An appetite for risks

While on his six-month-long solo trip from Singapore to Britain, Mano Sabnani was swindled in Turkey and deterred would-be attackers with an old Boy Scouts' knife in Afghanistan.
While on his six-month-long solo trip from Singapore to Britain, Mano Sabnani was swindled in Turkey and deterred would-be attackers with an old Boy Scouts' knife in Afghanistan.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Newsroom veteran, banker, investor and author Mano Sabnani forces himself out of his comfort zones to take on new challenges

When former newspaper editor Mano Sabnani was in his 20s, he embarked on a trip that stretched halfway around the world.

He initially told his father he was going only to neighbouring Malaysia.

The now 67-year-old predicted that his father, who worked in the textiles trade, would not have approved of his six-month-long, mostly-overland trip from Singapore to Britain.

The third of six children, Sabnani lost his mother as a child: She died after giving birth to his youngest brother.

During this solo trip in 1977, he deterred would-be attackers with his old Boy Scouts' knife in Afghanistan. He was swindled in Turkey and worked as an au pair in London to earn pocket money.

His adventurous streak - he earlier hitchhiked around Malaysia after his O levels - seems at odds with his highly respectable resume as a newsroom veteran, banker, CEO and investor.

But Sabnani, who recently published his memoirs, titled Marbles, Mayhem And My Typewriter: The Unfadable Life Of An Ordinary Man, knows the value of taking "measured risks".

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"Many places I visited come across as dangerous. But are they really so risky? How do we assess the risk of a place? What risks are worth taking? Are Singaporeans too risk-averse?" asks Sabnani, who is married to Mrs Nisha Sabnani, a 64-year-old housewife. The couple have three children in their 20s.

"I usually force myself out of comfort zones after a few years to take on new, calibrated challenges," he adds.

One such challenge was when he left a "comfortable" role as a financial consultant to become editor-in-chief and chief executive officer of Today newspaper in 2003.

The paper, started by Mediacorp Press in 2000, had incurred about $40 million in losses and, by the time Sabnani left in 2006, it had moved into the black with $6 million in profits, he says. Today ceased its print edition and became a digital-only publication this year.

Sabnani was previously also chief editor at The Business Times, where he started his career in journalism 40 years ago. In between helming these two papers, he held prominent roles at Singapore Press Holdings and The Straits Times as well as at DBS Bank.

His attitude towards risk-taking seems to have paid off when it comes to another interest of his - investing.

Known as an activist investor who is unafraid of posing tough questions to companies at their annual general meetings, he says he has been financially independent since the age of 55.

Nearly 10 years ago, he set up Rafflesia Holdings, an investment, corporate advisory and media consultancy, which he still runs as CEO and chairman.

In his autobiography, he recounts brushes with the authorities such as when he was summoned to the Istana with some Mediacorp staff to meet the late former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

The meeting was called after Today ran a report in late 2003 which contained remarks Mr Lee had made comparing Singapore's healthcare system with Britain's. Mr Lee's wife was admitted to hospital after suffering a stroke in Britain during their visit there and it was reported that she received preferential treatment.

In an even-handed, dispassionate tone, Sabnani writes in his memoirs that the paper had done nothing wrong in publishing the report.

"My book does state the facts. It's not strident, but that's my writing style. I don't need to go at it hammer and tongs," he says.

He says he leaves it to readers to make up their own mind as they may take "different messages" from his story.

He hopes his memoirs will be "inspirational" even though he considers himself "an ordinary Singaporean with normal attributes".

He says: "I would encourage people to write their memoirs because I think more Singaporeans should tell their story, not just the people at the top."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 12, 2017, with the headline 'An appetite for risks'. Print Edition | Subscribe