On a mission to root out poverty

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 26, 2014

Michael Lien may be the grandson of one of Singapore's richest men and with a gilded career of his own as a corporate financier, but he has set himself the task of tackling something far removed from his own experience - rural poverty in Indochina.

The 51-year-old is founder of Leap201, which seeks to help poor farmers lift their income sustainably above the poverty line of US$2 (S$2.55) a day. His is not easy philanthropy but the hard road. Though it is arguably easy for him to write a cheque, his charity preaches the gospel of self-reliance. It wants to help the poor become self-sufficient rather than rely on handouts.

He is candid in saying that until a decade ago, he was preoccupied with making his own living. His turning point came after the Indian Ocean tsunami of Dec 26, 2004, when he accompanied his freelance photographer wife Kheng Ju to Veerasamy Road on her photo project.

She was shooting Indian and Sri Lankan migrant workers whose families had been wiped out by the killer waves. They were anxious to go home to bury their dead but were stuck here as they still owed money to their agents.

Her portraits of these desperate men were featured in an exhibition and sold, and the proceeds donated to relief efforts. It set him wondering about the many others who had fallen through the cracks.

The next December, the couple wended their way to Mae Sot in western Thailand. They visited the Mae Tao Clinic, which treats and fits Myanmar landmine victims with prosthetic limbs. There, he experienced a "hit in the gut".

By 2006, he had set up non-profit Asia Refuge Projects and embarked on his first project - funding a school extension shed for Myanmar refugees in Mae Sot for $3,500.

Over the next seven years, he spent seven days every December visiting social projects in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.

Back in Singapore, he followed up with the NGOs through e-mail, vetting their operations, scrutinising their proposals during nights and weekends. "You meet 30 organisations on a trip and you're lucky if you get one or two with the right fit. You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince. In a way, it is similar to investing," he says, exemplifying his legendary fastidiousness. "I was interested in effectiveness, something that, in corporate finance, has been drummed into me."

Over the next seven years, applying the same rigour, he sank about $50,000 into five projects, including computer training, education, water access and malaria prevention across Indochina. They were all "decent, effective projects", yet something gnawed at him.

Hooked on handouts

In 2009, he donated $14,000 to build 120 wells for drought-afflicted villagers in Battambang, Cambodia. A year later, he returned to find some wells disused because their hinges were broken. It was a simple repair job but the locals said: "Oh, we are waiting for the NGO to come back and repair it."

It dawned on him: "What we were addressing were the symptoms of poverty and not the underlying cause."

The way forward, he resolved, was to tackle both the psychological and technical aspects of poverty.

First, to restore the self-belief of the chronic poor. "After struggling for generations, many have lost their confidence to plan for the next harvest. We need to see their potential and help them lift themselves up."

Beyond self-belief, poor farmers most urgently need access to small loans, quality seeds and skills training to improve their yields.

Since last year, he has partnered promising social enterprises which address these technical causes of poverty. One of them is iDE Cambodia, which sells farmers high-quality, low-cost agricultural inputs, bundled with technical advice. So far, he has given grants, advice and even hired a consultant to help iDE streamline its processes, to the tune of $18,000.

He wants to improve the odds of survival for such social enterprises with a market focus. Out of 100 social enterprises, he notes, on average, only one will break even, attract impact investors and scale up.

"The other 99 run out of capital and end in the Valley of Death. We want to identify the more promising three to five of these social enterprises, assist them with grants and advice to provide the bridge to impact investors."

He has since renamed his non-profit Leap201 to reflect its new mission of empowering the poor to earn above US$2 a day. He has also formed a board and professionalised operations by hiring two staff. He is now looking for more volunteers, especially strategy consultants and private equity investors, to help advise promising social enterprises, as well as creative directors in advertising to help spread the word.

Next month, Leap201 will hold a one-day forum called Bridges To Impact to brainstorm ideas to help social enterprises and NGOs in South-east Asia scale up.

Former colleague Patrick Lee, 42, who worked with him at Morgan Stanley and is now head of corporate and institutional clients at Standard Chartered Bank (Singapore), notes that Mr Lien applies the same tenacity to charity as he did to investment banking.

"Colleagues and friends would gasp at his very demanding and perfectionist leadership style, but on reflection, thank him for all the learning they gained from him. Exasperating but brilliant to work with."

