A Birthday and a Brexit in London: Years of Uncertainty Ahead

June 23, 2016, London, United Kingdom

“Remain, of course!” my English legal scholar friend Carol explained her vote that day to my German friend Ben as we celebrated my birthday at Hutong restaurant in the upper floor of the spectacular 95-story skyscraper known as The Shard, the tallest building within the 28 member states of the European Union (EU).   Carol and I have known each other for nearly two decades, and we also toasted that evening to her recent appointment as department head of the law faculty.

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Since I arrived in London that morning from Geneva, I was bombarded by the numerous pronouncements one way or the other about the “Brexit” vote to “Remain” or “Leave.”  It was the topic of polite and serious conversations throughout my professional meetings that day with several British companies.  They were all exporters to the EU and beyond, and were rather nervous about the negative implications of being shut out of the European single market as well as retaining talented European employees in the country.

As I went from London City Airport to the West End and about town, the multi-cultural mix of Black Cab and Uber drivers were also very opinionated, with a vocal Englishman proclaiming his vote to leave due to immigration, sovereignty and budget concerns — while African, Romanian and South Asian drivers all expressed their anxieties about whether they could or still wanted to work in the UK if it were to leave the EU.

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By dinner time, the political rhetoric was reaching its end game as the polls were closing and early indications were that the voting would be very tight with the Remain camp likely to pull ahead.  Moreover, the financial markets on the eve of the vote were banking on the pound rising and the U.K. staying intact in the EU which it joined in 1973, and last voted to stay in 1975 by a 67% margin.

The sunrise the next morning on Friday, June 24 flooded my hotel room in Shoreditch around 5am, so I turned on the TV and saw the British media had just made their call based on a 52% to 48% margin — the UK had voted to leave the EU, the first time a major member state has done so!  The stunning result sent shockwaves across Europe and far beyond the English Channel, unsettling Asian markets that were open before the traders in the City of London had arrived at their desks.  Soon after, political and financial chaos ensued as Prime Minister David Cameron announced his resignation and the pound dramatically lost its value… and this was just the early and blinding hours of Brexit.

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Among the first interactions I had were with my global MBA classmates who hours before were sending birthday wishes in a WhatsApp chat group.  The discussion quickly shifted to a lively and sometimes humorous debate over the implications of #Brexit or #Regrexit which also started trending.

Was it time to buy pounds that were losing their value and weight rapidly?  Would German or French become the prominent languages of the EU after English loses its champion?  And ominously, was this a sign of anti-globalization sentiment on the rise and that Donald Trump — who coincidentally or purposely was in Scotland at his golf resort and supported Brexit — might be the next major populist and political uprising in the U.S. elections in the fall?

The day before the Brexit vote, I was visiting my former colleagues at the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva, and also stayed with my Swiss friend Matthias who previously worked as a trade negotiator for the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) comprised of non-EU members Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland.  As a trade specialist, I realized that the UK would soon face great difficulty in unraveling exiting rules AND launching new trade agreements with many key trading partners after four decades of aligning its trade policies with the EU.  Outside the EU, the UK stands to lose its negotiating leverage and face many regulatory complexities going solo while trying to obtain and digest trade preferences a la carte.

There was much talk after Brexit about whether the UK could still gain access to the EU single market — the world’s largest, or lose its financial “passporting” and other rights as it was reluctant to accept the EU’s four fundamental principles including free movement of labor in addition to removing barriers to goods, services and capital.   Some observers suggested the UK’s best hope would be for Norway or Swiss-style deals (as members of EFTA and not of the EU) which allows them access to the EU single market while having little to no political say on the other freedoms of movement.  Or, the UK might find itself forced out of the EU single market in the initial period as a deterrent to other countries considering a similar path, and in the “back of the queue” when it comes to trade deals with major trading partners like the United States, as President Obama had warned prior to the Brexit vote.

The political, economic and social turmoil has yet to abate as much uncertainty remains in the near term and years ahead, including when and how exit negotiations with the EU will proceed once the UK invokes Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty allowing it up to two years to withdraw from the EU.  The UK is facing internal as well as external crises as civil war has erupted within the ruling Conservative and opposition Labor parties — coupled with the threat of sovereign breakup as Scotland and Northern Ireland supported remaining as opposed to England and Wales who favored leaving.  The UK’s “Independence Day” ironically could result in another Scottish referendum of independence and the reunification of Ireland, while making England a smaller and less influential country.

Birthdays are often a time for reflection for me, and apparently for the UK on this pivotal day forward given its monumental and divisive decision to leave the EU.  Time will tell whether this decision was a veUK-pic1ry bad one for the UK, the EU and global cooperation overall, or if these British isles can manage to persevere and punch above their weight just as they have extended their influence over many cultures and generations across the world.

