In 1963, Michael Dobbs-Higginson fulfilled a childhood ambition and landed in Japan. Just 22 years old, he was already an experienced traveller. Having been acutely aware of the limited horizons offered by his birthplace of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Dobbs-Higginson had resolved as a teenager to see the world, and so, after a stint studying medicine in Dublin, Ireland, he worked as a logger in Canada, lived in Germany before the Berlin Wall properly divided East and West, spent a night in an American jail, and sailed across the Atlantic with only a terse Scotsman for company.
But wherever Dobbs-Higginson went, he knew Asia would be his final destination – or to be specific, a mountaintop monastery in Nara, Japan. “I wanted to be a Buddhist monk,” he tells me with what I quickly realise is a customary ability to surprise. He was driven, as so often in his life, by a desire to engage with the world. “That’s why I went to the monastery: to do it rather than read about it,” Dobbs-Higginson says. “You are going to the source. Most people read about things and then talk to their uneducated friends. They blather on and on and usually miss the point by a good mile. I have always tried to do things.”
After two years of intensive, even punishing study in Kendo and later Zen Buddhism, Dobbs-Higginson emerged as a fundamentally different person from the one who arrived. “Before I went to the monastery, I tried to eat life before it ate me,” he says. “After the monastery, I tried – and still do – to be dispassionately passionate, to see oneself as just an element in the overall universe. To not be too fussed about what happens. The more you minimise the ego, the freer you are.”
Even this profound transformation had its limits. When I ask if he was ever tempted to stay in the monastery and devote himself to a spiritual life, Dobbs-Higginson quickly shakes his head. “I was too much of the adventurer,” he says. And baser instincts called. “I wanted a woman, a steak and a bottle of wine, so I went to Hong Kong.”
There can’t be many 76-year-old former investment bankers, with cut-glass English accents and impeccable manners, who answer the doors to their elegant central London flats dressed in flowing white shirt and dark red sarong. But then, very little about Dobbs-Higginson is typical: from his upbringing in Africa and his restless globe-trotting to the fact that he is living calmly with a terminal illness. He writes (his recently published memoir is vastly entertaining), makes international business deals and chats with energy about his life. “This is my usual kit,” he points out as we sit down in his living room. “I have been wearing the sarong for 50 years now.”
While I suspect he is fully aware of the impact his appearance has on an audience, Dobbs-Higginson insists his fashion sense is no shallow affectation. As his memoir details, he would dress similarly for business meetings during his long career in international finance: a cartoon in Euromoney magazine, marking his arrival in Hong Kong in the mid-1980s as chairman of Merrill Lynch Asia Pacific, portrayed him in full Kendo uniform, wielding a shinai sword.
“It wasn’t so much to have an effect,” Dobbs-Higginson insists. “It was just to satisfy my own sense of comfort. A sarong is infinitely more comfortable.”
Should we all be wearing them, even on mid-autumn London afternoons? “You’d be surprised,” he says. “Trousers are constrictive; a sarong is very loose. If you just have a shirt and a sarong, it is just comfortable everywhere.”
“Comfortable Everywhere” would have made a good title for Dobbs-Higginson’s memoir. The actual choice, A Raindrop in the Ocean (Eye Books), is taken from a Buddhist koan that reflects his earlier-stated belief in dispassionate ego-minimisation. As the book reveals, his has been a self-consciously nomadic existence that began in Africa, was shaped by England, or at least its empire, but moulded into something like completion by Asia in general, and Japan above all.
“I am much more comfortable in Asia, where I have spent virtually all my adult life,” Dobbs-Higginson says. “Generally, in the Asian culture, there is discipline, a willingness to make sacrifices in order to improve one’s situation and a respect for one’s elders. All this is in stark contrast to most countries in the West, where the reverse seems to pertain generally.”