Living with duality

If you haven't heard of Michael Lien, it is because he, like many of the Lien family, keep an assiduously low profile.

He was the third child of the second son of the late Lien Ying Chow, a penniless orphan who migrated here from China at age 13 and started his own successful trading company, Wah Hin & Co, in 1929. He also founded Overseas Union Bank, Singapore's fourth largest bank until it was acquired by United Overseas Bank in 2001. He died in 2004.

The watershed in Michael Lien's life happened when he was 11 and his father, retired commercial banker Lien Chin Wah, divorced his housewife mother and remarried. His mother - "brave in a quiet way and selfless" - raised him and his two elder siblings with her savings and some help from their grandfather.

All he remembers is that he used to enjoy an orange - his favourite fruit - after school every day but was told one day that he had to share it. At 13, in a show of loyalty to his mother, he and his siblings, who were all born in Britain while their father was a student, decided to emigrate there with her "for a fresh start". But their grandfather persuaded them to stay.

They lived here in a rented apartment on Holland Road, never feeling quite Lien enough, since their mother was a "non-Lien". "We felt we were on our own in a way," he recounts.

At Catholic High School and then National Junior College, he remembers he had exactly enough money for lunch every day. "It would be embarrassing if I over-ordered," he recalls.

He won a Colombo Plan scholarship to Monash University in Melbourne to study finance and econometrics. While there, he read to the blind in the library and worked at a Russian-owned nuts and bolts factory alongside scruffy, hardworking Eastern Europeans during holidays. 

He returned to serve two years at Ministry of Trade and Industry, but left for a "faster environment" after two years. Then, he began his corporate financier career with Standard Chartered Bank in 1990. In 1994, he joined Morgan Stanley, became its Singapore head of corporate finance in 1999 and managing director in 2001. Those years, he says, "bought me financial independence".

After OUB was sold to UOB for US$5.7 billion in 2001, he began helping to manage investments for the Lien family "during weekends and downtime". A year later, at 39, he left the corporate world, resigning from Morgan Stanley after helping it snare more than half of a record US$39.4 billion in Singapore takeovers in 2001.

He returned to the Lien fold for good, and for the past 13 years has been investing their assets as executive director and chairman of Wah Hin. "I don't think the others want the job. I got arrowed. But I'm happy to be doing this because I see it as part of my duty... As custodian for the capital, I'm very mindful that half of the resources support Lien Foundation's programmes. So it's a serious responsibility," says the erudite man, who is a board director of Temasek Holdings and a member of the National University of Singapore's board of trustees.

He says he didn't consider hitching his anti-poverty agenda with the Lien Foundation bandwagon, which is chaired by his cousin and former Nominated MP Laurence Lien, as he says the latter focuses quite specifically on education, eldercare and the environment. "Income generation isn't one of their focuses."

Perhaps it is uniquely his. At Wah Hin and Leap201, he juggles the dichotomy of amassing riches by day and reducing poverty by night.

His former JC classmate, Mr Olivier Lim, 50, until recently deputy CEO of property group CapitaLand, says Mr Lien was always a "considered contrarian, not willing to accept status quo and conventional wisdom blindly, but also not contrarian for the sake of it". "Among my friends, he was the most well-read. He drove the cheapest and oldest car for years, not succumbing to the automobile arms race. He preferred to save his money travelling to places like rural Nepal. Yet, at the same time, he led a 'double life' as a successful investment banker."

Today, with a six-year-old son, Mr Lien no longer drives a "bombed-out car". But he still enjoys the simple things in life, like a prata and teh tarik. He continues to "like to move off the grid", trekking the Inca Trail in Peru or the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia. "In these remote places, you are grateful for a bowl of hot vegetable soup," he says, tight-lipped about other aspects of how he lives.

As to why he juggles this "duality", the free-thinker says simply: "It could have been us."

He recalls a riverside lunch in a Laotian villager's home on Don Khong Island. He had asked his usual "What do you need, how can we help you?" His host family, who had cooked for him, answered: "Our children are sick and we don't know why."

The answer, staring them in the face, was the Mekong River which ran through the village. The water was inky with manufacturing waste, refuse and sewage. It was glinting at them.

"We knew that the children were getting sick because the water was dirty. But, of course, they cooked the rice with water from the river and we ate it.

"Had we been born in Cambodia, Myanmar or Laos, this would have been our world. It could have been anyone. It could have been us."