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Meet Asia’s private banking King of LinkedIn, HSBC’s James Cheo

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With over 42,000 LinkedIn followers, James Cheo is one of the top voices on LinkedIn within the private banking industry in Asia.

His popular musings on the platform range from the wisdom of Albert Einstein, to lessons from his upbringing in Singapore, to the economics of Taylor Swift.

Currently HSBC Global Private Banking and Wealth’s Southeast Asia and India CIO, Cheo told Asian Private Banker about his atypical path into private banking and shared his message to young people in the highly pressurised financial industry: you do not need to run the rat race.

Unlike many investment professionals, Cheo started his career 20 years ago in the public sector as an economist at Singapore’s central bank.

“That’s also where I think I have quite a story in terms of my background to share with students and the LinkedIn community,” Cheo shared with Asian Private Banker.

According to Cheo, however, he initially struggled in public service.

“My portfolio consisted of looking at data, and that is something that nobody wants to do, especially if you are a high flyer, so I was basically in the so-called winter palace,” Cheo said, using a Chinese saying to refer to a place that nobody would wish to visit.

However, Cheo started to enjoy looking at the data collected by the bank. He said, in essence, the work was all about financial institutions and how they transact with one another. During the global financial crisis of 2008, Cheo was brought back to the main team as he had the data the central bank needed to analyse the situation and find the way forward.

“At that time, I had the opportunity to work with some very senior leaders in Singapore to see first-hand how to react to situations, and that was the formative years where I learned a lot about policymaking in the financial market,” he shared.

I did not choose private banking, private banking chose me

When he left central banking in 2009, Cheo said he wanted to join somewhere he could apply his knowledge from the public sector.

“So, in some ways, I did not choose private banking, but somehow, private banking chose me, because I could put the macroeconomic skillsets I had developed previously to use.”

He worked at HSBC from 2010 to 2014 as head of investment strategy for Southeast Asia. He rejoined HSBC five years ago after working at private banks such as Barclays and Bank of Singapore.

“HSBC is a great company with universal capabilities that cater to the personal, investment, business, and institutional needs of our clients, as well as provide that global reach and local expertise for clients to have access to more investment opportunities.”

Cheo became the CIO for GPB Southeast Asia in 2021. Last year, he extended his market coverage to India.

“The milestones are not about titles or promotions. It’s about how I can help clients to see more opportunities and invest sustainably. It is for clients to know that investing can be aligned to their values – helping them invest better and increase their awareness of ESG investing are the parts that I find the most fulfilling.”

To him, the role of a CIO is like “a little boy climbing up the mast of a ship, trying to look out for dangers and trying to avoid any possible kinds of risk or challenges ahead and move the direction of the ship towards where the opportunities are.

“Another satisfying aspect of the job is also in inspiring the younger generation to join me in this journey,” he said.

Cheo speaking at HSBC GPB Investment Outlook. Source: Cheo’s LinkedIn post

You don’t need to run the rat race

With the view that social media platforms, such as LinkedIn, can help ideas go viral and reach a wider audience, Cheo is passionate about sharing his thoughts and ideas on life, investments or sustainability, but a very key topic that is close to his heart is how to support young people.

“I have had many interactions with smart and bright young people, but my sense is that a lot of them want to join the rat race. And they get very stressed out because the game is very competitive, and the pressure cooker environment is not healthy in the long run,” he explained.

The reason why his message resonates so much with the younger audience is because, “I’m telling them, you don’t need to run that rat race – which I did not, and I took on my own path.”

“If you are here just to be in the rat race, you may eventually realise that what you are doing doesn’t actually suit you. Even if you win the race, you may not be happy at the end of the day. So, my message, which stems from my background and experience, is to always look for what excites you and what you are passionate about, and then take charge of your own path by using that as a guiding light,” Cheo highlighted.

Cheo with young students. Source: Cheo’s LinkedIn post

Underdog mindest

He believes that the younger generation is under a lot of pressure to excel, especially in the finance industry, and he wants to be the voice that says, “Their struggles are normal.”

“Because in this day and age of social media, especially with platforms like Instagram, all you see is the best of everything: the best-looking people, the over-achievers, the highlights reel. And that eventually could cultivate an unhealthy mindset whereby failure doesn’t seem like an option.”

As he builds up his LinkedIn following, Cheo said that it’s not so much about increasing the viewership, but the impact his posts have. “When they message me directly and share their struggles, and tell me that what I’ve shared has resonated with them and that they feel seen. I think these are the things that keep me going.

“I always encourage young people to chart their own path and find something that they are excited over. It may not be what everyone is gunning for, but ultimately, if they have this underdog mindset, it allows them to grow and develop the resilience needed to face setbacks and learn from them, and I think they will get a much more fulfilling career and fulfilling life out of it.”

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