Law & More: The Boase Cohen & Collins Podcast

Episode 15 - Douglas Wong

June 06, 2022 Niall Episode 15
Law & More: The Boase Cohen & Collins Podcast
Episode 15 - Douglas Wong
Show Notes Transcript

This time, our guest is Bloomberg editor Douglas Wong, who reflects on his upbringing in Malaysia, schooling in the UK and many years working in Hong Kong. A veteran of the city’s media scene who has covered financial, political and legal issues, Douglas is also a former President of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club.

Host: Colin Cohen
Director: Niall Donnelly
Producer and VO: Thomas Latter 

[00:00:34] Colin Cohen: Douglas, welcome to Law & More. It's a great pleasure to have you here. I know you're very busy, what has been occupying you 

[00:00:43] Douglas Wong: Good morning, Colin. And thank you, it's such a privilege to join this podcast, which I enjoy deeply. So what's been keeping me busy in the last couple of days is actually entirely personal matter in the sense that the change of policies have meant that I was trying to plan my first trip out of Hong Kong since the pandemic began. 

I'm hoping to go and see my mother in Malaysia next month. I managed to get flights and there are only two flights a month to most destinations. I even managed to get a quarantine hotel for when I came back. And then I found out my mother's helper caught COVID yesterday morning. So I've had to put that all on hold to see how that situation developed. 

[00:01:22] Colin Cohen: It's a frustrating time for everyone. But anyway, let's go a little bit back, you're very successful here at Bloomberg but we'll talk about Bloomberg a little bit later. Your Malaysian. A little bit about your growing up, what were your thoughts in Malaysia when you were there?

[00:01:36] Douglas Wong: I hope I'm a little bit more grown-up than I was when I was a young in Malaysia. My childhood was a great childhood moment. But, I went to primary school in Malaysia, but then I went to secondary school in England, and then to university in England.

I don't know whether I grew up at primary, secondary school, or university, or even in 18 years here, but it's been an enjoyable experience mostly. 

[00:01:56] Colin Cohen: But your roots are Malaysian. 

[00:01:58] Douglas Wong: I consider myself Malaysian, I think identity is a funny thing. My roots are certainly Malaysian. I mean, after living here for 18 years, I feel in many ways as a Hong Konger.

I spent a long time in the UK, so I'm very fond of Britain, had very close friends in Britain. My wife is Singaporean. But you're correct my roots are Malaysian. I have been back to vote at every election. I'm very sad at some of the developments that I don't think that Malaysia has achieved all it could have as a country.

I think I probably will retire to Malaysia, especially as it's certainly more cost-effective than Hong Kong.

[00:02:32] Colin Cohen: So, I'm interested about your schooling, You're in boarding school, enjoy it?

[00:02:36] Douglas Wong: I went to a school called Marlborough in Wiltshire.

[00:02:39] Colin Cohen: Quite well-known school. 

[00:02:41] Douglas Wong: I think people have perceptions about boarding schools. Some good, some bad. For my friends with children, like my wife and I don't have any children, we have a very indulged cat. But for my friends, with children, it doesn't matter where in the world they are, the education of their children is the most important thing to them.

And it was the same for my parents. And I was very fortunate to be sent to a school where I think I got a good educator. But having never gone to any other type of school, I can't compare it to anything else. I thought I had a good education and I made some good friends there. 

[00:03:12] Colin Cohen: And I note that you went to university in Manchester, and you studied Literature and Anthropology. on earth took you down that course?

[00:03:21] Douglas Wong: Well, they're fascinating subjects. I was again, very lucky in the sense that while my father in particular would have been preferred me to be a doctor or a lawyer. My parents were indulgent and when I chose to do a degree in subjects that I found enjoyable, and I thought mind -broadening, they didn't kind of press the thumb down too hard. 

[00:03:41] Colin Cohen: You like Manchester?

[00:03:42] Douglas Wong: I enjoyed Manchester a lot, it was quite a contrast to Malborough. It was a great time to be there in the very early nineties. It was the dance capital of the world. Not that I actually dance much. 

[00:03:56] Colin Cohen: And I do know this you are an ardent Liverpool supporter. And I am being a Chelsea supporter. We had a little argument watching an FA cup final. an earth took you to support Liverpool when you were studying in Manchester? Sounds like heresy, in my view.

