IIf the eyes are the win­dows to one’s soul, Richard Teng’s lively gaze is not about to be­tray his state of mind. In fact, his bright com­plex­ion is seem­ingly ex­em­plary of a good night’s rest. Truth is, he’s slept only four hours and has been up since 2.30am.

Blame jet lag. Over these two weeks, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Abu Dhabi Global Mar­ket’s (ADGM) Fi­nan­cial Ser­vices Reg­u­la­tory Author­ity has made six brief stops in ter­ri­to­ries from the Mid­dle East across the At­lantic and then to the Far East, be­fore re­turn­ing to Abu Dhabi where he is based. Teng, who has just com­menced his sec­ond term, does a sim­i­lar travel sched­ule at least once a month, and dis­misses any fuss made about his abil­ity to keep up with the hus­tle.

“Many cor­po­rates do the same, if not more fre­quently. But if I ask you to re­peat a ques­tion, you’d know I’d zoned off,” the 48-year-old says with a chor­tle, and sips his latte. It’s his sec­ond cup of joe – his daily quota is four. “I try to fol­low the new time zone as quickly as I can. It takes a day or two, but, some­times, you don’t have that lux­ury of time.”

The last three years have been a whirl­wind for Teng, who’s the first Singaporean to set up and helm an over­seas reg­u­la­tor and fi­nan­cial cen­tre. He was hand­picked to es­tab­lish ADGM as part of Abu Dhabi’s ag­gres­sive di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion away from petro­chem­i­cals – the non-oil sec­tor now con­trib­utes more than half of the cap­i­tal’s GDP.

ADGM, which was named Fi­nan­cial Cen­tre of the Year (Mena) last year for a sec­ond year run­ning by lead­ing fi­nan­cial pub­li­ca­tion Global In­vestor/ISF, is also on track to be­com­ing the re­gion’s largest as­set man­age­ment hub in the next two years.

That an Asian – and Singaporean to boot – has been tasked is no co­in­ci­dence. Abu Dhabi and the re­gion have their eyes on the talk of the town: China’s mam­moth Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive. He says: “Many gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials I meet are sur­prised that an Asian is head­ing Abu Dhabi’s reg­u­la­tor. It shows that the Mid­dle East un­der­stands the im­por­tance of Asia. They want to en­gage and con­nect with Asia to tap on growth op­por­tu­ni­ties.

“I’ve ben­e­fited from the Sin­ga­pore brand story and my past as­so­ci­a­tions. I’m re­ally an ex­ten­sion of this brand. I think we bring with us a cer­tain pro­fes­sion­al­ism and be­ing best in class. Many coun­tries are look­ing to em­u­late Sin­ga­pore’s suc­cess.” To do that, Abu Dhabi sought one of Sin­ga­pore’s own, who was in­volved in the lat­ter’s own me­ta­mor­pho­sis into a global fi­nan­cial pow­er­house.


The tim­ing could not have been any bet­ter. Fresh out of Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Univer­sity with first-class hon­ours in ac­coun­tancy, Teng joined the Mone­tary Author­ity of Sin­ga­pore (MAS) in 1994 – right in the thick of the na­tion’s in­ter­na­tion­al­i­sa­tion and di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion of its fi­nan­cial ser­vices in­dus­try.

Dur­ing his 13 years at MAS, where he rose to be­come direc­tor of cor­po­rate fi­nance, he was part of the team that kick-started ini­tia­tives such as GIC/Te­masek pro­vid­ing cap­i­tal to en­cour­age the growth of the as­set/fund man­age­ment scene, con­sol­i­dat­ing lo­cal banks, open­ing up the bank­ing sec­tor to in­ter­na­tional play­ers and build­ing the pri­vate bank­ing sec­tor, and merg­ing Sin­ga­pore In­ter­na­tional Mone­tary Ex­change, Se­cu­ri­ties Clear­ing and Com­puter Ser­vices and Sin­ga­pore Stock Ex­change to be­come present-day Sin­ga­pore Ex­change (SGX).

