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Billionaire's mission to court Singapore’s political elite backfired

Bloomberg • 5 min read
Billionaire's mission to court Singapore’s political elite backfired
Ong Beng Seng helped bring in F1 to Singapore / Bloomberg
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Ong Beng Seng has a penchant for schmoozing with the elite. That’s led him to business partnerships with actor Sylvester Stallone and Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, while his decades-long friendship with Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone has been credited with bringing the night race to Singapore.

Now Ong’s ways are taking center stage after an investigation that has already toppled one of the most senior politicians in the city-state, which prides itself on a reputation for clean governance and business-friendly policies.

All 27 charges leveled against former Transport Minister S. Iswaran are related to alleged dealings with the Malaysian-born billionaire and his companies. Those include obtaining a flight on Ong’s private plane as well as tickets to Premier League football games and musicals in London. Ong, who was arrested in July for questioning and then released on bail, hasn’t been charged. 

It’s not Ong’s first brush with political controversy, but now the stakes are higher for the 78-year-old tycoon, whose Singapore-listed Hotel Properties H15 -

Ltd. is the cornerstone of his US$1.1 billion ($1.47billion) fortune, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. The company has interests in the Four Seasons hotel chain and develops luxury condos in cities like London and Singapore. 

“He’s a mover and shaker of the business and the one who calls the shots,” said Lawrence Loh, director of Centre for Governance and Sustainability at the National University of Singapore Business School. The probe “can be a risk.”

Singapore authorities arrested Ong in July to seek information on his interactions with Iswaran in the now concluded corruption probe. At the time, Hotel Properties said the tycoon was cooperating fully with the anti-graft agency and provided the information requested, though he was unable to give further details because the matter was ongoing. 

See also: Former CEO of AON Singapore and former directors of Fullerton Healthcare charged with corruption

The Attorney-General’s Chambers will decide on what action to take against the billionaire, if any, after the conclusion of the case against Iswaran, the office has said. 

Ong and Hotel Properties declined to comment for this story via an external spokesperson.

Hospitality Rebound 

See also: Former CEO of Oriental Group Limited jailed for market manipulation

When the scandal broke, Hotel Properties, which accounts for just over half of Ong’s fortune, was on the rebound after two years of losses during the Covid pandemic. Revenue jumped 53% in 2022 and 28% to $319 million in the first six months of last year, the latest available data show. 

Ong also holds a combined US$175 million worth of shares in luxury bag-maker Mulberry Group Plc, car dealership group Komoco Holdings Pte — which sells everything from Ferraris to Maseratis — and Singapore GP Pte, the owner of the rights to stage the night Formula One race in Singapore. In addition, he has management-services company Como Holdings UK Ltd. and an estimated US$270 million in cash, per Bloomberg calculations based on dividends and stock transactions. 

Now Como and Singapore GP have taken center stage in the charges against Iswaran. Prosecutors allege that the ex-transport minister received benefits from Ong through those companies, and in some cases, to advance the businessman’s interests. Iswaran has resigned and rejects the charges.

Ong survived a previous government investigation unscathed. In 1996, Hotel Properties sparked controversy by offering discounts to the then-deputy prime minister, current leader Lee Hsien Loong, and his father, Lee Kuan Yew, for four luxury apartments on the exclusive Nassim Road enclave. They were later cleared of any impropriety, and neither Ong nor his company were found to have breached any laws or rules. At the time, the billionaire called the fuss over the saga “damn unfair.”

“There is no need for anybody to run away from him, as if he is a leper. He is a straightforward businessman,” said Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, in a 1996 parliament debate while discussing the scandal. “He is an entrepreneur, and I admire him as an entrepreneur.” 

Iswaran, seen outside the State Courts, faces 27 charges / Photo: Bloomberg

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“Sheikh of the Far East” 

Ong, who himself comes from a well-to-do family, moved to Singapore at the age of four and attracted attention as an athlete in school. He studied insurance in the UK and worked in the industry in Europe before moving back to the city-state, according to a report by The Business Times. 

He married Christina Fu, the owner of hospitality firm Como Group Ltd., and set up Hotel Properties in 1980 with her family, the operator of a lucrative oil-trading business. He then acquired a number of hotels and properties in Singapore’s prime locations, earning him the moniker “Sheikh of the Far East” in a 1989 Straits Times article. 

Then in 2022, Ong staged one of his biggest deals. A consortium led by the billionaire acquired for $3.9 billion the media and property company that used to be called Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. with units of state investor Temasek Holdings Pte. A spokesperson for Temasek declined to comment.

Ong, who lives in a luxurious mansion on Nassim Road and has flown on a private Gulfstream jet, has shown little signs of slowing down despite the latest probe. After his passport was impounded, he requested permission from authorities last year to travel to Indonesia’s resort island of Bali, where he has properties including the Four Seasons Resort and Hard Rock Hotel. He was photographed in September in the paddock of the Singapore Grand Prix meeting other attendees. 

A spokesperson for Singapore’s Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau declined to say whether his passport is still confiscated or whether he needs to ask for permission to travel overseas.

When it comes to Ong’s business, things are also moving. Just in August, Hotel Properties won government approval to redevelop three of its properties in Singapore’s main shopping strip. And while the thinly traded stock is down since the case came to light, it remains 32% above its Covid-19 low in 2020. 

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