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Elon Musk and Tesla in Singapore: 8 things you may not know

Image showing Elon Musk, the Singapore CBD skyline, to illustrate a story on some things you may not know about Elon Musk and Tesla's Singapore journey. (PHOTO: Getty)
Some things you may not know about Elon Musk and Tesla's Singapore journey. (PHOTO: Getty)

By Harold Yap

Tesla chief executive Elon Musk is in the news again, with recent reports saying his alleged affair with Google co-founder Sergey Brin's wife was the cause of the couple's impending divorce.

Twitter is fighting him in court in the US to force a completion of a US$44 billion buyout.

Tesla on Monday (25 July) also disclosed in a quarterly regulatory filing that it has received a new subpoena from the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) over compliance with a previous settlement – one that had come about because of a tweet Musk made in 2018.

Tesla has been making waves in Singapore too – and for a while already.

Tesla's retrenchment of its Singapore country manager in June was foreshadowed by Musk's warning of global job cuts. Around mid-June, Christopher Bousigues – Tesla's first country manager in Southeast Asia who had been with the company for just over a year – declared on LinkedIn that his role had been "eliminated".

The news came despite the Tesla Model Y being launched for sale in Singapore in June, prompting speculation of plans for Tesla's Hong Kong office to oversee operations in Singapore. This isn't the first time Musk has kept the rumour mills here churning, though. The controversial entrepreneur has something of a complicated relationship with the city state, writ-large upon the company's vacillations in the local market.

Here's how things have panned out so far:

1. It isn't the first abrupt move

In February 2011, Tesla pulled out of Singapore just six months after establishing a showroom at Suntec City. The automative firm stated its business model was rendered unviable here in the absence of green technology tax incentives from the Economic Development Board of Singapore. The latter said it had not met "technical requirements" to secure them. The tax breaks would have shaved off at least S$150,000 from the cost of the two-seater Tesla Roadster, otherwise priced between S$400,000 and S$500,000.

2. The prime minister met with Musk

Suggesting better times ahead for Tesla in the Lion City, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong met up with Musk in Silicon Valley while on a state trip to the US in February 2016. He visited the Tesla factory and was driven in a Tesla Model S P90D, which he described as a "brief but exhilarating ride".

Also read: Meet Elon Musk's secretive right-hand man Jared Birchall

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Also read: This internet giant once considered buying Twitter: 10 surprising facts

3. It started with a bumpy ride

Shortly after PM Lee's visit to the states, Tesla's first customer in Singapore, Joe Nguyen, was slapped with a S$15,000 carbon emissions surcharge on the used Tesla Model S P85 he'd imported from Hong Kong in July 2015.

Nguyen, now the president of Tesla Owners Singapore, chumped through a seven-month ordeal to register with Land Transport Authority (LTA), during which a private vehicle inspection provider engaged by the statutory board pronounced that Nguyen's 2014 Model S had an equivalent CO2 emission of 222g per km. This was calculated by placing a value on the emissions created by energy use, despite the vehicle not having a tailpipe.

4. Elon Musk once appealed to PM Lee

The emissions surcharge debacle culminated in Musk himself contacting PM Lee, whom he said agreed to "investigate the situation". However, seven months later, the LTA said it would stand by its original assessment and not retest Nguyen's car, even though two other imported Tesla cars had been granted tax breaks.

5. A Singapore-based billionaire holds a majority stake in Tesla

(Source: Leo KoGuan Twitter)
(Source: Leo KoGuan Twitter)

Singapore-based billionaire Leo KoGuan owned 6.31 million Tesla shares as of late September 2021. He also held 1.82 million options giving him the right to buy Tesla between US$450 to US$550 a share. This makes him Tesla's third-largest individual shareholder, behind fellow billionaires Larry Ellison and Musk himself. The Indonesia-born businessman, who founded New Jersey enterprise software company SHI International – valued by the Bloomberg Billionaires Index at US$3.2 billion – made the news for purchasing James Dyson's US$46 million penthouse in Singapore.

6. Elon Musk and the Singapore government

Tesla's controversial CEO doesn't shy from lobbing brickbats at who he feels are offending parties on social media, including the Singapore government. In early 2018, he grumbled on Twitter about the latter being "not supportive of electric vehicles", in reply to a tweet by a Singapore-based tech entrepreneur. Then in 2019, he tweeted that the government "has been unwelcome". In response to the critique, Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli said, "What Elon Musk wants to produce is a lifestyle. We are not interested in a lifestyle. We are interested in proper solutions that will address climate problems."

7. Tesla’s return to Singapore

A view of the Tesla service centre in Singapore July 16, 2022. REUTERS/Chen Lin
A view of the Tesla service centre in Singapore July 16, 2022. REUTERS/Chen Lin

On 1 April 2016, Musk included Singapore for pre-orders of Tesla's first mid-range model, the Model 3, though the company only officially announced its return to the country in February 2021. This came after much speculation over job listings for Tesla service staff in Singapore that began appearing in July 2020.

8. Tesla has won over Singapore drivers

According to the LTA’s September 2021 data, Tesla is the sixth best-selling car brand here, outranking other automakers such as Nissan, Audi and Kia. Tesla's Model 3 was Singapore's top-selling electric vehicle for the first time in September, with new registrations of Teslas surging 89 per cent to 312 in that month compared to August.

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