The rare rich man

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The way Singaporean billionaire Peter Lim’s voracious appetite is going, the fingers on his two hands won’t be enough as he dips them into more and more investment pies. His latest is the purchase of Spanish football club Valencia for S$720 million, the first time a Singaporean has gobbled up a European club.

Unlike many football investors who are driven by fame for themselves and their companies, Lim is motivated by the smell of money. A source close to him said: “He told us when he failed to buy Liverpool, his favourite club, that his love for football is secondary when it comes to buying a club. He crunches the numbers and will go in only if there is money to be made.”

Valencia is one of the top three Spanish clubs, but has lately fallen into debt of some 50 million euros, which Lim has undertaken to pay off. He intends to add to the talent pool in the team with the help of his pal, football agent Jorge Mendes.

If all goes well, this can only return Valencia to its glory days and give Lim handsome returns in cash.

Lim, 61,has been having a finger licking good time since he started dabbling in shares in the late 1980s and become known as the remisier king.He then tried his hand at investing in companies, and made a killing when he cashed out a US$10 million stake  in oil palm giant Wilmar International,which gifted him a treasure trove of  US$1.5 billion in 12 years.

Then came his property play in the Malaysia’s  Iskandar last year. He articulated a reverse takeover of his KL-listed vehicle Rowsley that involved buying out a top architecture firm and getting 22 acres of land on Vantage Bay  — in collaboration with the Johor royal family – to build a gated city there.

It was like a deal made in heaven, or as Forbes described it, one that makes money out of thin air as Rowsley’s shares surged 39 per cent at one point last year.

Not so dramatic but still lucrative deals include his forays into a hospital in Singapore and property developments in China.

Lim is a rare rich man in modern Singapore having had  no inherited wealth and no official links with government companies, a route to riches that has upset many people here about the privileged class.

This is the core theme of a new book, The Ruling Elite of Singapore, by Australian academic Michael Barr. It explodes what the author calls the “twin myths that Singapore is a meritocratic and multiracial society” and shows how you have to be part of the elite networks to succeed academically, politically and in business.

Lim is an exception to this rule, being born to a fishmonger father and housewife mother and spending his early life in a two-room  government flat that packed in 11 people. Today, his family home is an 11-storey building in prestigious Orchard Road,and he boasts a fleet of 25 Ferraris, a love that has seen him investing in F1 car maker McLaren and announcing plans to build a race track in Johor Bahru.

Those who know him say he has not forgotten his roots, which included working as a taxi driver, cook and waiter while studying finance and accounting in Perth. Although he doesn’t publicise it, the 10th richest man in Singapore is involved in many charitable projects, especially involving education.

With philanthrophy still a foreign word in a rich country like Singapore, Lim might just turn out to be the leading light in this area.Like what actor Chow Yun Fatt is doing in Hong Kong: He is leaving behind S$164 million – 90 per cent of his fortune – to charity.

A Bill Gates of the East anyone?

The article first appeared in The Edge Review