[00:04:13] Douglas Wong: The fact that I'm a Liverpool supporter tells you how old I am. I think there's a generation of Southeast Asians and probably Hong Kongers who support Manchester United. And then there's an earlier generation who support Liverpool coincident with the, I guess, respective strengths of the teams.

And when I was a child growing up in Malaysia, Liverpool were the team just like Chelsea were for a while. And who knows who will be the team of the next few years, but it's great to have a club to support. 

[00:04:43] Colin Cohen: So you are Liverpool from an early age. And I was Chelsea before even the Russian money came in. Anyway, so you decide to go in to become a journalist. And you went to work in the Straits Times, you became the Asian financial correspondence. What made you go down that route to become a journalist?

[00:05:03] Douglas Wong: So I actually started working for the newspaper, the student newspaper at my university in Manchester called the Mancunion. And, what I learnt there was that the great thing about being a journalist was that you see the entire iceberg rather than just the tip, which most people who read the physical newspaper see. And I found it a fantastic community. most of the people involved in journalism are public-spirited. And trying to serve the greater good. Having not done a practical degree, like my parents would have wished, the only skill I had was some inclination towards expressing myself in words. So I guess there was no choice. 

[00:05:43] Colin Cohen: Straits Times, it there? Enjoy Singapore. Had the reputation, that newspaper, of being a little bit pro-government, I recollect. 

[00:05:51] Douglas Wong: It was a very good few years there and I have friends who to this day, maintain that Hong Kong's press freedom is much stronger than Singapore. Sensitive subject, obviously. But for me, I learned a tremendous amount working there. I particularly recall my first scoop, which of course involved a lawyer.

And it was when Nick Leeson crashed bearings back in the early nineties. I had just started. The good thing about long-running stories for journalists is that at the beginning everyone's got the scoop of who he is, where he is, digging up a photo of him. But the longer the story goes on the opportunity you have to catch up.

So when Leeson had fled Singapore first to Sabba and then to Germany. And when I noticed that he had appointed a Singapore Lawyer. And I noticed that that lawyer had previously worked for Singapore's commercial affairs department. I kind of thought, this is interesting. Why would he appoint a lawyer who has previously worked for the commercial affairs department?

And I worked my sources and I eventually broke the story that he was coming back of his own free will. 

[00:06:58] Colin Cohen: Yes. And it's quite interesting because I was involved in that case you don't know that now. 

there you are. If you may recollect, I was in acting for Lorraine Holtzman in the carrying cases and all the rest 

[00:07:08] Douglas Wong: Hm 

[00:07:09] Colin Cohen: And then I was involved peripherally, on the outside and I did have the privilege of seeing him when he was in Germany on his way back to Singapore. So It's a very, very small world. But then you moved away from the Straits Times to my favourite newspaper. And to this day, it is my favourite newspaper. It's the Financial Times. this is fantastic newspaper. I love reading the weekend is great. You were the correspondent Singapore and Malaysia?

[00:07:35] Douglas Wong: Correct. So I think one of the nice things about whether you're working for the straits times or the South China Morning Post, or whoever, Bangkok Post in Thailand. Is that the journalism community is a very friendly one. It's competitive, but it's cooperative. And as a journalist working for the Straits Times in Singapore, and then later in Malaysia for them as well, you get to know the other foreign correspondents, including folks from the Financial Times, people like Reuters the New York Times, and you are a community. And you respect each other's work when it's good and you make fun of it when it could be better. I knew that then correspondent and when that correspondent was leaving. She recommended me and I got the job and it was certainly a very different type of newspaper to the Singapore Straits Times.

I mean, just on the very basic level, they were headquartered in London. I really didn't have anyone I was working with day to day, But I guess what was really nice was that you knew that you had, as you say this, history of knowledge and perspective. With a very light touch, I think that that was what I liked most about working.

There was once an editorial writer called me up because they wanted to write an editorial about Malaysia and it was a discussion like this. And then they came up with the most incredible editorial and I was like, well, I had some input into that, but all I was doing was having a chat. 

[00:08:57] Colin Cohen: Yeah. And it's about that time, were commissioned to write a book. HSBC, it's Malaysian story. I find that a little intriguing. Tell us a little bit more about that.

[00:09:10] Douglas Wong: That was a wonderful project. And I think one of the great things about being a journalist clearly is that you get to learn a lot from people who really know their stuff. Working on this book, took that to another level. They commissioned me to write the book, it was for their 120th anniversary in Malaysia. And it meant that I met many of their former Chief Executives for Malaysia. I even met Willie Purves. And I visited almost every branch in the country. I met many of their key clients and they were talking to me in the way they would never do as a journalist. So it was a wonderful experience to be able to tell the story, of course in this case, for the bank.

