets a chance to cook, most of her entertaining takes place in restaurants. She’s fondest of Chinese food – Jennie Chua says The Empress Room in Raffles Hotel is one of her favourites – but she’ll also plump for pasta or Thai food. Although slim, she claims she has a tum and has to watch her calories, particularly at business lunches. And when it comes to entertaining, she says you have to know your manners—read up on it or take a course. And if you’re entertaining at night, and the men are drinking, drink with them: “I will drink XO with the men. But I feel comfortable with it. If you’re an orange juice or soda water type of person, then by all means, stay with that.”
Someone once referred to Indira Gandhi as an enigma wrapped in a sari, a pun on the old saying, “an enigma wrapped in a mystery”. And it seems as if everyone is convinced that beneath the Versace suits, behind the wall of privacy, is someone else completely different from the woman in the seventh floor office overlooking Boat Quay. Is Elizabeth Sam an enigma wrapped in Dolce and Gabbana? Is there a secret life behind the obvious one?
If there is, you’ll never hear it from her. And maybe in an age of kiss-and-tell-more-than-anyone-wants-to-know celebrity, her traditional Chinese reticence is a good thing. HW