He was posted to New York where he spent two years set­ting up an MAS out­post to pro­mote Sin­ga­pore as a fi­nan­cial cen­tre in over­seas mar­kets. “I’ve been very for­tu­nate to have been part of that trans­for­ma­tion jour­ney. Those were ex­cit­ing times: the adrenalin rush, rolling out new ef­forts and ini­tia­tives,” Teng re­calls.

He left MAS in 2007 for SGX where he be­came chief reg­u­la­tory of­fi­cer in 2014. At the bourse op­er­a­tor, he es­tab­lished a di­rect list­ing frame­work for Chi­nese com­pa­nies, in­tro­duced a reg­u­la­tory frame­work for sec­ondary list­ings and aug­mented safe­guards

in the stock mar­ket. Yet, less than a year af­ter as­sum­ing the role of chief reg­u­la­tor, he quit. Abu Dhabi had come call­ing and it was an op­por­tu­nity that was too al­lur­ing.

“I’ve seen how Sin­ga­pore has ben­e­fited so greatly from these ini­tia­tives, some­thing I was able to be a part of. The op­por­tu­nity to cre­ate a new fi­nan­cial cen­tre that cre­ates value for that re­gion and fi­nan­cial in­ter­me­di­a­tion to sup­port the real econ­omy to bring about the bet­ter­ment of lives – that re­ally ex­cites me,” says Teng, who beat top dogs from Europe, the US, the UK and Hong Kong to clinch the hot seat. “Since I’ve been given an­other chance to do it, why not? Sounds fun, if you get it right. It will have my fin­ger­prints all over it by the time I leave.”


Forty-five min­utes into this in­ter­view, and the ef­fects of caf­feine are start­ing to wane. Teng, who’s dressed ca­su­ally in a T-shirt and jeans, shifts more fre­quently in his plush arm­chair, but he’s de­ter­mined to keep the con­ver­sa­tion lively with an­i­mated ges­tures. And, no, he has not asked for a ques­tion to be re­peated.

Be­ing on the road so fre­quently can be tough, even for the sea­soned trav­eller. Teng, who’s due in Ja­pan and China the fol­low­ing day be­fore re­turn­ing to Abu Dhabi af­ter liv­ing out of a suit­case for two weeks, re­calls rue­fully a re­cent trip to San Fran­cisco where he spent nearly half of the 16-hour flight vom­it­ing. He re­lies on a daily dose of vi­ta­min C, and does yoga and Hiit work­outs at least four times a week to keep fit. “I try not to fall ill dur­ing trav­els. And to fend off sleep, just don’t go back to the ho­tel room un­til it’s time for bed,” he says with a chuckle. Which will ex­plain why he is head­ing straight to lunch with an old friend right af­ter this in­ter­view.

Teng has tire­lessly pro­moted ADGM on the global stage, creat­ing many firsts for the re­gion, in­clud­ing a pri­vate real-es­tate in­vest­ment-trust regime, a cal­i­brated ven­ture-cap­i­tal frame­work for fund man­agers to fa­cil­i­tate seed and early-stage in­vest­ments, and an avi­a­tion fi­nanc­ing scheme, which makes sense since the re­gion is home to three of the world’s top com­mer­cial air­lines – Emi­rates, Eti­had and Qatar Air­ways. This year will see the open­ing of In­ter­na­tional Cham­ber of Com­merce’s first Mid­dle East rep­re­sen­ta­tive of­fice, a move that will bol­ster Abu Dhabi’s le­gal in­fra­struc­ture and its greater econ­omy. So to say that he’s hav­ing “a go at it” would be an un­der­state­ment.

To date, ADGM has over 800 reg­is­tered com­pa­nies whose com­bined as­sets un­der man­age­ment are over US$5 bil­lion (S$6.6 bil­lion). Last year, the cap­i­tal was listed as

the world’s top 25 fi­nan­cial cen­tres by the rep­utable Global Fi­nan­cial Cen­tres In­dex re­port. The lat­est coup it’s set to score is Abu Dhabi In­vest­ment Author­ity, the world’s third largest sov­er­eign wealth fund, which an­nounced plans last month to es­tab­lish a pres­ence in ADGM.


