MB Aug | House of cards

Shaking hands with delegates and keeping a half-smile for tons of photographs, Macau billionaire and real estate mogul Ng Lap Seng was omnipresent at a high-level meeting of the United Nations (UN) Office for South-South Co-operation held in the gambling enclave two years ago. 

The two-day forum in late August, sponsored by a foundation Mr. Ng funded and chaired, saw delegates from more than 50 countries and regions concur on ‘the creation of a permanent South-South Expo [Centre] based in Macau’, showcasing the outcome of the South-South co-operation, an initiative promoting the exchange of knowledge and resources among developing countries in the Global South. No details were revealed at the time; it was only known later that Mr. Ng had advocated this proposed project on reclaimed land for some time, with his flagship real estate group Sun Kian Ip Holding Co. Ltd. pencilled in as contractor.  

Everything was seemingly falling into place at the time for the businessman, who has grown his business empire and political clout over the years with his tactful skills and connections to heavyweights from Mainland China to the United States. But his high-flying shot at legacy took a twist almost no-one could have foreseen: less than a month after the high level meeting in the city, Mr. Ng was arrested in the US, with others, for bribing UN officials in regard to the proposed centre. The recent guilty verdict will likely put the 69-year old mogul, no stranger to controversy, in a place that he has never been before: prison.  

Late last month, the US District Court in Manhattan convicted Mr. Ng of all seven criminal counts in the UN case, including bribery, conspiracy and money laundering. The mogul, under home detention since 2015, is now awaiting sentencing of up to 65 years behind bars. His defence attorney has vowed to appeal, while the mogul remains in his luxury Manhattan flat before sentencing, according to US media reports. 

“Brick by brick, bribe by bribe, [Mr. Ng] built the path that he thought would build his legacy,” Assistant US Attorney Janis Echenberg was quoted as saying. The billionaire was accused of paying more than US$1.7 million in bribes to UN officials to build the proposed multi-billion dollar conference centre in Macau, which would become the “Geneva of Asia” and bring “fame and more fortune” to him and his family, the attorney said.    

Humble roots 

Amassing wealth and connections across the continents over decades, court papers show Mr. Ng is estimated to have a net worth of US$1.8 billion and US$1 billion in real estate holdings. Like many acclaimed entrepreneurs in Macau and Hong Kong, he came from a humble background. Born in nearby Guangdong Province in 1948, he only moved to the gambling enclave in 1978.  

In a rare interview he conducted with China Press Weekly in 2009, the real estate mogul – who has kept a low profile and consistently declined media interviews – described himself as lacking wealth, connections and culture when he first relocated to the city with only MOP100 (US$12.5) to his name. Starting out as a street vendor, he founded a company in 1981 on the retail and wholesale of apparel and garments before engaging in the fields of real estate, hotels, and food and beverages in 1989. The company was renamed Sun Kian Ip group in 1996, now well known as his flagship enterprise. 

Records of the corporate website of Sun Kian Ip – taken down after the arrest of Mr. Ng – show the group has businesses across Macau, Hong Kong and Mainland cities like Beijing, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Zhaoqing, Shenzhen and Zhuhai. The total investments of the group are estimated at more than HK$10 billion. 

Besides developing San Kin Yip Commercial Centre – a 20-storey commercial building next to Hotel Lisboa, where Kam Pek Paradise Casino is located – and building the cross-border Lotus Bridge linking Macau to nearby Hengqin Island, Sun Kian Ip is engaged in a high-end residential development in Macau, Windsor Arch’s 1,500 flats opposite the Macau Jockey Club in Taipa. 

Growing empire 

Mr. Ng was also involved in another housing project – Lake View Mansion in Nam Van – partnering former Chief Executive of Macau Edmund Ho Hau Wah, casino magnate Stanley Ho Hung Sun, prominent businessman Sio Tak Hong, and other local heavyweights in the 1990’s to establish Sociedade de Empreendimentos Nam Van, S.A for the development of a series of land plots in the area; namely, housing and office complexes, hotels and leisure facilities. Some of the plots owned by the Nam Van company have been turned into casino-hotels Wynn Macau and MGM Macau in the city’s downtown, although many have remained vacant due to the change in government plans for the district since some of the city’s attractions were inscribed upon the World Heritage List in 2005. 

Several phone calls were made to William Kuan Vai Lam, an executive director of Sun Kian Ip group and Mr. Ng’s business partner, for comment on the daily operation and business of the group in the wake of the guilty verdict but the calls went unanswered. The tycoon could also not be reached for comment for this article. 

Mr. Ng’s business empire has apparently remained unscathed, though, since his arrest two years ago. Sun Kian Ip partnered with Cambodian company Thai Boon Roong Group last year for a multi-billion dollar development of twin towers in the Southeast Asian country. And the companies inked a US$2.7 billion contract with a Chinese firm this January for the construction of the towers, Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua reported. 

Sun Kian Ip is also collaborating with Hong Kong-listed China Resources Land Ltd. – via two companies held by Mr. Ng’s son Alex Ng Kei Nin and family member Ng Fei Lan – to invest RMB50 billion (US$7.44 billion) in a commercial complex on Hengqin featuring hotels, expo centre, duty-free stores, shopping facilities, and amenities for high-end technology, healthcare and the cultural creative industry. The construction of the project, started last year, is slated to be completed within five years, according to Macau media reports at the time. 

Toxic reputation 

In addition to his success in business, the magnate serves in various positions for the governments of Macau and Mainland China. Mr. Ng is still listed as a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference as of this June, according to the website of the nation’s top advisory body, while he remains an advisor to the Macau Government-appointed Economic Development Committee.  