These diverse influences are visible in Dobbs-Higginson’s English pied-à-terre, one of three properties he owns, the others being in Singapore and France. On the outside, the building looks like a classically English, red-brick block of flats. Inside, photographs of his wife and three children compete with an impressive art collection, mainly from Asia, that includes a 15th-century lacquer bowl from Japan, a 7th-century Chinese bronze and a Han dynasty pot. A Sumatran wedding sarong hangs on a wall, several pieces are from Myanmar, and a Thai Buddha sits in happy contemplation. The look would be familiar to anyone who visited Dobbs-Higginson in the tranquil, Japanese-influenced confines of Merrill Lynch’s executive suites, on the 12th floor of St George’s Building, in Central, in the 1980s.
With so many experiences and places to choose from, and given the obviously forward-looking nature of his character, Dobbs-Higginson had ample material for a colourful tale.
“The memoir was easy in the sense that one lived it,” he says, not unreasonably. “It was just a question of going into the memory banks, and then reducing it down to a central theme or philosophy, emphasised by events or adventures in many cases.”
And fortunately, Dobbs-Higginson insists that he does live to a core philosophy.
“It is very simple: profound curiosity; substance rather than form; ego minimisation,” he says. The latter aspects were learned during that life-changing training as a Buddhist monk. But how does ego minimisation fit with writing an autobiography, which is so often a work of pure ego? “If you look at most memoirs, they’re about inflating oneself and all one’s successes,” he says. “There may be occasional references to one’s failures. I put it all down – failures included.”
This cannot be denied. By the end of the book, one feels an almost giddy delight at reading of the scrapes the man got himself into. There was the time when a youthful Dobbs-Higginson smuggled a large block of hashish through several border controls using an Afghan musket to divert the attention of customs officials.
After another scrape with customs, this time in Laos, he wandered into an opium den and happily smoked 20 pipes a day for a week. And there are several business failures, the most spectacular of which occurred in Tokyo, and involved an American partner who conspired to divest him of several million dollars in a real estate deal (more on which later).
In the anecdote that begins the book, he gets lost in the Gobi Desert, not far from the Mongolian border.
“I was in China at the end of the Cultural Revolution, with tensions still pretty high,” he recalls. “I had no passport, a T-shirt, a pair of shorts, some slops – that’s it.” He and his French wife, Marie-Therese, had been attempting to board the Trans-Siberian train and he had wandered off, leaving her alone, and the next train might have been a week or more away. “I literally did think that I would be put in a bamboo cage and paraded through the Chinese hinterland as an example of a CIA pilot who got it wrong.”
His philosophy proved useful in such a situation.
“You just think, ‘My goodness, this is interesting. How do I handle this?’” he says. Stumbling into a railway shed, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, he chanced upon Marie-Therese waiting anxiously. “Fortunately it only lasted six hours, but she was pretty freaked out.”
Unsurprisingly, he pays Marie-Therese strong tribute today, not least for having kept pace with him, saying, “She is very strong, and a very strong moral compass.”
It was another woman – Dobbs-Higginson’s mother – who steered him towards Japan, however. Born in the southern English county of Dorset not long after the first world war, she was the family’s real adventurer, hitchhiking across America before heading to Africa, where she met and married Dobbs-Higginson’s father, and publicly condemned racial segregation in Rhodesia. A series of articles she wrote for the British public earned her the ire of surrounding racists.
“Rhodesia’s was a soft form of apartheid, but it still existed,” Dobbs-Higginson says. “Firebombs thrown at the house by the right-wing farmer front. They only did small damage to a hedge that my father used to pee on every night – a ritual like a dog marking his territory.”
Describing his mother as “a mystic in the middle of Africa”, he adds that he was a willing disciple, especially where her interest in Asia was concerned. “I was an aggressive adventurer – good for anything,” Dobbs-Higginson says. “My mother liberated me when I was six or seven. Focus on substance not form. It is the substance that will give you value. Form is ephemeral and will change like the weather. But in order to have substance, you have to have a moral value system – whether Christian, Islamic, esoteric or Buddhist.”
It sounds like the young Dobbs-Higginson required some liberating.
