Legacy's on his mind as Lee takes his critics to task

Henderson boss' philosophy of gaining the maximum with the minimum can be seen with his plan to donate farmland to build cheap homes

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 July, 2013, 3:30am

Trick" or "treat"? That is the question that has been playing on people's minds ever since Lee Shau-kee offered to donate rural land to the government to build HK$1 million homes for young people.

The government on Wednesday turned down the offer, five months after he made it.

Most people I spoke to before the decision saw in it a trick to add value to the farmland he has accumulated at negligible cost over the decades. They also said the infrastructure built with taxpayers' money for these special homes would breathe life into his other property assets nearby.

This suspicious lot also held that the development terms of the "charity project" would set a nice precedent for his own holdings, such as a low (even waived) land premium or a high plot ratio.

It is hard not to be cynical. "Whatever deal you are selling, Lee's reply always ends with the same note - 'can it be cheaper?'" said an investment banker.

I thought no different, until Wednesday. Lee made a rare speech that night at a dinner event held by the Hong Kong News Executives' Association.

Our multibillionaires do not usually speak to the press. When they want to make their views known, they normally "run into" some journalist, who - serendipitously - always happens to be in the same lift lobby as our eminences. And, when they want to talk about their philosophy, they speak to students and academics.

With his two sons by his side, Lee read out from a five-page script at the dinner, addressing each and every criticism of his and his empire over the years.

And there are many. There is the mandarin-business conspiracy; the collapse of the HK$71,000 per square foot sale of his apartments that is still being investigated; and the birth of his surrogate-born triplet grandsons.

He then went on to list some of his misunderstood yet well-intended acts.

Among them was the turning of a plot of hospital land into apartments, which, he said, was to increase housing supply and the government's land premium income.

There might be differences over the intent of his headline-making moves over the years but the aim of his speech was beyond doubt. The Henderson Land Development chairman, at 85, is now focused on posterity and wants to clear his name.

His sons are not that into the thrill of multimillion-dollar investment bets that helped build his empire. And his grandchildren are toddlers. So Lee carries his own legacy, and legacy was what he messaged in the three-hour speech.

Lee has reasons to be worried. He has seen how tycoons' public image can be tarnished beyond repair. To many like him, the last thing they want is being demonised like Li Ka-shing.

He has also witnessed the change in tycoon-friendly policies in Hong Kong and Beijing. If you are a billionaire, being socially conscious is best these days.

Land donation to build homes for the youth would be great for his legacy and a good fit for his spending philosophy.

In his speech, Lee said: "I am successful in making money but I can't take it to the grave. I was once the fourth-wealthiest person in the world. I have to be a successful spender as well.

"My philosophy is to gain the maximum with the minimum. A high-return donation is successful spending."

The proposed project would have cost little. Valuers estimate the acquisition cost of farmland would be less than HK$100 million. The infrastructure would be paid for by taxpayers, and the buyers would foot the building costs. The returns could be good. And best of all, it would just be the perfect counter to the charge of being a greedy developer.

More than good, the returns would be unending. A mere donation of land, as some government officials have suggested, would disappear from the headlines in days. After all, it is just a drop in the ocean for the public land bank.

A housing project on the donated land, on the other hand, would be there for years. And it would bear Lee's signature. Public expectation and pressure would have ensured it would be completed quickly for Lee to reap the reward.

Homes for 1,000 young people would subsequently benefit 1,000 young families, generating 4,000 benefactors - and living proof of his legacy.

And what about the benefits for his land nearby? With limited public information on the location of the land that he had planned to donate and his land ownership in the rural areas, there is no accurate answer to that one.

A quick thought is that any material benefit for Lee would have been leaked out by government officials who have been scratching their heads on the tycoon's proposal in the past few months before finally deciding to reject it.

Trick or treat, it would be politically too difficult for the government to accept the proposal. After all, it is always easier to see a tycoon through the lens of greed than altruism.