THE DIPLOMAT WHO BROUGHT RUSSIA TO SINGAPORE
Until a mere four years ago, Singapore and Russia shared only a nodding acquaintance. Geography and western media, slanted and biased more often than not, were the main culprits. Luckily, in today's Singapore, myths about Russia are being dispelled, stereotypes are being broken and a great many heads have recently turned towards the biggest country in the world. Behind this shift in awareness is a wise state official from Singapore who is genuinely in love with Russia and believes in diplomacy through culture. Meet Ambassador Michael Tay, Founder of the Russia-Singapore Business Forum and Executive Director of the APEC Secretariat.
The Forum That Tay Built
For two years after taking office in Moscow as Singaporean Ambassador in 2003, Tay had urged Singaporean companies to bring their energy and money to Russia. But their reservation was rooted in their fear of Russia's harsh climate, the language barrier and a misconception perpetuated by Hollywood action flicks depicting it as a mafia-driven and crime-riddled country.
"Western media defines how everybody looks at Russia and is generally slanted. They never interview those foreigners who are actually succeeding in Russia or those young Russian ministers who are trying to reform their country, and are not in pursuit of personal wealth. Journalists who write these stories do not live in Russia and have no idea what is going on on the ground," says Tay.
But Tay did know what was really happening in the Russia of the new millennium. Based in Moscow and travelling to Russia's various regions, Tay experienced the country first hand. Driven by the desire to tell the truth and share his intuition about Russia's potential as one of Singapore's business partners, Tay revived and relived the ancient parable of Mohammed and the mountain in a new Slavic-Asian context: since Singaporean companies were not going to Russia, Tay decided to bring Russia to Singapore instead.
Charismatic, easy-going and truly interested in Russia and its culture, Tay won many good friends among Russia's political and business elite. One day, while having lunch with a Troika Dialog executive, he shared his concerns about Russia being negatively portrayed and underestimated as a business partner, and this marked the birth of the Russia-Singapore Business Forum (RSBF). Troika Dialog immediately loved the idea and has been the Forum's sponsor to this day.
Through this Forum, not only did the daring Ambassador demystify Russia to Singaporeans, but he also brought the two countries' relationship to a new level.
Tay himself was surprised at how successful the inaugural RSBF 2006 turned out to be: about 200 Singaporean companies were involved, with a number of joint ventures founded and MOUs signed in industries such as aviation and logistics. About 70 Russian businessmen came to Singapore, 90 per cent of which had previously never been to the city-state.
"I advised Russian speakers to deliver their presentations in English, look good and not to talk too long," says Tay with a wise smile of an expert versed in cultural differences. "They liked the project because they were trying to help their country look better."
In the three years that the RSBF has existed, Russia has become an increasingly important market for many Singaporean companies, and many Russian enterprises have opened their rep offices in Singapore.
"After the first Forum, I started to get Singaporean businessmen coming to our Embassy in Moscow at least once a week in search of help in exploring business opportunities in Russia. Before the Forum, there had been hardly any," adds Tay.
Despite the tangible results of the first Forum, Tay decided that it would be his first and last one. It was just too much work. Whereas in Singapore he had a very reliable and supportive partner – IE Singapore – in Russia, he had only six people helping him to organise the event. But Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew saw the potential of the project and gave instructions to continue with it.
RSBF 2009: Bound to Succeed
Tay's optimism never seems to run out and his Russian connections are still solid. "Against all the odds, this year's Forum is bound to be much better that the previous one," he ensures. With the great enthusiasm and support shown by Sberbank's CEO, German Gref and Troika Dialog's CEO, Ruben Vardanian, Tay has been sending out joint invitations to various Russian companies welcoming them to Singapore's Forum. Russia's Deputy Prime Minister, Igor Shuvalov, has already confirmed his attendance as one of the key speakers.
In Singapore, the support has been fantastic, too, with three top state leaders participating in the Forum: Senior minister, Goh Chok Tong, MM Lee Kuan Yew and Minister for Finance Tharman Shanmugaratnam. "I don't think, in a single Forum like ours, that there has ever been so many prominent leaders involved," remarks Tay.
Never exhausted of initiating new projects and never one to rest on his laurels, Tay wants this year's RSBF to expand into a larger entity. Tay thinks globally: he wants to bridge Europe (Russia and CIS countries included) with Asia. And Singapore is deemed a perfect conduit, being a regional commercial and financial hub for quite some time already, with many leading regional companies having opened their headquarters here. A daring experimentalist, Tay has started the expansion by issuing invitations to 50 top Asian leading businesses, welcoming them to the RSBF 2009r.
