Friday, April 29, 2005

AGM Season is Upon Us!

The Annual General Meeting Makan Season was upon us again. We counted at least 30 physical AGMs on 28 April alone. AGMs are meetings of shareholders required under statutory legislation during which the shareholders pass resolutions, appoint directors and query the management on aspects of the company, its management and its business.

AGMs are usually held in the ballrooms of hotels and it is a tradition for Singapore-listed companies to provide a buffet spread for the shareholders after the meeting.

In Singapore, AGMs bring out the worst in the kiasu Singaporean shareholder. Many Singaporean shareholders go to AGMs for the freebies and buffet food, not because of their interest in the company and its performance.

The Straits Times Money Page reporters gleefully chronicled the ugly antics last year:
  • shareholders would turn up to AGMs armed with huge bags filled with tupperware sets, styrofoam containers and plastic bags to cart away the free food;
  • impatient shareholders would leave the room during the counting of polling slips, approach the hotel staff outside and demand that they remove the lids on the serving trays and allow them to have a headstart on the food;
  • when the chairman declared the meeting to be officially over, and the doors to the buffet opened, there would a desperate rush for the buffet outside, shareholders trampling over all that stood in their way. Yelling,"Don't push! Don't push!" at the others, the shareholders would snatch the biggest plates (to ensure the biggest holding area) and grab the choicest food (seafood items like king prawns, lobster and smoked salmon being the first the go, and cheaper items like egg sandwiches, the last); and
  • well-prepared shareholders would sneak food into their tupperware sets and styrofoam containers, tipping entire trays into their plastic bags (some having some sort of decency to appear to be chewing the food while doing so (although it was quite clear they had nothing in their mouths)).
Of course, AGMs are also great for people-watching, if you're into that kind of thing:
  • aged female shareholders with translucent skirts, showing off their brightly-coloured knickers under the artificial lighting;
  • other old female shareholders holding court, bewigged, gesticulating with chunky bling-blings and outlandish fashion, rabidly air-kissing, hailing everyone loudly as "Dahling!";
  • dishevelled shareholders smelling of urea grabbing gravy-soaked food with grubby hands and thereafter wiping their fingers on trays of plain noodles;
  • members of the Panel of Directors and Advisors Sitting Ducks falling asleep during a particularly boring meeting, head lolling, conspicuously drooling and gently snoring;
  • demanding shareholders asking to be served vegetarian food but specifying "make sure not all the food is vegetables"; and
  • blow-ups between chairmen and unruly or obnoxious shareholders. A Straits Times report of last year's SGX AGM went something like this:
    "Appropriate conduct, or the lack of it, at AGMs became a big talking point after a heated exchange last October at the Singapore Exchange (SGX) AGM between chairman J.Y. Pillay and a veteran AGM attender, Mr Ramesh Sheth. The normally unflappable Mr J.Y. Pillay, 69, whipped out a gavel - something that I have never seen outside a courtroom - and threatened to evict retail investor Ramesh Sheth, 71, from the room.
    Mr Pillay then gave vent to some memorable quotes, rare among the wooden soundbites from our corporate leaders. Excerpts from the exchange include Mr Pillay scolding Mr Sheth sharply: 'The biggest sin is to bore me to death!'
    Mr Sheth had been asking various questions on stock options and management pay. He had wanted to know why certain management's pay was not disclosed.
    Mr Pillay said irritably: 'Stop haranguing me. Listen, you must understand that I don't like people who waste my time.'
    But Mr Sheth refused to be silenced and spoke even louder.
    Mr Pillay said: 'When I give you an answer, that's my answer, and you're not so stupid that you don't understand my answer.'
    Even then, Mr Sheth raised his voice, saying: 'If I don't understand, then I want an explanation...I have a right to an answer.' It was this that really made Mr Pillay see red.
    The chairman rose to his feet saying: 'You will be disciplined. If you do not behave yourself, I will ask the bailiff to remove yourself from this room, shareholder or no shareholder.'
    Shareholders were riveted to the action and there was even some horrified laughter."
This year, my AGM-hosting experience was pretty mild considering...all I suffered were:
  • shareholders circling me suspiciously, wondering where I had stashed the complimentary carpark coupons (other shareholders hovering nearby like vultures, ready to rush in if and when the carpark coupons were produced from their suspected hiding places);
  • shareholders demanding "door gifts" and threatening to go off to some other AGM where "door gifts" were available;
  • shareholders looking around first to see that no other shareholder was in hearing range and asking in a whisper if the share price of the company would go up in the future; and
  • shareholders trying to sneak in their various friends and relatives and when prevented from doing so, loudly exclaiming how we broke up their merry party.
Wikipedia states that "there appears little in the way of specifically Singaporean culture". The peasants! They obviously haven't been to an AGM in Singapore. There is work to be done! The Singapore Tourism Board should stop depleting our cultural heritage by renovation and upgrading and start selling spectator tickets to AGM buffets.

Being part of the Presbyterian church in Singapore, ARPC is required to hold AGMs every year as well, calling them ACMs ("Annual Congregational Meetings"). In the past few years, we have been omniously serving a buffet lunch to the congregation after the ACM. Will we in time see such AGM horror at our ACMs?

As Christians, we know that we are sinners and that given half the opportunity, we would have acted no better (and perhaps worse) than the ugly shareholders at AGMs.

But we also know that we are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God (1 Peter 2:9). So when we meet as a family, indwelt by the same Spirit, may we not act in selfishness and sin but declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his wonderful light. May we live as aliens and strangers in the world, abstaining from sinful desires, which war against our soul. For once we were not a people, but now we are the people of God; once we had not received mercy, but now we have received mercy (1 Peter 2:9-11).

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