Saturday, June 30, 2012

In love with the little red dot

Jun 29, 2012

Ten years after giving up Belgian citizenship to become a Singaporean, Singapore Diamond Exchange chairman and Singapore FreePort co-founder Alain Vandenborre tells Susan Long why he is more smitten than ever with Singapore.


AS THE euro crisis deepens, Mr Alain Vandenborre's European friends, who once asked why in the world he would renounce his Belgian citizenship to become a Singaporean, are now seeking his help to relocate here too.

At least half a dozen have called him this past year and these include top-brass finance professionals who sit on global boards.

'Nobody questions any more, 'Why are you doing this?' Instead, they are all asking, 'How can I become a citizen?'' says the 51-year-old venture capitalist and entrepreneur, who has lived and worked in six countries, including Germany, Holland, France and China.

Each time, he hangs up the phone and 'smiles a little smile' to himself.

Love, he believes, has led him to all the right places. It was love, not low tax rates or 'any business consideration', he maintains, that made him apply for a chilli-red passport.

He first arrived here in 1995, on a short working trip as head of international development of French multinational GDFSuez. He was so smitten by the people, culture and values that he brought his family here to live in 1997.

After much soul-searching, deep discussions with Singapore's politicians and senior civil servants, reading all the seminal local history and policy books, and sitting in almost every parliamentary session for three years to understand the system up-close, he made up his mind.

He renounced his loyalty to Belgium and, with tears in his eyes, took up Singapore citizenship in 2002. He has since penned two books on why he took the plunge.

The first book, Proudly Singaporean, published in 2003, details his love story with Singapore and quotes chapter and verse from various ministers' speeches on the country's trials and triumphs.

His second, The Little Door To The New World, published in 2005, is a reply to his Western friends who told him he had 'made the wrong bet' and that Singapore would disappear with the ascent of China and India. It is a treatise on how Singapore will survive as long as it represents stability in a volatile world.

Of course, his great love exacted a cost.

After he traded nationalities, his son from his first marriage, who was then 15, gave him the cold shoulder. That was 10 years ago. Today, the 25-year-old is an aspiring politician who works for the Belgian Senate in Brussels. He was inspired to study political science, after sitting in the public gallery of Parliament with his father whenever he visited Singapore during his holidays. Every Aug 9, he now hangs the Singapore flag on his window.

'Like most young Europeans now, he is thinking whether he should move here for work,' says Mr Vandenborre, who also has a daughter, 22, from his first marriage, who is studying in Liege.

For the past 20 years, he has been married to Laurence, an art therapist and permanent resident here with Belgian citizenship. They have two sons aged 15 and 16 attending United World College here.

He will leave it to them to decide whether to do national service. 'We are a very democratic family. We try not to impose on our children our own systems and beliefs,' he says.

But for himself, he no longer 'feels safe' on the streets of Belgium or France. Recently, he was in Brussels, waiting for a meeting in a bank, and after 10 minutes of reading news ribbons on the Bloomberg screen - on job cuts, plunging stock prices, bank defaults and political impasse - he felt so depressed, he just wanted to get back on a plane home.

'I think that's what some people have lost in Europe now - a sense of belonging to their country because the system is falling apart.'

Luring the ultra-rich

OVER the past 10 years, he has put his money where his heart is. He is constantly thinking of new ways to draw the world's wealthy - many of whom park their money here - to Singapore's shores to 'interact with the system and values' he so adores.

In 2010, he unveiled the Singapore FreePort, a sleek, state-of-the-art steel, glass and concrete high-security facility, which looks like a setting for a sci-fi movie, in Changi North Crescent.

Modelled after the Swiss freeports in Zurich and Geneva, it offers wealthy collectors tax-free storage, as well as a place to display and sell their art, jewellery, antiques, vintage cars, carpets, wines, cigars and other collectibles. The 250,000 sq ft facility operates in its own duty-free zone next to Changi Airport, where the ultra-rich jet in, then pull up in chauffeured cars to 'visit' their Picassos.

It was built as a monument of his love for the little red dot, which he wants to propel beyond being just another offshore financial centre. Its intent is to attract a steady flow of the mega-rich, who would 'otherwise have little reason' to come to Singapore.

'Singapore has had too many wealth managers but too few wealth creators. It can't be a permanent magnet for wealth unless it has wealth creators and physical things that attract the wealthy,' he says, partially quoting one of his mentors, ex-permanent secretary Ngiam Tong Dow.

