Kwek Leng Beng may be one of Singapore's most successful businessmen, but he is also among the country's most enigmatic. While his companies and brands are blue-chip counters and household names, the man behind one of Asia's largest conglomerates has steadfastly remained reticent and at times mysterious.
In the newly launched book Strictly Business: The Kwek Leng Beng Story, author Peh Shing Huei details the stories behind some of Singapore's biggest corporate deals in real estate and hospitality, as well as the secrets of Kwek's success and the lessons he learnt through setbacks and challenges.
Co-published by World Scientific and The Nutgraf Books, the authorised biography is available at all major bookstores now, and Mothership readers can order a copy here with the promo code “WSMSSB20” for 20 per cent off till Nov. 30, 2023.
An excerpt from Chapter 16, "The Forgotten Man of Marina Bay Sands" is reproduced here. It tells the story of Kwek's role in the development of Marina Bay Sands, including his crucial input on how the landmark's iconic SkyPark would shape up.
By Peh Shing Huei
When Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced in August 2004 that his government would consider breaking decades-old taboo to build a casino, reactions from the society were a volatile cocktail of excitement, concern and outright fear. But there were no such mixed feelings for Kwek Leng Beng. He knew immediately that it was the right decision to reinvent the country’s economy and image, a change which could fundamentally alter Singapore’s global reputation.
When the government made public that Singapore was going to build not one, but two, integrated resorts (IR) with casinos, Kwek and City Developments Limited (CDL) quickly emerged as potential bidders for the projects. But he had only eyes for the Marina Bay development, distancing himself from the parallel project in tourism island Sentosa. Given the Marina Bay site’s stated focus on conventions and hotel businesses by the authorities, CDL felt it was more compatible with its businesses.
As word on the street stirred that a winning bid should ideally be a joint venture between a global gaming player and a local property company, Kwek began to be courted by some of the biggest names in the casino business. Yet, as MGM Mirage tied up with CapitaLand and Harrah’s Entertainment partnered Keppel Land — both government-linked real estate giants — the Kwek camp remained noncommittal.
Truth was, as he revealed in an interview for this book, none of the suitors had impressed him.
“They gave me beautiful presentations with designs which were fanciful, but without concrete substance. Yes, they looked very nice. But how can it help the economy?” he recalled.
Adelson and Kwek
When Sheldon Adelson, the boss of Las Vegas Sands, came a-calling, Kwek found a kindred spirit in the gaming tycoon.
The Singaporean liked that the American was going to sink billions of his own net worth into Sands’ eventual US$6.88 billion investment, through his more than 60 per cent stake in Sands. That spoke to Kwek’s heart, who likened it to his own stake in his hotel arm, Millennium & Copthorne (M&C): “I control 53 per cent of M&C. Every pound it loses, I lose 53 cents. So whatever I want to do, I must have confidence and make sure I can make money.”
This, to him, distinguished Adelson from the other bidders. “That’s the difference between an entrepreneur and a professional,” said Kwek in a media interview in 2006.
“How many have the confidence to put their money where their mouth is?”
They agreed for CDL to take a 15 per cent stake in Sands’ bid, and when the partnership was announced in December 2005, it immediately catapulted the team into frontrunner status, ahead of four others still in the running, including MGM Grand–CapitaLand and Harrah’s–Keppel Land.
Strong views on design
Kwek went to work immediately, said George Tanasijevich (Sands’ man on the ground in Singapore), giving the local inputs which Sands were craving for.
“He was very straightforward, honest, capable, experienced, knowledgeable, and had very good instincts in terms of design and programming of the IR," he said.
Kwek urged Sands to up its number of rooms from 800 to over 2,500. Adelson agreed. Kwek pushed for renowned architect Moshe Safdie to step in to replace Sands’ earlier choice.
Kwek, who had strong views on design, then paid close attention to the drawings and models of Safdie, beyond convincing Adelson to keep the SkyPark. He brought an Asian sensibility to the table, observed Tanasijevich.
An earlier version of Safdie’s design had the SkyPark symmetrical with both ends having a cantilever. Kwek and a fengshui master thought it was a bad idea, saying that it resembled a torii, a traditional Japanese gate often found at the entrance to a Shinto shrine. Given Asia’s tragic memories of World War II and Singapore’s brutal occupation by Japan, the cultural insensitivities would be highly controversial.
“The feedback from Kwek and the fengshui master was that such imagery of that silhouette was not proper,” said Tanasijevich. Safdie took the comments onboard, got rid of the cantilever at one end and pushed the SkyPark 67m past Tower One. It laid claim to the biggest cantilever in the world. “I liked it a lot because it made it very dynamic,” said Safdie.
Pulling out of the partnership
Exactly a month after inking the deal with Adelson, Kwek stunned the world in January 2006 by announcing CDL was pulling out.
The tycoon would later elaborate that they quit because of regulatory restrictions and that some in CDL were unwilling to disclose their full financial background.
But amid the exit commotion, few paid much attention to Kwek saying that he would stay on to help Sands’ bid. Many dismissed it as a face-saving gesture. He would prove them very wrong.
For the next three months, he worked behind the scenes with Safdie to refine the architecture and design, deeply aware that the authorities wanted an iconic building on the Marina Bay to anchor the city’s skyline.
On the eve of Sands’ final pitch to a ministerial panel in Singapore, Kwek even gave a rare three-hour media interview over lunch, backing Adelson and Sands to the hilt. The next day, he joined the Sands delegation to do a 75-minute presentation to the ministerial panel.
The rather selfless act befuddled many, who wondered what Kwek stood to gain when he no longer had skin in the game. He told reporters in 2006:
“You can ask the question why I am interested to help them when I have no financial interest in the project. The reason is very simple: I love Singapore. I want to see Singapore with an IR that is a success.”
Despite the twists and turns, Sands’ bid prevailed.
And with that, Kwek’s role behind what would come to be known around the world as Marina Bay Sands faded into private memories of a few and dusty newspaper archives.…It did not bother him one bit.
"Why do I want to let people know? Publicise? I want to be practical. I could help the economy. I’m very thankful, that’s all."
Top image by K8 via Unsplash and DLKR via Unsplash