“I was intensely curious as a child,” he says. “I was far more eccentric than the average farmer’s son at school.” And his eccentricities sound rather impressive. In an early demonstration of entrepreneurial spirit, he undercut the school tuck shop by offering credit, then hired the rugby team as debt collectors. Practical jokes, by contrast, suggest a recklessness: he smothered a mildly explosive substance on a door handle used by a teacher. “It raised amusement and dislike in others,” he recalls, “because I didn’t care about following the rules.”
Dobbs-Higginson’s father was born in Tianjin, where his own father had been serving in the British army.
“My grandfather had rather ineptly done his bit of looting in Beijing during the Boxer rebellion,” he says. “He had brought back some rubbish: nothing I could have sold at Christie’s 50 years later for a fortune.”
The booty included a lacquer screen with dragons and tigers.
“I was always asking, ‘Why don’t we have these animals?’” Dobbs-Higginson recalls. “[As well as] elephants in the garden, cobras in the bathroom, leopards taking dogs off the porch. He said, ‘That’s in China, on the other side of the world.’ That was another driver to see Asia.”
Dobbs-Higginson began his travels in the western hemisphere, in part to raise funds to reach Asia. He achieved this, after several close encounters with penury, by securing passage on a liner to Yokohama. His hardships were only just beginning, however, and I suggest that the monastic training sounds more of a trial than an enlightenment.
“It was a trial,” he admits. “The first three months were absolutely terrible. Everything I saw, ate, touched, smelt was alien. It was like I had been dropped on Mars. The only word I could say was sayonara [‘goodbye’], which was not terribly helpful. I was incredibly lonely, and then loneliness became my closest friend. Since that monastic experience, I have never been lonely.
“Being in that monastery was probably the toughest thing I have done, in the sense of completely reorienting oneself. The initial stage is like climbing a steep, heavily wooded and thorned forest. I reached a plateau only to see even steeper mountains.”
The commitment required for a life of monastic devotion was beyond him, but he does not see his spiritual training as in any way a contradiction to his subsequent life in business and finance. “It depends how you behave as an investment banker,” he says. “What do you want to achieve?”
One obvious answer is to make money, and Dobbs-Higginson began to do just that in 1967, harnessing his knowledge of the Japanese language and customs for brokering business deals, often with Western companies.
He had recently married Marie-Therese, but only after she met his condition of learning Japanese. Settling in Tokyo, Dobbs-Higginson went into business with Bob Strickland, “a very crude, hillbilly ex-GI” who, unbeknown to him, was working with America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). “I didn’t really like him,” Dobbs-Higginson says. “That’s the last time I have worked with someone I didn’t like.”
When Dobbs-Higginson proposed they expand their ventures into real estate and build a tower block in central Tokyo, Strickland agreed, insisting they sell one floor to the Libyan embassy. “I had made it in a very big way,” Dobbs-Higginson says. “This is when the Imperial Palace was worth more than California.”
Strickland’s enthusiasm for the project was actually generated by his espionage operations. “He loved it all, as I discovered,” Dobbs-Higginson says. “He felt it gave him some importance. He was really a very egotistical small man in a big body.”
Dobbs-Higginson discovered his partner’s links to the CIA quite accidentally, while visiting the building at night, and was placed under severe pressure to join the operation. His alternatives were stark: stay and conspire, leave and lose his money, or refuse and risk his life. “I went to the British embassy,” he says. “I knew the ambassador quite well as he had taken a shine to me. He contacted London, who replied, ‘Tell him to get out of the country because he will have an accident if they feel he is endangering their security in any way.’”
It took years to recover from the loss, the betrayal and the bitterness, all of which are still detectable. “I had worked so f***ing hard to make that f***ing money, to have that f***ing independence, and these b****rs had unilaterally taken it away by playing bullies,” he says. “That’s what bothered me. I was 32 and a multimillionaire. It was quite an achievement. Suddenly these b*****ds took it away and there was nothing I could do about it. It took three years to recover emotionally from being f***ed by the CIA.”
