The day Lee Kuan Yew visited me on my boat

The day Lee Kuan Yew visited me on my boat

Steven J. Green, former head of Samsonite Corp, who was United States Ambassador to Singapore between 1997 and 2001, stepped down as chairman and chief executive of Singapore-based investment firm k1 Ventures on Oct 27. In a farewell interview with Ravi Velloor and Wong Wei Han of The Straits Times in Singapore, Green, a close friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton, spoke about his long association with Singapore, how he helped swing the US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement and his memories of a friendship with Lee Kuan Yew.

Edited excerpts:

Q You were unusually close to Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

A From the first meeting, we developed a friendship. I knew nothing about being an ambassador. I'd come here before as a businessman, of course. As a businessman you can say something stupid and get away, but as an ambassador what you say impacts your country. So I was a bit overwhelmed by that aspect. I went to the first of what they call country meetings, where all the agencies get together and discuss what is happening.

Every year, the US Embassy would go over to MFA (the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and present a demarche on human rights. It was almost robotic.

So I said to one of the people at the country meeting, "Who do you engage with to find out why they have these draconian laws here?" I was told that would be the Chief Justice. But he doesn't see anybody from the embassy. I said, "How do you know?" The person said, "He is a tough judge." I said, "Bring me the telephone."

So, in front of everybody, this new brash ambassador picks up the telephone and says, "Get me the CJ." Mr Yong Pung How picked up the phone and I said, "Mr CJ, my name is Steven Green and I am the new US Ambassador. I would like to come see you." He said, "I would be delighted." I went over and he served tea and he was absolutely charming. And he explained to me some of the reasons for the rules and regulations. In the context he put it, they made a lot of sense.

And he looked at me and said, "Have you met the Senior Minister?" I said no, I had just arrived. He said, "Let me ring him up and set up a meeting." It was outside of the MFA channel and, in fact, the first time LKY came on my boat - that boat was 115 feet, my new boat is 150 feet - the CJ came with him.

Q What is your best memory of Mr Lee?

A I had the opportunity to take him on my boat several times. One day, he asked me, "Why do you like your boat?" I said I found it relaxing to be on it. So he said he wanted to come on my boat. But Mrs Lee said, "Harry, you'll get seasick." But he said he wanted to come anyway. So I arranged for an evening to take him out. He wanted bison for dinner. I said to myself, "Where am I going to get bison? This is a boat! We are supposed to eat fish." Apparently, he had eaten bison at Les Amis, so I was able to get bison. I told my captain, "If you get this man seasick, this is your last day." We had a fun time.

Mr Green says Singapore's success is largely because it created an environment of competitive advantage vis-a-vis its neighbours. He thinks that the country, with its only natural resource being human capital, is doing absolutely the right thing by investing in human capital.

I received an award from Singapore a couple of years ago and I called up and said I would like to meet him with my grandchildren since they were coming to watch me receive the award. He rang back immediately and said to bring them over at five o'clock. At 3pm, we were preparing our kids to go to the Istana. Then at 4pm, we got a call saying he'd been taken to the hospital. I expressed my concern and said not to worry about the cancelled meeting, but his personal assistant said, "No, no... he doesn't want to disappoint you." Mr Lee literally got out of bed and spent an hour with us. It shows the kind of person he was. I considered him a good friend.

Q What did you talk about?

A Oh, it was several hours. He was always interested in geopolitics and that sort of thing. He had a curiosity about everything and everyone. If you gave him some information, he would immediately say, "How do you know that? What is your source?" The last time he was on my boat, we had to hoist him up hydraulically. We were afraid he would fall. But he enjoyed himself, had some wine, ate well. In his last years, he always had a Chinese silk jacket on.


Q Was he curious about the way you ran your business?

A He was curious about everything. When he went on the boat, he was curious about the expenses for the boat. I said, "You wouldn't want to know." But he said, "No, I do."

In fact, when Singapore was considering whether to allow gaming, I went to Las Vegas with him. He was so curious to see what Las Vegas was like. For a man who was so totally opposed to something like that to go out and search for information and to see if things had changed and if he should change with the times, it speaks highly of him.

Q Where did you take him in Vegas?

A I took him to Steve Wynn's hotel. And Mrs Lee went too. She was, at that time, able to travel. He was fascinated by the culture. If you were to describe him in one word, it would be "curious". His curiosity knew no bounds.

Q Give us a sense of how the free trade agreement (FTA) with Singapore happened.

A Prof S. Jayakumar was foreign minister and Mr Goh Chok Tong was prime minister at the time. They were trying to create a multilateral agreement on trade. It didn't look like it was going anywhere. I said, "Why don't we consider a bilateral agreement on trade?" Everyone said, "Do you think the US will agree to it?" I said, "Let us ask President Bill Clinton."

So we decided that we would find a way to present a bilateral agreement that would make a statement that the US supports free trade in the region with a counterpart that believes in free trade, which was Singapore. The US Trade Representative was Charlene Barshefsky. So I called Charlene. We had a meeting with her and she was supportive. We thought the best time we could do this was at the Asean meeting in Brunei. So we primed the PM and got him ready to engage in a golf game with the president. And at that golf game they had a discussion and Mr Clinton wrote out some notes on the back of an envelope. And from that point Mr Clinton supported the FTA.

