How SGX's Michael Syn is still working

Part of an FIA series on people in the derivatives industry adapting to coronavirus challenges

15 May 2020


Michael Syn, Head of Equities, Singapore Exchange

michael syn wfh
Michael Syn of SGX with his dog at his home workstation.

What’s one significant way coronavirus has affected your work?

SGX is drilled for a pandemic scenario, but I don’t think anyone expected something as widespread and prolonged as COVID-19. The most significant unplanned impact was the fact that our entire ecosystem of members, clients and listed companies are now mostly working from home My colleagues had to move at a fast pace to "safely distance through digitalisation" a number of things: First, moving our service centre online where investors in SGX-listed equities enjoy concierge service for managing probate, account opening or payments, rights issues, etc. We also worked with the local government agencies and regulators to push through a number of legislation changes to make it easier for Singapore companies to hold AGMs virtually.  We also had to ensure our trading and clearing members are able to meet their obligations to customers, and supporting (and supervising) them closely for clearing and settlement.

This list goes on, and many of our FIA colleagues around the world have executed seamlessly against similar imperatives. For me, the most significant sustained impact on my work has actually been on situational awareness. With most colleagues working from home, the initial pace of change led to a sort of tunnel vision. Orchestration of work was bludgeoned through video call after video call, and our collective awareness of global market activity had to be consciously sustained through "too much" communication.

What’s a typical day like for you right now as we “shelter in place”?

My three kids are back in the house. Two of them are on U.K. time for virtual university lectures and exams, waking in the late afternoon and going to sleep at 6 a.m. My wife goes to work daily as a front line doctor working with immunocompromised patients. So my typical day is about "sheltering" in a quiet corner downstairs before the kids wake up and the wife comes home. Unfortunately being in the tropics, our house is open plan for the hot weather and not really able to accommodate a "home office." I’m in shorts even if I have to wear a collared shirt for some video calls. Luckily no shoes! I think I cope so well because I have a very competent and accountable management team. My weapons of choice are the SGX laptop, iPad, iPhone and a couple of headsets. The downside is that my eyes get exhausted staring at a small screen all day. I watch a little more television and read much less now. Weekends are also a little too similar to weekdays for my liking! My dog is similarly confused.

What’s something that has given you hope for the future after this pandemic?

I’ve seen people pull together spontaneously in the face of a common challenge. FIA members in Asia have offices across multiple cities, so multi-site operation (and coordination) is well practiced. We were able to rely on them to advise and read back to us the market situation across Asia, crucial for continuity as we offer derivatives whose underlying equities access 99% of investible Asia. This sense of community gives me hope. As long as we keep each other honest in the face of such challenges, I see how human will and ingenuity are able to make progress and overcome obstacles.

With respect to the workplace, the enforced working from home has accelerated transformation in the future of collective work and value creation. Can we sustain these benefits? I think the millennials will hold our feet to the fire. SGX has certainly continued to learn from the most digitalised societies in the world about livestream education and communication: Korea, Taiwan, China. The numbers of participants in some of our forums and webinars has been astounding, numbering in the tens of thousands. Work from home leads to trade from home!

The geopolitics of COVID-19 has become more fractured though. The numbing incivility of political discourse between countries tells me that we are well into a new era of Balkanisation. The role of national and international market infrastructures has never been more vital in holding us all together. This is more than just a job, we are serving the public good. The pandemic has made it socially acceptable for everyone to say "we care." The members and exchanges of the FIA community were acknowledged by governments across the world to be providing an "essential service." It’s good that we are reminded of this from time to time.

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