One result was his move to London and into investment banking – first with Credit Suisse First Boston, then with Merrill Lynch – which, he insists, was a more genteel, less cutthroat world, both compared with working with Strickland and to investment banking today.
“Investment banking was so dramatically more interesting,” he says. “Old-school investment banking; they were not these greedy f***ers of today. Later bankers were driven only by money, and would lie, cheat and steal to get it.”
Back in the mid-70s, “the Japanese were just arriving in the City of London. I was the only one that spoke Japanese.” Once again, his expertise was in forging links between nations – not just between East and West, but across Asia. “Each country was more or less isolated, one from the other,” Dobbs-Higginson says. “They weren’t global as they are today. Each had its own set of rules. That was the fascination; I was actually changing things in these countries. Getting them to use the eurobond market as a source of capital. It took years to persuade presidents and banks and f***wit bureaucrats.”
Countries across Asia have a long history of having their people and resources exploited by Western companies, not least Merrill Lynch. “Any enslaved race is not going to be terribly fond of a former slave master,” Dobbs-Higginson says. “It required making these countries get over their xenophobia, and their concern that the West would swallow them whole.”
Indeed, resistance was substantial and real across the continent. “[Indian prime minister] Indira Gandhi called it a capitalist plot. ‘Over my dead body,’ sort of thing. Eventually she came around,” he says, adding that in Singapore, “Lee Kuan Yew would hardly shake my hand. He thought it was totally infra dig to have a Westerner present at his meeting with the Japanese PM.” Most disdainful of all was Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. “He was the only Southeast Asian leader who refused to see me.”
Nevertheless, Dobbs-Higginson maintains that his deals were born of the deepest respect for the societies and cultures with which he wanted to work. “I tried to become a member of a family,” he insists. “I am extremely respectful. I stand up for a senior person, whether male or female.
“Investment banking pays you on cash coming in. If it takes three years, you get prestige but not a lot of money. I was interested because of this amazing palate that was offered. Heads of state, central bank governors, captains of industry, a new culture, the chance to penetrate different cultures and really see it from the inside. That was what motivated me.”
Being Michael Dobbs-Higginson, his deference did not come without an impetuous twist. “I would tease them,” he says. “That’s what they would find interesting. I went outside the norm in the sense that their children or their younger friends would never tease them. But they liked it. Powerful people find it refreshing to have a cheeky little b****r who is polite and respectful fundamentally, but who prods them.”
He was helped, in an otherwise resistant Malaysia, by his close relationship with Ismail bin Mohamad Ali, the longest-serving governor of the Central Bank of Malaysia. “He was my mentor and I was part of his family,” Dobbs-Higginson says. “He said, ‘Don’t pay any attention to [Mahathir]. He’s an idiot.”
In Singapore, Dobbs-Higginson was received cordially by Goh Chok Tong (who would succeed Lee Kuan Yew in 1990), who admired his book about the region’s economics, Asia Pacific; A View on its Role in the New World Order. “He said, ‘I am going to pay you a compliment, to your astonishment no doubt,’” the writer remembers. “Unlike most Westerners, who come here like a butterfly, your analysis of Asia-Pacific was extremely interesting.”
Perhaps the most extraordinary example of Dobbs-Higginson’s ability to fit into an Asian context occurred in 1991, at a dinner hosted by General Suchinda Kraprayoon in Thailand. “They were going on and on about the coup the next day,” Dobbs-Higginson says, referring to the imminent ousting of prime minister Chatichai Choonhavan. Suchinda suddenly noticed Dobbs-Higginson at the table. “He said, ‘Michael, I have forgotten about you. If you don’t want to end up in a Thai jail, you will keep your bloody mouth shut.’ I said, ‘Absolutely, sir.’”
Dobbs-Higginson had been transferred to Hong Kong from London in 1985, and the family lived on The Peak throughout his tenure. All of his three children were educated at what he refers to as “the French lycée”, the French International School. Yet thanks to the punishing nature of his job, Dobbs-Higginson himself spent at least eight months of each year abroad. “I didn’t really engage with Hong Kong,” he admits. “It was home in the sense that I lived there for a number of years, and knew aspects of it, but I never knew the Chinese world.”