However, the reputation of the billionaire has been tainted for years with alleged ties to criminal gangs, a claim he refutes. A report completed by International Risk Ltd. – whose president at the time was former senior Hong Kong police officer Steve Vickers – in 2010 on the background of Mr. Ng concluded that there were ‘a large number of red flags’ about the tycoon, including his alleged links to triad groups, his suspected involvement in illegal bookmaking and the control of prostitution in Macau, although he had not been charged with any related criminal counts. 

‘Ng’s reputation and connections are far more toxic than those of the average Macau/Chinese business and gaming tycoons we have investigated to date,’ said the report, compiled at the request of casino operator Las Vegas Sands in 2010. It also highlighted that senior officials of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army often frequented entertainment establishments like the nightclub and VIP rooms of Hotel Fortuna, which prostitutes frequented. 

The hotel, covered in lotus-shaped rainbow-coloured lights in the vicinity of other casino-hotels Hotel Lisboa and StarWorld Hotel, was founded in 1995 by Mr. Ng and other low-profile businessmen like Sio Tak Hong. The founders controlled the premises via investment vehicle Tin Fok Holding Co. Ltd., Macau company records show. 

The US court heard during the bribery trial this year that the billionaire had sold all his shares in 2010, according to media reports. Local company records did not list the latest ownership structure of Tin Fok or the hotel, only revealing Messrs. Ng and Sio had ceased to be administrators of Tin Fok by the end of last year. The administrative board of the investment vehicle has been replaced by business figures linked to the latter. 

Gaming dream 

“He likes to gamble and he has wanted to [secure] a gaming licence [in Macau],” former local junket operator He Dazhi said of Mr. Ng. Although Hotel Fortuna has a casino, it is run as a satellite casino with a third-party agreement with Stanley Ho’s SJM Holdings Ltd., one of the city’s six gaming operators. 

US financial newspaper The Wall Street Journal reported last year that the real estate mogul and US entrepreneur Donald Trump – now President of the United States of America – had formed a consortium with other investors in a failed attempt to bid for a Macau casino licence in 2001, when the Macau Government decided to liberalise the gaming market.  

“He is very generous, sophisticated and knows how to deal with people,” said Mr. He, who said he had known Ng for more than three decades in an interview with local broadcaster MASTV in late 2015. He added that the tycoon knows where to spend money to get his way. 

The former junket operator is a rare exception in Macau’s business and gaming circles, being outspoken in the case of Mr. Ng since his arrest two years ago whilst others have kept mum. 

“His downfall is indeed a surprise for many [people here]; no-one saw this coming,” said a local business figure, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Building connections with officials is the way for many entrepreneurs to do business,” the figure added, who has known the real estate mogul for years through social occasions. “He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.” 

From US to UN 

The political endeavours of Mr. Ng on the global stage began in the 1990’s in the wake of his business triumphs. He made donations to the US Democratic National Committee for the funding campaign of then President Bill Clinton in the mid-90’s, which the US House and Senate committee deemed in 1998 as the illegal transfer of foreign capital. 

Although Mr. Ng and the Clintons were not charged in this scandal, the Macau businessman did not step onto US soil from 1996 to 2000, having visited the White House ten times between 1994 and 1996, according to media reports at the time. Despite the negative connotations, the magnate probably did not look down on the matter: a photo he took with Mr. Clinton and then first lady Hillary Clinton in 1994 at a US presidential gala occupied a conspicuous position in his office in Macau, The Wall Street Journal reported two years ago. 

His political clout in the Greater China region was also consolidated over past decades. In 2005, he met with then Taiwanese President Chen Shui Bian – whose pro-independence stance had irritated the Mainland Government that considers Taiwan a renegade province – in talks about an upcoming Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) meeting. Mr. Ng was widely regarded as a representative of the Mainland at the time, proof of his ties with both the Mainland and Taiwanese Administrations. 

In recent years, he has actively supported the working agenda and initiatives of the UN by making donations and participating in various related activities. He was awarded twice in 2009 by the international organisation for his ‘outstanding contribution’, and photographed with Ban Ki Moon, then UN Secretary-General, at one of the award galas, according to photos seen by this magazine. He was given another UN award in 2011 for his support via the South-South initiative. 

Political charges 

Every time he visited the US and the UN he served as “a civil ambassador of China”, he said in the China Press Weekly interview in 2009, in which he often cited and praised the sayings and philosophy of then Chinese President Hu Jintao. The mogul hoped to actively advocate the exchanges between officials, civil organisations and experts with countries across the globe, the report said, describing his manners “more like a trained diplomat than a successful businessman”. 

Yet, his political ambitions have cost him his freedom at last. The businessman and his defence team claim the bribery charges were politically motivated. ‘There is every reason to believe the UN has, indeed, completely shelved the idea of [an expo centre in Macau],’ his lawyers said in some papers filed with the US court last year. 

‘The US geopolitical interest in slowing the progress of Chinese influence over developing nations has been achieved,’ his defence team wrote, claiming the prosecution of Mr. Ng was never about policing the integrity of UN operations, when the questioning of the magnate by the US authorities mainly focused on whether his partner was an agent for the Chinese intelligence community.  

“I don’t like to talk a lot,” Mr. Ng said in an interview with Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post in 1998, addressing the alleged fundraising scandal of Mr. Clinton, “because when you find yourself caught up in something like this, it is very difficult to talk your way out.” 

These words still ring true for him almost two decades later.