7 Lessons From Trina Liang-Lin’s Work in Finance and Philanthropy
Trina Liang-Lin was brought up in a middle-income family by her army officer father and primary school teacher mother. To her parents, being sensible and prudent were the top priorities, and she has carried those values with her even as her career has progressed.
“There were definitely no luxuries in my childhood,” says Liang-Lin, recalling how her mother insisted in keeping detailed monthly expenditure records. Hospital and medical bills dominated those records in the run-up to her mother’s untimely death from cancer. The experience fortified Liang-Lin’s desire to be financially comfortable as well as a belief that health is the ultimate currency of wealth.
So in parallel to trading bonds and negotiating multimillion-dollar deals, Liang-Lin has built a storied philanthropic career, founding the nutrition and wellness organisations FoodSteps and Halo Health Asia to give access to better food to those from lower-income backgrounds.
The multi-hyphenate has also been an ongoing champion of female empowerment, notably as the past President of UN Women Singapore and past Vice President of Singapore Council of Women Organisations. In 2021, she was appointed to represent Singapore at the G20 Private Sector Alliance for the Empowerment and Progression of Women’s Economic Representation.
Here, Liang-Lin shares financial lessons learned along the way, including the conservative investment approach that has served her well and the value of experiences.
First job at an investment bank (1995) = earned SG$58,842
No matter how many jobs you have, you’ll always remember your first paycheck. I was paid £32,000 (SG$58,842) annually, which for me, just coming out of school, was a lot of money. I had been hired by an investment bank in London on a management trainee rotation through the various areas in investment banking. Eventually, I ended up on the fixed income and bonds desk. This was the only claim I can ever lay to being called an ‘Asian bond girl’.
Lesson #1: I’ve realised that any promotion or pay raise is exciting for the first 24 hours, but the satisfaction doesn’t last. It’s what I could do with that money. Experiencing new places and cultures on holiday and doing charity work were my important memories and keepsakes. Money is more of a means to achieve these experiences, not the end goal.
Client deals (mid-1990s) = negotiated SG$405 million - $1.35 billion
The client deal negotiations which I was involved in were mainly for the large bond deals my bank was leading and ranged from US$300 million (SG$405 million) to US$1 billion (SG$1.35 billion). Besides the obvious size of the deal and fees we were earning, we had to be cognisant of the nuances of investing to be able to get large sums.
Lesson #2: Being aware of the right timing and currency rates is crucial for any bond deal.
Private equity broker account (mid-1990s) = invested SG$1.35 - $2.7 million
In my mid-20s, I opened a US-based equity broker account to put my spare savings of approximately US$1 million (SG$1.35 million) to US$2 million (SG$2.7 million) in US stocks and funds. I studied finance, and in the first chapter, you’re told to invest your money. Buy and hold strategies seldom make sense anymore, and you need an ongoing review of your investments.
It starts with being clear about the industries you want to invest in and generally have a passion for, so there’s interest in tracking your investments. Doing your research into your investments is the most important part. Our investment portfolio at the moment is 30 per cent cash, 40 per cent equities and 30 per cent in venture capital.
Lesson #3: Try to put away a small amount every month into investments. I try to do this on the first of every month; it's a worthwhile discipline.
First property purchase as a couple (early 2000s) = spent 3-4x combined salary
Buying your first property as a young couple is a huge milestone, and it can be severely daunting. Ours is a landed property in the Orchard area with a lush garden and a koi pond. It was perhaps a bit larger than we wanted at the time for just the two of us and a helper. But now I don’t think we will ever move as we have grown into this space.
Before making the jump, we had to sit down and work out the math and be real with our finances. Looking back, we remember how nervous we were, and whether we were overextending ourselves by investing three to four times our yearly combined salary. It’s quite conservative compared to folks spending 10 times that amount on properties today.
Lesson #4: Don’t over-leverage yourself. Because both my husband and I are finance professionals, we are implicitly risk-averse. We were taught from a traditional point of view to be rational about our numbers. We think very hard about what we want to put our money into, even if it means we end up looking like conservative nutcases.
Most expensive property = invested SG$7 million
Since our first property, we have invested in four properties in Singapore and New York. We wanted to invest in London properties multiple times too, but we never felt comfortable with it as we didn’t understand the rules, regulations, and laws.
My husband is Chinese American and grew up in New York, so he knows it very well. He even has a team that sources property based on what he likes. We have two places in the West Village and bought the most recent one just before the pandemic hit. I haven’t even seen it yet, because my husband went out in January 2020 to finalise the deal. Afterwards, I was so scared that this might be the worst investment we’ve ever made. Luckily the property is near the new Google headquarters, but sometimes we must also hope for the best when times are uncertain.
Lesson #5: Do your homework with every investment you make.
Investments in art, wine and cars (ongoing)
We invest in art and bid at auctions at Christie’s or Sotheby’s mainly. We don’t use an art consultant as my husband is clear about the type of art he wants to buy. He loves Japanese artists from the ’60s and ’70s with a strong mid-century modern aesthetic.
My husband buys a lot of wine, and we have a basement cellar where we stock up on our favourites. This is more of my husband’s forte, as he’s the collector, not me. He has accrued around 850 to 900 bottles.
We have two cars; one is a Porsche 911. However, we’re looking to turn in one of the cars and replace it with a Porsche Taycan, the first fully electric Porsche.
Lesson #6: Invest in both tangible as well as intangible things for yourself and your loved ones, such as an adventure trip or a shared experience that you will never forget.
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Paying it forward with the Lin Foundation (2016)
We set up the Lin Foundation in 2016 to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary. Finding a way to give has a special place in our hearts and fills us with purpose and meaning. Besides donating to our favourite charities, we also set up a fund for less well-off students at Singapore Management University who need a sponsor for expenses and lodging for their overseas exchange trips to universities abroad.
Until the pandemic struck, we were able to sponsor two or three students every year. Spending time abroad is one of the luxuries for students who aren’t well-to-do. As a student, you want to be able to partake in the same activities as your peers without feeling excluded due to finances.
I remember as a student in London when money was tight and I wanted to take a trip. I didn’t have the resources to go skiing, so instead a group of us went to Turkey in April 1995. We booked tickets on the budget airline STA and took overnight buses while exploring to avoid paying for accommodation. Turkey was one of the cheaper destinations because it had just experienced a major earthquake.
Even though I didn’t have much money to give, I wanted to support local communities after that disaster. I brought some clothes and even gave away my watch. To be able to see Turkey in its unvarnished state has inked itself in my memory. In fact, my love for adventure holidays is rooted in this trip. I was planning a trip to Croatia in 2020, but it’s on pause for now—something to look forward to in the future.
Lesson #7: There’s no such thing as giving too little. Every amount, every thought and action counts, and it’s the satisfaction of helping others that you truly can’t put a price on.
This article is sponsored by Citi Private Bank for our Money Milestones series, in which an accomplished woman reveals her financial thought process and the spending, borrowing and investing that reflects her growth. It’s part of Front & Female, Tatler’s platform to celebrate trailblazers and tackle timely, provocative issues through inspiring content and events. Join the community by subscribing to our newsletter and following #frontandfemale
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