"High net-worth people from all over the world will be coming to Singapore for Formula One. That is why scheduling the Forum back-to-back with F1 would allow them the opportunity to meet with Russia's and Asia's business elite," explains Tay. The opening of this year's Forum will take place on the final day of the F1 race. Participants will be ushered to the helipad of the Swissotel, towering 73 stories over the racetrack and offering breathtaking views. Tay sure knows how to entertain his guests.
Singaporean Patron of the Russian Arts
Tay has a passion for the arts, especially music. During his stint in Russia, he approached a local avant-garde composer, Vladimir Martynov, whose chorals had impressed him at an earlier concert with their overwhelming architectonics derived from studies of Russian Orthodox singing at a monastery. Full of cross-cultural ideas, Tay wanted the composer to create a chamber musical piece about Singapore, possibly for a string quartet. Having no governmental funds to implement his idea, Tay faced a challenging task of raising money. Fortune favoured the brave Ambassador who raised a whopping S$?250,000 from private companies. Russian contributors were very responsive, for Tay's project helped revive the tradition of sponsoring the arts, once so popular and natural among Russia's tycoons and industrialists, but which had been wiped out after the revolution.
Martynov, who came to Singapore (his first visit ever) before setting about writing the music, was fascinated by the city-state. He felt that the initial project for a string quartet would be like a staraitjacket because his impression of Singapore was so vast and multifaceted that it needed to be translated into a symphony, nothing less. Titled Singapore: A Geopolitical Utopia, the symphony debuted at Tchaikovsky Concert Hall in Moscow in October 2005 and garnered eight concert reviews in the Russian media. One writer even felt embarrassed that it was a tiny tropical nation that had commissioned one of the most significant musical works the Russian art scene had seen in the last 20 years.
The Ice Man Cometh
to the Tropics
Singapore's premier of Singapore: A Geopolitical Utopia opened the 2nd RSBF in 2007, and was graced by officials including President S.R. Nathan and MM Lee Kuan Yew. The Forum's finale was no less grand: it involved a skating rink installed on the beach in Sentosa, with performances by the highest-level Russian skaters like Alexei Yagudin, Tatiana Totmianina, Maxim Marinin, Tatiana Navka, Roman Kostomarov enjoyed by the Forum's participants. The idea of bringing an arctic touch to tropical Singapore could have only been generated by the inexhaustible and extreme Singaporean a la russe that is Michael Tay.
"I had met some Russian scientists in Tomsk, Siberia. They were looking at ways to commercialise their know-how – artificial ice which could be used for installations, even in tropical countries. Originally, I wanted to have some ice features put up in Singapore's hotels, but the Troika Dialog people, being typical Russians, wanted things more
extreme. Hence, the idea of the skating rink," laughs Tay.
The Organiser of the Global Pow-Wow
Today, Tay is no longer Singapore's Ambassador to the Russian Federation. He was offered the chance of a lifetime – to run the region's most high-powered meeting, the APEC Summit 2009.
This year, topics like climate change and corporate social responsibility are off the table. Instead, this coming November will see 21 global leaders congregating for the APEC Summit in the hope of helping business ride through the storm and reduce unemployment.
APEC's short-terms goal is to help companies stay afloat so that they are able to continue to import and export in the unfavourable conditions of the universal downturn. "Now that big companies have collapsed, we must nurture new champions – SMEs – who today have greater opportunities than ever," Tay states.
A longer-term project would be for APEC to remove barriers to cross-border trade and investments. Multiple layers of bureaucracy and excruciatingly long customs clearance processes are unfortunately part and parcel of doing business in Russia. Tay lamented – and rightfully so – that just to rent an office in Moscow may take a year.
"Being the Executive Director of APEC at this time is challenging but extremely interesting," says Tay. The current economic and financial crisis has introduced unseen market shifts: the world is no longer looking to the US or Europe, resulting in the Asia-Pacific region becoming the most likely new safe haven. "And the resource-rich Russia will be one of the first to recover," Tay notes.
This year, the Singapore government has decided to set up a structure called the Russia-Singapore Business Forum Organising Council within IE Singapore, and some financial support was issued to run RSBF 2009. Yet, during this time of the worst economic crisis, other sponsors are still more than welcome, and Tay is lobbying Russian businessmen to come to Singapore. Not an easy task now that he is no longer in Russia. But, somehow we can't help thinking that Michael Tay will have no problem pulling it off once again... for he never fails.