It’s not easy to get an interview with Simon Murray.
You’d think that the quintessential Hong Kong taipan would be easier to pin down now that he is 76 and removed from the epicenter of big business.
But he is as busy as ever. He is in the Middle East one day and Europe the next.
If you’re lucky, you might catch him in the China Club, the venerable Shanghai-style club and restaurant he co-founded.
So, when we finally caught up with him, we made sure it was worth the wait. Murray did not disappoint.
He opened up with a vigorous defense of former chief executive Donald Tsang while praising him for his role in calming Hong Kong nerves in the run-up to 1997.
“I know Donald very well. I don’t understand why he has to go through the ordeal of the past three years,” Murray said, referring to an official investigation into alleged misconduct.
Murray recalled his work with Tsang, then director of administration responsible for the so-called “passport to stay” initiative.
In the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, 60,000 Hong Kong people wanted to emigrate, he said.
To stop the exodus, Murray lobbied the British government to grant right of abode to Hong Kong people.
When he met with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, she said “sorry, we can’t give 75,000 Hong Kong families the right to stay.”
“I told her not all Hong Kong people would come to Britain. All they want is a safety net so that they can leave if something goes wrong.”
In April 1990, Thatcher’s government agreed to give 50,000 Hong Kong people right of abode. More than 225,000 people and their families would be secure in the thought that they would be allowed into Britain.
Donald Tsang called a midnight press conference to announce the plan, Murray said.
Murray uncorked a champagne to celebrate. An SCMP business editor called and said, “I heard about it. Are you happy?”
“I said it’s fantastic. It’s good for Hong Kong. People can stay, and they’re not running away.”
“He said … ‘but the Chinese don’t like it. They don’t like the British offering passports to Hong Kong people’ … I told him I wish the Chinese would shut up”.
He said that the next day, SCMP had a headline so big the print fell off the edge of the page: “China told to shut up over abode”.
When he returned to Hong Kong from London, Murray said he was called to a meeting with Zhou Nan (周南), the director of state new agency Xinhua, China’s de facto consulate in Hong Kong at the time.
Once they were alone, Murray told Zhou: “This is ridiculous. Why don’t we do something about it?”
Murray said he told Zhou in English that “shut up” is not impolite. “I always tell my wife to shut up. TV always says that.”
Murray said he had to explain the phrase to 15 mainland Chinese media groups.
He was one of a few expat executives who had his Chinese name printed on his Hong Kong identity card.
In 2005, he recalled a meeting with a certain Netcom executive who noticed that his Chinese name was similar to that of a Chinese emperor and questioned him with a “who do you think you are” look on his face.
“I told him Emperor Li lived to 61. I am 65.”
Murray remembered memorizing excerpts from an old speech to the American Asiatic Association in one of his meetings.
“We rendered China better understood by Americans and America better understood by Chinese. One of the chief objectives of my present mission is to promote this good understanding. This is encouraging but the Americans are taking a much greater interest in what’s going on in China than they did a little time ago.”
The speech was given on May 3, 1910 by Prince Tsai Tao, a Manchu prince in the Qing dynasty. Sino-US relationship was only just evolving.
Murray said that in the late 1960s, China and Russia were engaged in a border dispute and Russia was planning to strike China.
Then came 1972, when Richard Nixon became the first US president to visit China.
Murray said Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s Secretary of State, was a friend who gave him a window on the historic diplomatic breakthrough.
After all these years, however, Sino-US relations are not strong enough, Murray said.
“The Americans cannot make up their mind about China. The greatest alliance in the world today would be America and China,” he said.
Murray thinks President Barack Obama is weak, just like some of his European counterparts.
On the other hand, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s strong leadership could lead China into another tumultuous chapter in its history.
“I think many people have great admiration for Xi Jinping. He is brave to take on corruption. So you have 88 million Communist Party members who are terrified of him. But he gets applause from the people in the streets and respect from other countries.
Murray recalled an incident in 1989 when he was called in by the boss after he delivered a speech about corruption in China which was carried by SCMP.
The boss asked him why he did it. “I replied ‘Deng Xiaoping just mentioned it. Why couldn’t I?”.
Murray led Li Ka-shing’s Hutchison Whampoa for nine years until 1993.
Since leaving his job, Murray has kept in touch with Li and the two often lunch together whenever he is in town.
Murray remains on the board of Li’s Cheung Kong Properties flagship.
Murray is no stranger to controversy.
In 2011, he told the Daily Telegraph that he would not hire married women because they’re more likely to be focused on their children than on their work.
The remarks drew widespread condemnation from human rights groups. He was forced to take back his comment.
Murray said all people disagreed with him. “In Russia, you are a hero if you say that. I had 3,000 e-mails from people who agreed with me.”
Murray’s worldview perhaps comes from the fact that he is British by blood, Hongkonger by practice and Singaporean by fiat (he showed us a Singapore permanent resident card).
He lives in southern France during the summer and goes to Morocco for hiking. He is one of the oldest men to have explored the South Pole.
Murray was invited to become a Singaporean when he was chairman of Deutsche Bank Asia. He bought a flat there a year later.
In 1995, Murray met Singapore founder Lee Kuan Yew.
“Lee said China would abolish Legco. I said ‘why don’t we bet S$200 on that?’ Lee won and I sent him a cheque. He took the cheque and said thank you.”
Murray is not done making bets and has shown no intention of slowing down.
His latest interest is the Middle East, where he formed a partnership for a pledge fund.
For US$3 million, he offers global investment projects to clients with an opt-out option if they decide not to co-invest.
His pledge fund, inspired by the American European Association, involves US real estate projects, Chinese entertainment assets and bio-technology investments.
His GEMS funds have produced a decent investment return for the past 18 years, with a few exceptions such as Russian mining and Chinese forestry.
“Wait, I might have good news for you,” Murray said.
That’s a trademark interjection that shows you he has lost none of his touch.
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