As I looked upon the gleaming city of London from the glassy Shard tower upon turning another year… it struck me that age, wealth and the public mood are ever shifting and a reflection of the veritable present, and not necessarily of an established past or an impulsive future.

Time is both a savior and enemy, always moving forward with precision and uncertainty.  In the face of this unpredictability, perhaps the best advice to heed is to “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

 

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January 1, 2014: Reflections on Asian Wealth and Family Health

21 November 2013, Shanghai, China

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“Shanghai claims to have over 700 skyscrapers!” my MBA classmate Sherry pointed out — as we headed towards some local factories and a company tour of Li & Fung — the global trading giant — which started in China, relocated to Hong Kong, and now expanding again in China.

From the 65th floor Nanjing Lu bar at the top of my hotel (Le Meridien) next to People’s Park, I am overlooking an urban forest of skyscrapers.  Across the river in Pudong, the Shanghai Tower will be completed in 2014 and rising to 121 stories, China’s tallest and the second highest in the world.

Here, I can feel the heartbeat of arguably the world’s most dynamic city and impatient nation.  MDN”

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January 1, 2014, Midway City, California

“About 33,000 were diagnosed last year,” my father explained after doing an online search about the Whipple procedure on the iPad Mini I gave him for Christmas.

And life expectancy for most is around two years…” he said, in a hoarse voice weakened by over a month of chemotherapy.  On New Year’s Eve, he proudly wore his “UCLA Dad” sweatshirt while undergoing the latest treatment earlier in the day.

In a few fleeting seasons, he went from being a healthy retiree in the Spring to emergency hospitalization for jaundice in late summer, which was diagnosed by the the fall as a obstruction caused by pancreatic cancer.

Needless to say, this year was notable for its unexpected challenges and pending transitions, and ever full of learning…

In May, I dusted off my passport after a two-year hiatus and hit the books again at two familiar institutions – traveling to Singapore to start my Executive MBA program with the UCLA Anderson School of Management and its partner program, the National University of Singapore Business School.   The studies continued in L.A. in August and Shanghai in November, which gave me a chance to visit relatives in Da Nang, Vietnam and spend Thanksgiving with the Ogburn family in Saigon.

May also led to a new role handling brand partnerships for MNET America, the U.S. affiliate of the Korean entertainment conglomerate CJ E&M.  Meanwhile, I continued to support artists and brands through Planet LA Records and on more focused events, including with Whole Foods Market and the Whole Planet Foundation for a Grammy week party and during the SXSW festival, and an event at the Gibson Guitar showroom supporting Carrie Ann Inaba’s charity, among other creative pursuits.

This holiday season was rather disperse for my family as my brother was away in Afghanistan as part of U.S. security efforts, and my sister-in-law returned to Brazil to see her relatives.  This left the rest of us to watch over their two canine “kids.”

In 2014, the travels will continue to India in February, and back to Singapore in May as part of the MBA program, and to other destinations and roles yet unknown.

As I watched the New Year’s celebrations in London, Miami and New York City – where I have taken my parents before on family trips including for New Year’s, I could only hope we can spend more precious time together, and that my “UCLA Dad” will at  least, be healthy enough to witness my MBA graduation ceremony by the end of the summer.

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Whatever may happen, I hope to make him proud of the sacrifices he has made while fighting a war in the jungles of Vietnam and toiling for nearly forty years in America’s factory floors – allowing his sons to live freely, dream boldly, and explore the world – sometimes with him, and always with his aspirations in mind and spirit.

Happy and healthy New Year!  May you all live every precious moment to its fullest!

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No Medals for Austria in London: Measures of Achievement…

5 February 2000, Vienna, Austria

“… a new lunar year, a new country.  I’ve arrived to find a quiet city grappling with its dark past — no firecrackers are bursting through the night to ward off uneasy spirits — though plenty of police sirens are flashing as they rush off to control the demonstrations against a dangerous new government.

I write this from my Fletcher friend Rainer Staub’s family cafe — which has a rich intellectual tradition.  The tables around me are abuzz with discussions of past and future, mingled with nostalgia — and brewing once again with dissension.

The celebrants of the lunar calendar believe the first day is indicative of the year — which implies that Austria is about to face intriguing times… MDN”

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August 12, 2012

With the end of the London 2012 Olympic Games, there have been many replays of the sporting highlights, and with it reviews of the memorable moments and disappointments.