Q You mean, sitting in a golf buggy?

A Yes, I think they have it (the notes) in the archives here. We had all this planned and then 20 minutes before the golf game it thundered and there was lightning and it poured. We thought the game would be off. But Mr Clinton said, "No, no. We will play." Then the lightning and thunder stopped and they played.

Q I understand that the game finished at 2.45am?

A It did. Mr Clinton was shocked to hear there was night golf. He had never heard of night golf before. And he asked Mr Goh, "How late do you play night golf? And Mr Goh said, "Till we are finished!" They became friends.

Q How do you view the Asean Economic Community from a strategic and business point of view?

A I arrived in 1997 when the Asian (financial) crisis was just starting. Myanmar was not part of Asean at the time. Having a strong Asean is good for South-east Asia and the world. Having a free trade area of Asean - it is a big market and one the West will have to pay attention to - there is some strength in unity. The problem, of course, is this diversity that makes unity difficult. If you look at the European Union, it has 28 countries and a mix of cultures and each one with a separate central bank. You have almost integration, but not integration. Those are the issues Asean will have to tackle as well.

Q The US is the biggest investor here, alongside the EU. Will Americans start seeing South-east Asia as one unit?

A In the 1990s, the average small business in America thought an export was New Jersey to Texas. Today, people have much more of an international concept. Because you can be an exporter with the push of a button, you could be an exporter from anywhere in the world. I am encouraged by that. The political winds are discouraging though. Brexit was a big surprise to everyone. They left because they were emotionally driven. They left with no plan.


Q The US is constantly reinventing itself. Do you think Singapore has it in itself to overcome the current growth pangs? What should we do?

A Singapore's success was largely because it created an environment of competitive advantage vis-a-vis its neighbours. It is amazing what it accomplished. Its only natural resource is human capital and Singapore is doing absolutely the right thing by investing in human capital. You say the US has an ability to reinvent itself? Singapore has a faster ability to reinvent itself and has the ability to do that over and over again. And I think it is in the process of doing that.

Q What were the highlights of your association with k1 Ventures?

A We made somewhere between eight and 10 acquisitions after taking over an existing company that was set up as a venture capital fund. The first year, we wrote down $67 million in investments that were poorly made in technology. We were left with approximately $330 million in cash.

Over the years, we invested all the money outside of Singapore. We made one investment in China Auto, but the rest of the investments were in the US. If you look at the monetisation of those investments, only a fragment of one and one investment is left. We already distributed over $900 million - close to a billion dollars - in dividends and capital distributions. And more assets are to be distributed, the value of which will be recognised over a short period of time. So I guess when you look back, I think the shareholders should be very pleased. I am proud of the fact that we were able to, in a difficult market at times, monetise these assets to the significant benefit of our shareholders.

What I am disappointed in is that my original thought was to turn k1 into a large investment vehicle. But in the public environment, the conglomerate investment company - not only k1, but others as well - seems to trade at a discount to the value. So if you break it up into pieces, it is worth more than the whole. The only reason to be public is to have paper to issue to raise capital. If you are trading at a discount, you don't want to issue paper because you are diluting your own investments. So it became apparent that k1 was limited in its ability to raise capital without diluting its investments.

We thought it would be better to be in a private environment, but it is difficult to be a private company once you have been a public company. In fact, we attempted to do it at one time. So we made the decision that rather than continue to try to raise capital in a diluted fashion, we would then monetise the assets and distribute the money back to the shareholders. So, five years ago we stopped investing. The success I told you about was without making an investment in five years. They were all invested before.

Q What were the other high points of your stint in Singapore?

A The visa waiver programme. When I arrived here as ambassador, I saw lines of Singaporeans outside the embassy with no cover. I found that disturbing. Somebody hadn't realised that it rains in Singapore. I found out that there was something called a visa waiver programme.

Fortunately, the Attorney- General was Janet Reno, whom I had known from Florida since I was a young boy. I went to see her and said I'd done some research and I thought Singapore met all the criteria for a visa waiver programme. And she said the problem is that the Justice Department does not like the visa waiver programme. I said, well, change the law! I was able to do that. I am very proud of it. I also got a covered walkway!

Q You have to admit that there isn't much chance of Singaporeans trying to be illegal migrants into the US.

A That's why it got through.

Q What's it about Floridians and Singapore? The current ambassador, Mr Kirk Wagar, is from Florida as well...

A I have known Kirk before he was ambassador. He was a lawyer in Miami. He is a caring, informed and personable guy. He is engaged in the community and doing a great job. He came to see me before he took the position and had several discussions about several countries and I said that if Singapore is on the table, you take it.

Q You are a luggage person, Samsonite...

A I came to my job with a lot of baggage (laughing).

Q Which you seem to have shed very quickly...

A I will tell you a story about the luggage. We were one of the couples invited to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom when Mr Clinton was president. We were invited on our anniversary - March 19 - so I decided that when I arrived, I would give the president a gift of luggage. We even got the presidential seals and had them embedded and I must say workers in the factory were honoured to do it. There were five pieces of different sizes. When we arrived at the White House with five pieces of luggage, people thought we were moving in for several months.

This article was first published on Nov 29, 2016.
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