But it was truly a Malaysian story and it really helped as someone who had spent a lot of his time outside Malaysia, for me to appreciate the country more. 

[00:10:01] Colin Cohen: Yeah, because HSBC, one of its main interests were financing the difficulties in people raising monies in Malaysia, the banking system. So they were already a very, very keen on opening up in the Asia Pacific area. Malaysia was one of their main areas. 

[00:10:17] Douglas Wong: Malaysia and Singapore, they were basically one market. They were the second most important market globally for HSBC after Hong Kong for a very, very long time. There were so many fascinating other stories in the longer history. Just one I will mention was that after the second world war. HSBC had been there since 1884, right.

After the second world war, hSBC came back and the British came back. And they set up what they called the British military administration. The victors write the history. So, you'd never really read anything bad about what happened there, but what happened was that clearly after a war, there is terrible situation, there's a lot of desperation, there's a struggle for resources. There was a lot of corruption. And if you are the military administration and you're controlling all of the resources, it was known to everyone as the black market administration, which, again, is something that I'd never come across before, but it was one of the many, many lovely pieces of information that I learned from working for them 

[00:11:17] Colin Cohen: it's about that time. You then now come to Hong Kong, you switched to Bloomberg, and you've been here for 18 years and you're still going strong with Bloomberg. What brought you to Hong Kong? What made you come to Hong Kong and worked for Bloomberg? 

[00:11:31] Douglas Wong: So simply, Bloomberg approached me and asked me whether I wanted to join them in Hong Kong. They needed a reporter to cover investment banking. My name came across them and they thought it would be good.

And by that time I felt that I had, if you like, learnt a lot about Southeast Asia and I was ready to learn a little bit about Northeast Asia. In particular China. So it was a great opportunity and I was very happy to come. Funnily enough, it was very hard in the first year.

Because Bloomberg is a very different pace from the Financial Times. It's real-time news. That's why I wanted to do it. I was actually asked in my interview, you work for Financial Times? Why would you want to join Bloomberg? And I said, honestly, it wasn't suck up or anything, that this is 2004. Real-time news is the future. If you don't have experience of it, you're really not going to be a journalist. 

[00:12:21] Colin Cohen: You came as the Asia legal editor, cause I'm quite interested about the legal methods because it's my profession. What was your brief at that time? And any major stories you recollect at those early stages when you were there? 

[00:12:34] Douglas Wong: One reason why I've stayed with Bloomberg all this time. I've done five different jobs for them in that time here. After, I was asked to set up the coverage of government and politics, which I did. And then after that, I set up the coverage of legal and regulatory news here.

Bloomberg started just over 40 years ago as a bond market data provider. And it's grown as a company phenomenally into full-service business information provider. So, in the news side, it has gradually developed and grown in the time that I've worked there to cover more and, more areas.

And so law was part of that. After having spent a lot of time with bankers and spend a lot time with politicians, I have to say lawyers were my favourite types of people to spend time with 

[00:13:17] Colin Cohen: Why? Tell me more, please. 

[00:13:21] Douglas Wong: Well, clearly lawyers are very erudite and good at expressing themselves. Everyone will talk to a journalist because there's a reason to talk but I found that many lawyers that I interacted with actually enjoyed ideas and concepts as much as promoting themselves. Which unfortunately some bankers and politicians in my experience seem to be more interested in promoting themselves than, rather than just intellectual discussion. 

[00:13:45] Colin Cohen: Yeah, cause I do remember talking to you a little bit. A couple of cases I was involved in. 

[00:13:49] Douglas Wong: Of course, the wonderful thing about that role was that I got to cover some incredible cases Two, in particular, I remember where I got to know you. Two of the biggest trials in Hong Kong. The Nancy Kissell first and second appeals. And of course the Sun Hung Kai corruption case.

So yes, that was when I met you and you prove my point, entirely, that lawyers are extremely civil and intelligent and wonderful people to interact with. You obviously are incredibly discreet in terms of representing your clients. But you understand that there are times when the court of public opinion and talking to journalists has value.

And it was very good to meet you then. 

