Wayne Pai Wen-cheng's Dearly Departed

BY LEE HAN SHIH
Dec 16, 2008
*Special to asia!

The man whose laughter preceded him wherever he went could hardly squeeze out a smile as he went to his office.

In the staff meeting, Pai "went through the motions" of listening to reports. He then stood up, took out three sealed envelopes, gave them to a trusted lieutenant, and left. Frantic efforts to contact him failed – Pai had switched off his mobile phone, something he had never done outside of a plane. Subsequent investigations found that Pai went to the airport and took an internal flight to island resort of Penghu in west Taiwan. This was his second trip there in two days. On July 1, Pai also flew to Penghu and paid a cab to take him around, lost in thought, and staring at the scenery outside the car window. He then flew back to Taipei.

But on July 2, it was different. Arriving in Penghu, Pai turned his phone back on and made a few calls. One was to Peter Huang, vice chairman of Polaris, whom he instructed to convene an emergency board meeting the following day to elect a new chairman.

At dawn two days later, a fisherman out for an early catch found a body floating off the waters of Penghu. He towed the body ashore and called the police. Coast guard officer Huang Hsien-yung, at a news conference later that day, told reporters the authorities were able to identify Pai from the identity card and health insurance he carried in his pocket.

From Pai's letters and last words, it emerged that the stockbroker had chosen to end his life in the waters because "the land of Taiwan is a heartbroken place for me". "In my entire career I have been careful in obeying the law, and yet no one believes that I am innocent," he had said.

Upon receiving news of his death, Pai's wife and two sons flew to Penghu with Taoist priests in tow. They were there to re-enact a Chinese rite that was said to have started during the 1022 BCE revolution in which the Western Zhou dynasty overthrew the Shang dynasty. "Zao Wun", or “Calling the Spirit”, is considered necessary when a person dies an unnatural death and the spirit is unable or unwilling to return to its rightful resting place.

Pai's "Zao Wun" was not smooth-sailing. The priests said his spirit was reluctant to return to Taipei. Apparently Pai's spirit only finally acquiesced after his family promised to keep his funeral proceedings quiet.

A wake for Pai was held at the headquarters of Polaris. Despite the promise of it being low-profile, many turned up to pay their last respects. One of them was Chang Chun-yen, the former Chiao Tung University president. Chang had been nominated by new Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou to the important post of heading the Examination Yuan, a branch of the government that holds and supervises examinations for senior civil servants.

The nomination was to be approved by the legislature. Following the Next magazine expose, Chang, who had initially vowed he would not give up the nomination, dropped out of the running after Pai's suicide, claiming his reputation was severely affected by the media and some members of the legislature.

Another mourner at the wake, if he could be so called, was Pai's arch-rival Rudy C L Ma. Ma runs Yuanta, which he built from a small firm inherited from his father into Taiwan's biggest brokerage and, in recent years, a financial-holding conglomerate.

Ma, 12 years Pai's senior, had been competing with Polaris on every front. In private, he was said to have been rather disparaging on the upstart Pai, especially on the latter's comment that "give me another dozen years and Polaris would be bigger than Yuanta". At the wake, however, Ma showed the proper respect due to a "worthy opponent". Commercial Times, a daily Chinese newspaper, even reported that the older man was so moved that "the rims of his eyes had turned red".

Perhaps for good reason. Two weeks after Pai's wake, the Financial Supervisory Commission raided 11 of Yuanta's offices and brought in Judy Tu, Ma's wife and chairwoman of Yuanta Securities Corp, and two senior staff for questioning. Tu was released on NT$10 million bail – half of that posted by Pai – and also banned from leaving Taiwan.

Lin Jinn-tsun, the spokesman for the Taipei District Prosecutors' Office, hinted that Ma himself, together with daughter Ma Wei-hsin, would soon be subpoenaed. "We have good reason to believe that Rudy Ma and his daughter are also involved (in the illegal share trades)," Lin said. Ma Wei-hsin was chairwoman of Yuanta Investment Trust Co.

Three months later, Ma and his daughter have yet to be charged. But the tycoon is aware the axe could fall any time, since it has since emerged that most of the information the prosecutors have on Yuanta was supplied by Polaris. The Ma family had done almost exactly the same thing as Pai – they bought shares in an unlisted asset manager in the Yuanta group and sold it to Yuanta Securities. Their profit was much higher than the Pai group's – while Pai and friends made some NT$500 million, the Ma family made nearly NT$3 billion on its transactions. Coincidentally or otherwise, the deals were also done on the pricing set by the same "independent valuation company" that was used by Polaris.

The Taiwan stock market believes that Polaris would be spared the worst of the investigations now that Pai had died; and that the investigators have on their hands enough information to fry Yuanta, a much bigger fish.

But the future of Polaris remains murky. For a start, Pai was Polaris. He was as important to the brokerage as "Steve Jobs (is) to Apple Inc", said Robert Chuang, a fund manager at HSBC Asset Management in Taipei. "It's difficult to know the direction of Polaris after his death,'' Chuang said.

Then there is the issue of the second wife. In a strange twist, Ip Mei-lee, who was one of the four most famous lady stockbrokers in Taiwan's heyday in the 1980s, suddenly returned to Taipei after two decades in Canada.

lee han shihLee Han Shih is the founder, publisher and editor of asia! Magazine.

 

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