It is a text­book tale of suc­cess through hard work. “I al­ways say that we’re a reg­u­la­tory start-up and we know the pain of start-ups. The first year was tough. We were of­ten asked, ‘ Who are you? What is ADGM? Never heard of you.’ We spent a lot of time ex­plain­ing our dual roles as reg­u­la­tor and fi­nan­cial-cen­tre de­vel­oper. You have to be thick-skinned to field all sorts of ques­tions and doubts. Now, peo­ple ask why we weren’t set up ear­lier.

“The most ef­fec­tive way to do busi­ness is through lo­cal knowl­edge. Who are key lo­cal part­ners? What are the rules, reg­u­la­tions and pro­cesses? How do you ap­proach things in a fash­ion that helps you open the right doors in the lo­cal en­vi­ron­ment? You need to be in right net­works to open the right doors, in or­der to speak to the right party to get things done.”

Once re­garded with scep­ti­cism, the new kid on the block is set­ting trends in the re­gion. It em­braced fin­tech when no one else did and set up the first reg­u­la­tory regime and first reg­u­la­tory lab­o­ra­tory in the Mid­dle East and North Africa (Mena) to en­cour­age in­no­va­tion within the UAE fi­nan­cial ser­vices mar­ket. To this end, it has part­nered Sil­i­con Val­ley tech ac­cel­er­a­tor Plug and Play, whose past in­vest­ments in­clude Google, Pay­pal and Drop­box, so that the firm’s port­fo­lio of fin­tech start-ups can con­nect with re­gional and lo­cal fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions.

Given that the Mid­dle East and Africa com­bined will ac­count for more than half of world’s pop­u­la­tion by 2050, he is ready­ing the cap­i­tal and in­deed Mena to meet the im­pend­ing de­mand for more fi­nan­cial ser­vices. “Pros­per thy neigh­bour­hood so it will look more at­trac­tive to oth­ers,” he says. “What we do is not just for Abu Dhabi’s ben­e­fit, but also for the re­gion.”

The home­boy hasn’t for­got­ten Sin­ga­pore. When ADGM – named top fin­tech hub in Mena by Deloitte last year – was look­ing to in­crease col­lab­o­ra­tion with other fin­tech hubs, the first MOU it signed was with MAS. “We’re look­ing to do more with Sin­ga­pore. As a Singaporean, I’m al­ways look­ing at ways to ben­e­fit both coun­tries,” says Teng, who’s fre­quently asked to share his knowl­edge with Latin Amer­i­can reg­u­la­tors and at global fin­tech con­fer­ences. More than 10 fin­tech MOUs have since been signed with ter­ri­to­ries such as Australia, France, Hong Kong, China and Kenya.


The deal-maker in him rel­ishes the rush and grat­i­fi­ca­tion of ADGM’s achieve­ments, and the Abu Dhabi gov­ern­ment must be pleased with his work. But he reck­ons the next three years would be his last in Abu Dhabi. His wife, who man­ages a fam­ily of­fice, daugh­ter, 19, and son, 13, live in Sin­ga­pore. The cou­ple did not want to dis­rupt the kids’ ed­u­ca­tion by re­lo­cat­ing to Abu Dhabi.

“My fam­ily needs me. It’s a sac­ri­fice for them. When my boy went through his PSLE last year, I felt guilty about not be­ing with him,” says Teng, who tries to be back home once a month and Skypes with them daily.

The prece­dent he’s set – and the en­su­ing pres­sure – has not lost its sig­nif­i­cance on him, even if he claims “I just do the best I can”.

“I’m best judged by stake­hold­ers and board mem­bers in terms of what I’ve done for them. As long as we’ve man­aged to cre­ate a cred­i­ble reg­u­la­tory frame­work and ju­ris­dic­tion such that in­sti­tu­tional in­vestors are will­ing to par­tic­i­pate, and sup­port fi­nan­cial in­ter­me­di­a­tion and in­fra­struc­ture needs of the re­gion, I think we’ve suc­ceeded in what we’re do­ing.

“We’re all fly­ing the Sin­ga­pore flag in our own small way.”


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