[00:14:26] Colin Cohen: It's always amazing with the Nancy Kissel case, and for our listeners as a case regarding a milkshake murderer. How that, for a murder case to be part of the business environment for Bloomberg to be interested in the case like that. I Found it not intriguing cause I could understand why, but it was there in the headlines for all those years and still is.

[00:14:49] Douglas Wong: I think the true crime stories, you see it on streaming services now, right? There seems to be an endless appetite for them. And for a Bloomberg audience and our readership our subscribers, vastly in the financial services industry. This was a head of debt finance at Merrill Lynch, who had formerly worked for Goldman Sachs, who was murdered by his wife. Everyone wanted to know about this story. 

[00:15:13] Colin Cohen: Exactly. And now Bloomberg, it's become a multi-platform news outlet and it does a variety of operations. Indeed, I had the privilege of being shown around when I got to know you when I had to go to New York. You introduced me to everybody.

You showed me around. And I came out of it, absolutely amazed at the diversity, the interest, the total way in which news was being developed. And the worldwide issues and how it's impacted upon Hong Kong. I was very impressed, I'm very happy as to what Bloomberg is doing.

You've grown considerably in size and you've contributed to Hong Kong greatly. The chief executive in her speech to Bloomberg was saying, it was an honour for her to be even invited. And she gave a great outline as to what you had done. Tell us more.

[00:15:54] Douglas Wong: I guess very quickly, as I said, Bloomberg as a company started out with an idea by the founder Mike Bloomberg that there was more efficient ways to provide markets with, in particular bond market data. And it really has grown on from there.

First with the news net, then with a number of different other products, such as financial research, where I work now. But even in terms of the traditional products, like providing financial market data, many of these things have become more and more complex with technology. So in many ways, Bloomberg is as much an engineering and an IT company now. We're competing as a company with Google to hire the best engineers. 

We're not as well known, clearly as the big technology companies, and maybe even as some media companies. But it's been a fantastic, as you say, company to work for, which is a very, very committed to its customers. 

[00:16:48] Colin Cohen: And it is interesting. And most lifts you go to in Hong Kong, Bloomberg TV it's there. And it reports well, everybody's up to date, everybody wants to know what's happening in the court cases. I'm always very impressed with that. It's an interesting platform where news platforms change all the time.

[00:17:05] Douglas Wong: So I left news in 2016, I think for my current role. But, I'm still in the same office and my friends all still the news.

And I see how much it is developed. Short videos on social media are very important now for global audiences. Automated collection of news and production is very important. In a way, just six years out of news. And I feel like I should be, using a physical spike to put pieces of paper on because it's developed so much.

So it's transformed the delivery. We still appreciate stories in reading them or seeing them on the screen, but it could be a very small screen that you're reading or seeing it on. 

[00:17:47] Colin Cohen: Yes, yes. Now I want to move a little bit to a new topic, which is dear to your heart. It's the Foreign Correspondents Club, the FCC. We've spoken about that, you were the former president treasurer. You now are sitting on various committees tell us a little bit how you got involved with the FCC.

[00:18:07] Douglas Wong: I moved here Singapore and I think almost the first thing I did was to join the FCC. As I mentioned earlier, I think one of the great things about being a journalist and a foreign correspondent is that it's a fantastic community. So the fact that we had a wonderful building in Central, five minutes walk from my office made it a real no-brainer to join the club as soon as I came along. And as I stayed in Hong Kong longer. I guess I got pulled in a little bit more by my friends and colleagues there.

[00:18:34] Colin Cohen: The role of FCC, looking for the interests of the free press.

[00:18:39] Douglas Wong: Interestingly, I'm now no longer a correspondent member of the club because in my current role as an I'm now working for Bloomberg and intelligence, which is our financial research unit. I'm not considered a journalist. So I'm now an associate member of the club. But, I think that many of our associate members, lawyers, the bankers, they're not journalists. They support the FCC in its role of being a center and a beacon, for the journalistic community. And of course, that includes free press. 

[00:19:09] Colin Cohen: Yeah. And then very recently, the candidates who declared themselves for the chief executive post. They gave him the platform to go and say his piece. It always been like that.

[00:19:20] Douglas Wong: It's fantastic. And I've hosted chief executives at the club to speak. I remember one nice lunch event where we had a Pro-Beijing and as we then had a Pan-Democrat lawmaker on the same platform and it was a very pleasant discussion. 

[00:19:36] Colin Cohen: And in your new role in Bloomberg and business intelligence. Can you give our listeners just a little bit heads up as a type of work you're doing at the moment.