And he isn’t much more effusive about his first visit, in search of women, wine and steak. Interestingly, in 1989, when the Mandarin Grill celebrated its 25th anniversary, the only speech was given by Dobbs-Higginson, who remembered having had his “first decent meal in two years” at the Saddle & Sirloin, as the restaurant was first known, in 1964.
Back then, he was working for Bardahl Oil, and stayed in the city for about a year. “It was probably the least productive interlude of my whole global trip,” Dobbs-Higginson says. “It was very much colonial Hong Kong: the hongs, the taipans, the Keswicks. I couldn’t possibly cope with Cantonese after Japan, which would have made my access much easier.”
Perhaps, having been raised in a colonial nation himself, he had little time for the British expat scene. ‘They seemed interesting as a social anthropologist might see them,” Dobbs-Higginson says. “They behaved as though they were lords of the universe. Everybody’s there to serve them.”
Chris Patten, the final British governor of Hong Kong, didn’t impress him, either. “He was a complete idiot,” he says. “He went on a massive ego trip. He was a chum of the prime minister, John Major. He thought he was going to bring democracy to China.”
These days, Dobbs-Higginson splits his time between Singapore, France and London, without seeing any one of them as home. He continues to work in a variety of start-ups, from goAfrica, an e-commerce platform to rival Alibaba, to H3 Dynamics, developing commercial drones, to Shado International, which builds electric vehicles for Asian markets.
While Dobbs-Higginson revels in technological advances, he worries about the effect of social media on human attention spans and interactions. “The Twitters and Facebooks,” he complains, “it’s like force-feeding chickens with antibiotics to make a better chicken, but eventually the antibiotics will kill you. You need people to interact personally. It’s not just reading words, it’s reading body language, expressing the look in the eye. The reduction of ideas to the jumble of words; Twitter is an abomination.”
More worrying, he says, is the fundamental redrawing of the geopolitical map, with a power surge moving from West to East and increasing fragmentation, and he cites the instability seen after Brexit, the referendum in Catalonia and now in his birthplace of Zimbabwe.
“Mugabe’s genteel demise and the natural ejection of his wife augurs well for the intentions of the incoming government,” he says. “However, this is obviously only the first act of what could be a very messy transition. Hopefully, the incoming leader or leadership will be more sensitive to the general needs of the people, who have been so brutalised by the decades of Mugabe’s despotic rule.”
When I ask if the world should be nervous right now, Dobbs-Higginson laughs drily. “Well, I’m not nervous because I am going to die soon. And in any case, instability gives people like me the chance to do interesting things.”
It is not the first time he has mentioned his limited time and energy. Speaking about the complex negotiations for goAfrica, he notes that he has stepped down as chairman because he is “not up to it [...] I am always tired.”
Dobbs-Higginson is suffering from pulmonary fibrosis, a growth that prevents oxygen being transmitted into the bloodstream. “Without that oxygen, you don’t have energy,” he says. “It gets harder and harder to breathe.”
He refuses to give in to anger or grief, however. “People say I look pretty good,” he offers. “I say it’s simply because I can separate out the disease and its effects, and park it in a cupboard and deal with it when I see my doctors. Apart from living in this miasma of fatigue all the time, I don’t think about it. I don’t get depressed that I have got a year and a half or two years. I am actually quite interested in what happens next.”
Ultimately, it seems fitting that Buddhism is helping Dobbs-Higginson to face his end. “I am not tied to this life. This is just one step,” he says, offering his views on what waits on the other side.
“You become free of the ego and part of the ocean, if you want. You can choose to come back to help people, as many saints do. I can’t understand being here for just one life. It doesn’t make any rational sense to me. You have a baby born in a Somali desert who dies before six months, and you have me.”
He offers a little smile. “I mean, what a joke.”