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Veteran banker Elizabeth Sam who was known as ‘Ms MAS’ dies at age 84

SINGAPORE – Veteran banker Elizabeth Sam, who played a key role in Singapore’s growth as a financial centre, died on Monday morning. She was 84.

Ms Sam was hospitalised in early September, said her son, Mr Sherman Sam, 57, adding that doctors wanted to run tests for cancer, but her exact cause of death was not confirmed when she died.

An economics graduate from what was then the University of Singapore, she was among the first few female administrative officers who joined the Finance Ministry in 1963.

She was instrumental in shaping Singapore’s early reserves management strategy as she rose through the ranks to take on roles such as deputy secretary in the economics development division and director of overseas investment.

She then became part of the founding team of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) in 1971.

She was the central bank’s chief manager of investments and exchange control – which was later renamed its international department – becoming second-in-command to MAS’ first managing director Michael Wong Pakshong.

Together with former finance ministers Goh Keng Swee and Hon Sui Sen, the MAS leaders helped to put Singapore on the world map as a financial hub through the development of the foreign exchange market and Asian Dollar Market, among other initiatives.

Former MAS executives who knew Ms Sam said she was a nurturing mentor, and a role model as a trailblazer and woman leader in finance.

Former presidential candidate Ng Kok Song said: “Without Elizabeth, I wouldn’t be where I am today. She gave me the big break in my life professionally.”

Ms Sam, who was his first boss at the Finance Ministry before supervising him at MAS, gave him opportunities to use his mathematical skills while guiding him with her economics background.

She was a demanding boss, but she also gave him due credit during her meetings with the finance minister, he recalled. 

When Mr Ng was just 25, Ms Sam and Mr Wong sent him to London to head the central bank’s first overseas office.

“That was a big break for me because it helped me to learn in London what a financial centre was about and develop a lot of relationships,” said the former GIC investment chief.

He last met Ms Sam in August when she agreed to be his character referee for the presidential election.

Mr Ng said: “She taught me that in whatever work you do, what you know is important but equally important is who you know, and the ability to build relationships with people who can help you.”

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Ms Sam, who was nicknamed “Ms MAS”, was always a picture of elegance, at times coming to work in stylish gowns, said Mrs Ong-Ang Ai Boon, director of the Association of Banks in Singapore, who worked in MAS’ development unit and often had to clear her work with Ms Sam. “She was so admired not because of her looks or dressing, but her professionalism.”

Mrs Ong-Ang added: “She was sharp and quick-witted, and gentle yet forceful without throwing her weight around. I realised from her that you can actually be very feminine in a man’s world and get their respect by being able to do your work and knowing your work well.”

After leaving MAS in 1981, Ms Sam joined the main board of London Stock Exchange-listed Mercantile House Holdings and was there until 1987.

She was part of the team that in 1984 established the Mutual Offset System, which continues to offer global investors round-the-clock access to trade and clearing on derivatives marketplaces in Asia and the United States. 

As the two-term chairman of the Singapore International Monetary Exchange from 1987 to 1993, she oversaw the exchange’s expansion into the financial options and commodities markets.

Ms Sam was also one of the first women to sit on the board of a local bank when she was appointed to OCBC Bank’s board in 1996. She held roles including executive vice-president and deputy president during her time at the bank from 1988 to 1998.

She was appointed non-executive and independent director of Singapore Exchange-listed Straits Trading in 2008. Her other board appointments include Banyan Tree Holdings, Thai bank Kasikornbank and Australian developer AV Jennings Development.

Ms Sam, the second youngest of five siblings, was an avid ballroom dancer who took up the competitive sport in her 50s and won at championships.

She continued dancing once a week after she had a stroke in January, said Mr Sam, who believed the years of dancing helped his mother to retain her mobility after the incident.

Mr Sam, who is an only child, recalled how his mother encouraged him to be independent when he was growing up.

“She was not pleased when I told her I wanted to study art because she thought she couldn’t help me with it, but I think she was quietly proud of it,” said the artist and writer, who is based in Singapore and London.

Reflecting on his mother’s achievements, he added: “She said to me very recently that she thought being in the public and private sectors was equally fun.

“She was on the ground floor creating the monetary authority. She thought that it was like being a cowboy because they created all this out of nothing… I am very much proud of her.”

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