One athlete — American swimmer Michael Phelps, became the most decorated Olympian of all time, with four gold and two silver medals in London, retiring from competition with 22 total medals at the age of 27.  Another standout, Usain Bolt of Jamaica defended his titles from Beijing as the fastest sprinter ever and in doing so, became a self-professed legend.  Still, others like Oscar Pistorius the double amputee from South Africa didn’t win any medals, but proved he could compete with able-bodied runners in the 400 meter races — and in doing so, fully embodied the spirit of the Games like no other athlete.

Although most athletes will leave London without medals, records or much attention given – these men, women and teams were all Olympians and are a special breed of achievers.  Many will retire while some might aim to train harder than ever in preparation for Rio in 2016, and to try to secure their legacies as the fastest, strongest or most skilled in their sport.

In review of the numbers, over the past two weeks from July 27 to August 12, 2012 — around 10,500 athletes from 85 countries took home 962 medals in 36 sporting categories, ranging from a leading U.S. total of 104 medals to first-ever medals for tiny countries like Grenada and Montenegro, and developing nations like Gabon and Guatemala.  Notable among industrialized nations, Austria and its 70 athletes were unable to win any medals in the Summer Games, down from 3 in Beijing in 2008 and 7 in Athens in 2004 and the first time since the Tokyo Games in 1964.  Despite its wealth, Austria was bested by countries in 21 sports where it competed ranging from equestrian, shooting and synchronized swimming.  Though, Austrians usually perform better in winter sports and are expected to medal in Russia at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Games.

Perhaps for the next Summer Olympics in Rio in 2016, Austria and other countries without medalists in London should consider offering their athletes generous incentives like the United States, which provides bonuses to medalists ($25,000 for gold, $15,000 for silver and $10,000 for bronze)… or more lucrative payouts like in Russia ($135,000 gold, $82,000 silver, $54,000 bronze) and even higher in Italy, which pays gold medalists $182,000; and reportedly higher in Kazakhstan at $250,000 for gold, and in Singapore at $800,000 for gold. Singapore has yet to win gold, but perhaps its bonuses will create a gold rush to the wealthy island country… of Chinese divers, Jamaican sprinters, American beach volleyball players, Russian rhythmic gymnasts, and the like.  Though, medals don’t always amount to a price as proved by host nation Great Britain which pays out $0 for medals, and still achieved a glorious haul of 65 medals, 29 of which were gold and its best overall performance in a century — that money didn’t necessarily buy.

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August 12 marked the end of the London 2012 Olympics, and on a personal level has been a landmark date for me.  Fourteen years ago on August 12, 1998, I started my first “real job” at White & Case LLP in Washington D.C. after almost two years of internships, short-term work and study in Geneva, Switzerland focused on the newly-created World Trade Organization (WTO).

Seven years later to this day on August 12, 2005, I left my job at White & Case in a desire to relocate back to Los Angeles to spend more time with family.  I began a bi-coastal career still focused on international trade with Bryan Cave LLP – though with a gradual and rather unexpected transition towards becoming a musical artist and entertainment entrepreneur with the launch of Planet LA Records.

In the past seven years since 2005, my personal journey may not be the same as an “Olympian” – but did involve training and new skills, a test of patience and endurance, and attempt to leave an imprint and legacy.  Moreover, I gave my best effort at the greatest of costs, and in doing so, have few regrets in light of the measures of achievement.

Like athletes, many creative types invest in their passions and natural talents as a career — and often without much security or guarantees in return, whether in the form of cash, medals or attention.  In the past several years, I have interacted with so many performers and dreamers… most of whom are unlikely to ever become legends in their quest, but still gain great satisfaction from making the effort.  As a result, I have gained a more humbling and compassionate perspective on human nature, and what drives people to the brink of success and failure.

Today on August 12, 2012, my own journey seems to be heading full circle as I seek to connect the two disparate and separate paths.   Perhaps, the pursuit of a so-called “dream career” on my own terms may have run its course, and I might have to “retire” and return to a more stable and mundane way of life.  Entrepreneurial zeal can drive dreamers to create innovative models, but they face great risks in being able to sustain these realities.  I have been innovative in approach to artist and brand partnerships — but despite being highly productive, have yet to find a sustainable model.   This is a lesson I have learned the hard and fast way in the most recent era.

Over the next seven-year cycle, my best hope is to retain this imagination and utilize these skills in a setting that is the best of both worlds, global in nature and creative in focus… whoever may be in charge, or wherever on this planet.

Like the Olympic athletes who competed in London, whether as medalists or not — their time in the limelight is over for now… but their stories can inspire a generation to dream on, and face up to the measures of achievement based on society’s demanding expectations, and on a personal level of integrity.

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