Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Coffee with an Italian stallion

SINGAPORE: You could say this Italian has played quite a part in Singapore’s nation-building.

After all, Roberto Pregarz has been credited with single-handedly saving the Raffles Hotel — not the swish, super five-star establishment on Beach Road that it has become, but the iconic yet genteelly-going-to seed hotel it once was.

Famous it was, but with an owner who was unwilling to invest in it, business was poor. When the young Pregarz was made assistant general manager and handed the keys, his predecessor also told him: “Raffles will close in six months.”

His only chance at success then was his creativity. He exercised that to such an extent that despite his lack of prior hotel experience, Raffles not only survived the six months, Pregarz himself stayed and almost single-handedly operated the hotel for 22 years until it closed in early 1989 for extensive renovations.

It celebrated its centennial under him and in that year — 1986 — it was hailed as the “most famous hotel in the world”.

His achievements have been well-recognised all over the world and what he did to revive, resuscitate (and at times reinvent) the allure of what is arguably Singapore’s most well-known icon is chronicled in books and press reports. But how did an Italian man with a then shaky command of English do it?

The “human touch”, he says.

“My staff and I both spoke broken English ... (but) we had the same mentality. We understood and respected each other no matter what our jobs were. My job was not to give orders, but to help them. I had to prove to them that I could (help them).”

That is why during these trying times, Pregarz is fretting about how where everything is heading, as to his eyes it all seems to lack the “human touch” principle he operates by.

At Raffles, he wined and dined film stars and famous authors, but was also not above himself doing the dishes when the dishwasher broke down.

What is needed, he says, is a return to those days when everyone seemed to have a common purpose — nation building.

“The Minister Mentor and his colleagues were building the Singaporean,” he says. These days, he laments, some policymakers are “not down-to-earth with the bread-and-butter issues of most ordinary Singaporeans.

As he puts it, “their vision is so global that they cannot see their own housing estate. Investment and money seems more important to them than quality of life”.

“We have done extremely well for 40 years without casinos, why we need them now?” he asks. These will only create bigger problems for the new generation.

Singapore to him is home and Italy is a “place to visit to drink wine, eat pizzas, enjoy the sceneries, the arts”.

But Pregarz, 69, who married a Singaporean and is the father of two and a grandfather of one, wants to know: Who will be the Singaporean in 10 years time?

“We are now importing unskilled labourers while our skilled ones are being exported,” he says. “Singapore is still one of the best countries to work, to live and to raise a family, but for how long more if the present trend continues?”

The higher-than-forecasted revenue from the goods and service tax and the money from fines should be used to help ordinary Singaporeans.

“Why these extras cannot be used to help the citizens during a crisis? Why do we need to charge GST on essential food items?” he questions passionately.

At the heart of his activism — Pregarz writes to the media regularly — is the Singapore he wants his children and grandchildren to live in. He treasures the Singapore that allowed for him and his wife, Helena to save part of their modest salaries to buy their own first home.

“My hope is that our leaders will study and follow the path of their predecessors, the builders of Singapore. Do not experiment. Stop and ponder on what we have achieved. Do not follow the Western style democracy. This is made to protect the delinquents, not the law-abiding citizens.”

He does not let up even when he is on his annual sojourn to Italy. Pregarz — who has been twice bestowed the title of cavaliere (roughly the equivalent of a knighthood or the Legion d’ Honneur) by the Italian government — takes that government to task as well.

His wife, a retired teacher, says: “It could be graffiti on the walls, beggars in the streets... When his friends start seeing his letters in the local newspaper, they say ‘Oh, Roberto is in town again’.”

Pregarz even had a part to play in giving Singapore the famous violinist Vanessa Mae. It was at Raffles Hotel that she was conceived.

“Yes, yes,” he says delighting in relating how it came about. “Her mother Pamela was playing the piano at the Palm Court that time and her father was the food and beverage manager.”

Ah, the human touch... -

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