Ong Beng Seng: the man who brought F1 to Singapore

By all accounts, Singapore’s maiden Grand Prix – the first ever to be held after dark – was spectacular. The sparks flew as the cars “shimmered and slammed” around the demanding Marina Bay circuit, creating a magical scene that was more than a match for the glitz of Monte Carlo, says The Guardian. Many had doubted whether Formula One could pull it off, but the general consensus was: bravo Bernie Ecclestone. However, it also marked a stunning victory for Malaysian-born tycoon Ong Beng Seng, who has been manoeuvring for the best part of 20 years to bring F1 to the Lion City.

Ecclestone and Ong are old friends: they worked together in the 1990s to bring F1 to Malaysia. But “OBS”, as he is known locally, cut a low profile at last weekend’s jamboree. Notoriously media shy, he is often referred to in Singapore as “the invisible Ong”, says the Sydney Daily Telegraph and Mirror. Yet his influence is everywhere. Variously a property tycoon, steel magnate and a hotelier, he is married to Christina Ong – no mean entrepreneur in her own right. Between them, the Posh ‘n’ Becks of Singapore have cornered the market in bringing glamourous western franchises to southeast Asia. Christina’s upmarket fashion chain, Club 21, has longstanding links with Armani, Versace and DKNY. Ong himself has made a pile from Hard Rock, Planet Hollywood and Four Seasons franchises; in all, his Singapore-listed Hotel Properties Ltd (HPL) owns 19 upscale hotels in the region.

Ironically, given his passion for motor racing, friends say OBS – a champion schoolboy sprinter and high jumper – is a lousy driver, says The Singapore Straits Times. “He once drove a Volvo onto a roundabout at a busy Singapore intersection”, fortunately escaping unharmed. But when it comes to business Ong, 63, is a consummate wheeler-dealer. “Shrewd” is the adjective that most associates apply. But he’s also dogged – renowned for waging lengthy battles with bigger tycoons to secure the assets he wants. His four-year fight for the steelmaker Natsteel became a cause célèbre in the local press. Ong’s wife, Christina is no less formidable, says The Daily Telegraph. Just ask Roger Saul, the British founder of Mulberry. Having taken a stake in the upmarket bag-maker, she agitated for control and eventually succeeded in ousting him completely.

Critics claim that Ong, who started out as an insurance underwriter and spent time in London in the 1970s working for the asset-stripping merchant bank Slater Walker, owes everything to his in-laws. Certainly, he sees his late oil-trading father-in-law Peter Fu as his “inspiration”, says The Straits Times; it was Fu who championed the original move into hotels. And not everything has gone the Ongs’ way: their dream of building Mulberry into a global luxury brand along the lines of Burberry has stalled, while Ong has yet to fully live up to The Wall Street Journal’s 1988 view that he was the Singaporean most likely to shape “the new millennium’s business world”. Still, give him time. Few others are poised to profit so handsomely from Singapore’s ambition to eclipse Dubai as an international leisure and business hub. Ong owns everything from prime residential properties and shopping centres, to the distribution rights of Häagen-Daz ice-cream – and that’s before you consider the F1 bonanza (see below).

It’s a great deal for Ong Beng Seng – but what’s in it for Singapore?

“For years I’ve been saying go east, not west,” Bernie Ecclestone told The Singapore Straits Times. Last week’s Grand Prix success seems to vindicate F1′s new direction. Ecclestone heaped high praise on his partner, Ong Beng Seng: “He’s a very courageous entrepreneur and lovely guy, totally reliable.”

It’s easy to see why Ecclestone is cock-a-hoop, says The Daily Telegraph: the success of the “night shift” trial could transform motor racing by spelling the end of the traditional F1 season. With the need to run in natural light “no longer the ball and chain it was”, Ecclestone can beam F1 from glamourous Asian locations into European homes at lunchtime instead of dawn, doubling viewing figures. The local cash rewards are certainly not to be sniffed at either, notes Singapore’s Media magazine, and it is Ong who will profit most: 70% of the revenues from F1-related transactions in Singapore will go directly into the coffers of his privately owned firm Singapore GP. It looks a great deal – not least because Ong and Ecclestone have convinced Singapore’s government to stump up 60% of the $150m annual bill to host the race for the next five years.

So what’s in it for Singapore? The hope that it will “open eyes” about its status as a global economic player. But it cannot afford to rest on its laurels. Abu Dhabi will make its F1 debut next year, followed by South Korea and India in 2011. The race to become Asia’s premier motor racing venue has only just begun.

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