He notes that the difference between Hong Kong and Singapore, as far as wealth management is concerned, is that Hong Kong - a gateway to China - is comfortable with just being a large financial centre. 'In Singapore, we try to get people to come here and interact with our system and economy. It's not good enough to park funds to be managed here. We want you to invest in the economy and send your kids to school here,' he says.

'The FreePort concept helps because if you have money that is being remotely managed in a bank here, you might not come. But if you have a collection of artworks here, you will.'

At the end of last year, he took things up a notch and said it with diamonds.

Together with a few American and Israeli partners, he started an exclusive tender house, the Singapore Diamond Exchange, to get high net-worth investors with at least US$250,000 (S$322,000) to bid for the sparkling stones.

He is banking on the price of diamonds doubling over the next 15 years or so, because demand is growing at double digits annually, especially in China and India, but no new mines are being explored.

'It is a tangible asset and much less volatile than any other commodity or the stock markets,' he says, noting that nobody has succeeded yet in building up the precious stone as an investment product. 'It is a tremendous opportunity for Singapore to become the first market to do this.'

Over the past three years, he has also been working with government agencies here to transform an 'iconic heritage building here into a public art space', but is unable to say more till plans are firmed up later this year.

Living laboratory

FIFTEEN years on, he remains as 'driven by passion' and more besotted with Singapore than ever. It remains his muse and the ultimate 'living laboratory' to him. 'There is a mindset to look at every little idea as something with the potential to become a breakthrough,' gushes the man who was involved in the 2003 Economic Review Committee.

He cites himself and his wife, who have separately pioneered projects here, as 'living examples' of that. His wife has been a volunteer art therapist at Changi Prisons for the past 10 years, giving inmates an outlet of expression to deal with anger management and self-esteem issues.

They are now about to launch the Red Pencil, an international humanitarian art therapy foundation here which will help fund, train and deploy art therapists to Singapore hospitals to help long-term hospitalised or abused children, as well as attend to traumatised children in regional natural disasters together with the Singapore Red Cross.

This would have been tough to push through in the moribund Europe they left, with its crumbling welfare system and political deadlock, which 'has become heavy luggage to carry', he says.

But is his success because he has the ear of those in high places here? 'It's probably easier for me as someone new who comes from outside to be heard than a Singaporean voice,' he admits.

But he recounts how, when he first mooted the FreePort idea in 2005, his good friends here told him 'it will never happen'. He was requesting landmark concessions - land on the airport, free-trade zone status and simplified customs procedures for his high net-worth clients - from the Government. To his surprise, it listened, and agreed.

'So I think if you really come with an innovative idea, whether you're a new citizen or one born here, it doesn't matter,' he says. 'No one should believe I can cross every door at any level in the political sphere just because my name is known.'

But what he does loathe is the term 'foreign talent'. One of the reasons he took up citizenship was to stop that label being pinned on him. 'If I am a talent in any way, I am a local talent. I never liked this concept because it undermines the mindset of the people of Singapore,' he says.

Serial entrepreneur

HE OFTEN carries a little stone in his pocket which his Mum, now 77, who lives in Belgium, gave him. She had two rounds of brain surgery after an accident and recovered within three months through sheer willpower.

'When she was in hospital fighting for her life, I was sending her my mental energy through the stone,' he says. And when he feels down, he touches it to remind himself to 'think positive'.

At 15, the younger of two children of vegetable shop owners in Belgium lost his father to a traffic accident. Henceforth, he had to take care of himself and fund his own studies, which built up his adversity quotient. His hands bled from trimming trees as a forestry worker and waiting tables, which were his weekend jobs.

At 17, he went to the University of Liege where he studied astrophysics and won the National Young Scientist Award for developing a system that transmitted the Fifth Beethoven Symphony through a laser beam in 1977.

He went on to earn degrees in telecommunications engineering, finance and business administration from the universities of Brussels and Paris, with the help of scholarships.

In 1986, he started his first microelectronics company at 26, developing new laser direct writing technologies, sold it by 1990, then worked 10 years for various large multinationals overseeing banking and financial services operations in Asia, as a corporate strategy adviser and later chief financial officer.

After living here three years, he was inspired to return to his entrepreneurial roots. Among his successful ventures, he became a business angel to the late Chinese classical painter Chen Yifei in the China fashion market, and co-founded the private art dealership Ravenel Art Group based in Taipei, Hong Kong and Shanghai. But he confesses he has taken some big hits too and seen at least four companies go bust.

As such, his one criticism of Singapore is that it's not a forgiving country for those who fail. They become 'poster boys for the wrong reason'. But the keen equestrian has this advice: 'No matter how many times you fall from the horse, get back up as soon as possible so the fear of failure will not impede you.'

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