“The Singapore stock market itself is not a very liquid vehicle for these hedge funds so they’ve been forced to look globally and they’ve been conditioned to be international players,” Sulaeman said. People in Singapore have “also been educated in such a way that they’re very familiar with quantitative techniques and tools.”

Norman Tang, whose PruLev Global Macro Fund is also in the top 10, more than doubled his clients’ money this year and hit assets under management of $300 million, thanks in no small part to lucrative bets on Treasury futures and other international investments.

For years, Tang worked largely alone until he hired August Li, a trained engineer who’d spent time visiting palm oil processing plants and pouring through spreadsheets to help optimize systems. Together, they’ve built models that have taken advantage of Singapore’s global investment outlook, which in turn has attracted brokers from around the world.

“The ecosystem for futures trading is very well developed here,” Tang said. “The brokers who offer SGX trading tend to also offer futures trading. If you want to trade the Australian, U.S. or Canadian markets, many brokers here can offer it.”

Lady Luck

The least-charitable theory is that the top-performing Singapore funds adopted similar strategies and just got lucky.

Contrary to many expectations, key parts of the global economy fared well in 2019; the S&P 500 is up 26% since January. Had you made bullish, leveraged bets in the first half you would have earned substantial returns -- something Vanda, PruLev and Quantedge all managed to pull off as global macro funds.

Another figure supports the luck argument, too. The value of assets under management among Singapore’s hedge funds is still lower than its 2017 peak and plenty of failed and money-losing firms dot the landscape; if there’s something in the water, not everyone is drinking.

Even Vanda’s Chong says 2019 was likely an anomaly, warning clients not to expect such returns every year. He doesn’t rely on good fortune for his gains. Often his day won’t end until well after midnight as he trades the U.S. markets.

Regardless, the relatively long and positive track record of players like PruLev (seven years) and Quantedge (13 years) has served as a beacon for would-be money managers. In mid-2019, Quantedge was swamped by thousands of pedigreed candidates applying for just 30 internships, unimaginable a decade ago.