[00:19:46] Douglas Wong: Sure, the analyst that we have, financial analysts, many of whom have come to us from banks or other financial institutions. They cover over 2000 listed companies in 135 industries in 21 markets. We've got about 400 analysts globally and over 80 in Asia, the majority of them in Hong Kong.

And besides covering listed companies, how is this company going to do? A lot of people have been very interested in recent months in Chinese property developers and what their prospects are. And for me, having previously been a financial journalist, but now working with financial analysts, it's been an education because clearly there are different ways in which different people look at things, whether you a lawyer, or a journalist, or a certified financial analysts who understands financial ratios in a way I never will having studied history and anthropology. 

[00:20:38] Colin Cohen: Kong Kong has been going through some interesting times. We've had the troubles. We've now got the issues vis-a-vis COVID, the figures show that people are leaving. I read today that Bloomberg, the article is, hong Kong's completely avoidable COVID catastrophe. A very interesting article published by Bloomberg basically saying, huge mistakes have been made. How has all this impacted upon you from your own personal point of view, in respect of where we are right now, today, you said at the very beginning, you want to go and see your mother. Everyone is having these issues. Tell us a little bit more as to how you're feeling 

[00:21:14] Douglas Wong: The story you just mentioned is fantastic. And we've been doing some fantastic work on that subject. And if I may say so, I think you've been writing some fantastic pieces in your own...

[00:21:23] Colin Cohen: That's very kind of you. 

[00:21:25] Douglas Wong: Way, on this subject as well. It's been a terribly difficult time for Hong Kong and for all of our friends here and you can't help, but feel it with them and that almost amplifies your own feelings. When you have Pro-Establishment lawmakers saying that the leader of the government should be no-confidenced and the number of prominent people who have expressed unhappiness, deep unhappiness with the government's handling of the pandemic is quite astounding actually in all my time in Hong Kong, I've not experienced this level of sadness. 

[00:21:55] Colin Cohen: And in your article, the picture headline is pictures of people outside the hospitals, elderly people. When all of this could have been avoidable, it's tragic.

[00:22:06] Douglas Wong: It is entirely tragic. on a personal level, we have to hope that things will get better. But the really challenging thing, unfortunately, is that for many of our friends here. We know in Hong Kong, the last couple of years been such that, they almost feel that they shouldn't raise their hopes because they've had them dashed so many times in the course of the pandemic.

It's a deeply difficult time for Hong Kong. I think at the same time, of course, we have this terrible, horrible situation as well in Ukraine and while there's no particular relation. I think for any of us who watching images of the suffering there, it affects us as well.

The pandemic was an existential threat for the world and, and clearly for Hong Kong. Seems that much of the rest of the world is moving past it, hopefully, we can to. 

[00:22:53] Colin Cohen: Obviously, you're very busy, your work, your commitments how do you relax? I see you hiking around a little bit on Facebook with your lovely wife, I do see you do that occasionally. 

[00:23:04] Douglas Wong: One of the consolations of the pandemic and not travelling has been that Hong Kong is, what a beautiful place we live in. And when you've been here a little while, I guess you kind of get used to it and you're hopping off for weekends. And there were so many fantastic hikes and parts of Hong Kong that I hadn't been to. Unfortunately, the pandemic has gone on so long now that I think there's only two more hikes for me to do before I finished. 

[00:23:29] Colin Cohen: And finally, I always ask all my guests, this. You're like me, you've been here a very, very long time. What are your thoughts for the future? You said at the beginning, you intend to stay here. You thought about retiring in Malaysia, but your thoughts, for your future?

[00:23:44] Douglas Wong: One of the reasons that I've stayed here so long and maybe a lot of people have stayed here so long is that it's such an easy place to live and it's such a compact place to live. And one of the great things about the compactness of Hong Kong is I think that you can still be very active and involved, in social community issues keeping yourself interested in things.

Without the challenges, London, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, New York. These are big cities where it's not easy to get around. Hong Kong is so easy. If I own my apartment, I would love to retire here. Sadly I can't afford to. And unfortunately, that's not Hong Kong's problem. Hong Kong's is problem is housing its people, not people like 

[00:24:25] Colin Cohen: Douglas, thank you so much for joining us on Law & More. 

[00:24:29] Douglas Wong: Thank you so much. Colin. It's been an absolute pleasure.