Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Friends, Friends – Not a Single soul when I’m In Need

Bloomberg has just issued a report entitled “Saudi Prince Who Wooed West Finds Few Friends in Tough Times” which is a report about how Prince Alwaleed, the billionaire investor who is the single largest shareholder in Citigroup, is now finding himself without friends, now that he’s been arrested on charges of corruption. The Bloomberg report can be read at:

What makes this report interesting is the fact that if the Saudi Royal Family has a hero in the Western world, it’s Prince Alwaleed. While the Prince did not get start with nothing, he is the only Saudi Prince who has been known to have made something of his stipend through his own brains and industry. He took the risk of investing in what was then known as Citicorp when its shares were at an all time low. The investment in Citicorp has grown more than ten times since the company merged with Travelers to become Citigroup and that’s not all. The Prince has also made successful investments in companies like Twitter and Lyft among others.

As well as being a successful investor, the Prince is also as close as the West has to someone who shares their values in Saudi Arabia. Women who work at Kingdom Holdings were known to have been allowed to go without a veil in the office and he most famously hired a female pilot in a country where women have only just been given the right to drive.

When you think of everything that Prince Alwaleed has achieved, you have to wonder why not many people have uttered a sound at his sudden imprisonment on 4 November 2017.

The simple reason is this; Prince Alwaleed got onto the wrong side of his cousin, the current Crown Prince, Mohammad Bin Salman, better know by his initials MBS. While Alwaleed may have been the darling of the Western media and the western business community, MBS had something far more valuable – controls of the levers of real power. While the rise of MBS has been sudden, nobody doubts that MBS will the first king from the grandchildren of Saudi Arabia’s founding father, King Abdul Aziz Bin Abdul Rahmad Al Saud.

Simply put – power trumps money. While having money often brings one great power (for example nobody screws with Li-Ka-Shing in Hong Kong), the two are in actual fact separate items. I should know, I’m from an ethnic group living in a part of the world where people of my ethnic group have money but live fear from the people with power. The people with the power can always get hold of the power while the people with the money don’t always have the power. I live in Singapore where one doesn’t mess with the family of Lee Kuan Yew because this is the family with the power. By contrast, I can afford to be less polite about Wee Chow Yaw, the former head of UOB Bank. The reason is simple, the late Mr. Lee and his family have influence on the government and thus over just about everything in Singapore that I need for my basic survival. While Mr. Wee has power due to his vast wealth, he doesn’t affect my life if I don’t work for him.

Furthermore, friendships in business tend to be dominated by self-interest. When you need someone, you tend to be nice to them and helping them out often depends on self-interest. When someone with greater influence comes along, you tend to find that the people whom you thought were your friends, start jumping ship.

I think of Susan Lim case, which I helped out on. Dr. Lim was a star surgeon to the rich and famous. She’s married to Deepak Sharma, the former Chairman of Citi’s Private Bank. Between them, they had more money than most could dream about and the rich and powerful clamoured to be their friends. Then, it all broke down. The powerful no longer came knocking at their door. The reason was simple. The Singapore Government was given a choice between her and Mr. Sharma and the Sultan of Brunei. The government chose the Sultan of Brunei.

Likewise, for Prince Alwaleed. The boardrooms of the West would salivate at the thought of an investment from Prince Alwaleed. But when given a choice between Alwaleed who had money and some princely influence and MBS who has the power of the entire Saudi Government and its influence in the Muslim world (Saudi Arabia is Custodian of the Holy Mosque of Islam), the cold-hard-power calculations point towards not risking the prospect of offending MBS.

What are the lessons to be learnt? I guess the key is to recognize where the power lies and understand what your friends will or will not do for you. There is such a thing as not asking your friends to stick out their necks for you so that they do remain your friends.

Then there’s the importance of cementing your relationships to something stronger than money. If a relationship is based merely on money, you’ll find the party running when a better offer is made. It’s especially common when you see Westerners finding love with much younger Asian girls. The Westerner really believes that the girl loves him for him. Suddenly, when a better offer appears she dumps him and he’s heart broken. I’m not casting aspersions on West-East relationships but it’s a common site in this part of the world where you see normally intelligent Westerners losing themselves to girls who are obviously in the business.

Prince Alwaleed has found this out the hard way. He has lots of money and now he’s found his friends in the West have found someone who has something more desirable.
You need money to get things moving. You need friends to do things. Its often said that the two go hand in hand. However, if money is all there is to a friendship, you may find yourself losing a friendship when the money is not longer there. It’s a basic fact that many of us forget until it is too late.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Humanity as an Asset

It’s my 43rd Birthday today and although I’ve reached the age where birthdays are nothing more than just another day, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by two-people, whom I seem to have given up hope on. One is my favourite pet charity and the other is my perpetual damsel-in-distress. Both these ladies have thrived on my weakness for vulnerable puppies. Whenever they need something, all they have to do is to look sad and something in me compels me not to want either of these ladies to be sad.
Well, just when I least expected it, the pet charity struck had a small windfall from the lottery and her first reaction was to rush over to my work place, pay off a debt and she bought the cake and insisted that my restaurant crew end up ushering the birthday with her.

Around 13-hours later perpetual damsel-in-distress made special arrangements for me to have a birthday lunch including a cake. She actually had everything down to a fine point – all I had to do was to sit here, she took care of everything.

Both these ladies have reminded me of one of the main points in life that I’ve always tried to practice – remembering the humanity in people. I’ve not been perfect at this but whenever I deal with people, I try to see people as people rather than what they can offer me.

Practicing this can be tough. Human beings are quite often sods of the highest level, who, if given a chance would try and screw you for being nice to them.

However, I’ve found that for every time I’ve been screwed by an ungrateful sod, I’ve been rewarded more often by decent people, in particular the people who used to be somebody.

What am I referring to? I am talking about people who once held powerful positions in the government and corporate sector, who suddenly lose their jobs. It’s at this point where they realise who their friends are, the people who cared about them rather than the position they held. It’s at this point in their careers where they become willing to do things for their friends rather than dealing with the people who clamored to them because they were deemed useful.

I think of a business partner who was in many ways my first boss. This partner ran a small advertising and PR firm that had run into financial issues. I remember when he was going down.  Nobody wanted to touch him with a barge pole. Suppliers and former employees were pissed off and clients wouldn’t touch him because, well everyone was pissed off.

For some reason, I kept in touch and we went out for drinks and before you knew it, I was back at work. Somehow, when I joined him, he managed to build himself back up and managed to pass me enough pocket change to get by.

I also think of a former editor-in-chief, who I had written for. I remained in touch with him and before I knew it, I had the privilege of working at BANG PR and the Public Utilities Board account, which involved an aspect of PR that I would not have touched on my own. I got to know Singapore’s water policy and became one of the spokespeople for the government’s water plans.

I even look at my current situation. I’ve now been working on a corporate job for the last four-years, after a history of not being employed for more than eight-months, because I was willing to work for a boss with a decent enough heart for his friends. I didn’t have projects on the horizon coming in and he was on the verge of building up his business from scratch after a particularly nasty fall. As ironies would have it, I’ve found employment longevity in an industry where I’ve had the least qualifications for.

People are funny and I think we all relate to each other in strange ways. I’m a believer in being a decent human being in your dealings with people. It’s a case of never knowing who you’ll need. I’ve been fortunate that those in the position to help have helped whenever I’ve needed it. I also think that those who may not be in the position to do anything for me, might one-day surprise. I think of the two young ladies who have turned this birthday into a surprisingly pleasant one and I like think they won’t be the last people to surprise me in a pleasant way.