Welcoming Remarks at the 2013 FTA Spring Dinner at Kuala Lumpur

Welcome to the Sixth Annual FTA “A Spring Evening in Kuala Lumpur with Very Special Friends”.  We gather in New York City spring and fall, and annually at New Delhi, Singapore, Shenzhen, Kuala Lumpur, Beijing, Bangkok, Mumbai, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Ho Chi Minh City to recognize hospitality excellence; in the names of those whom we honor, provide scholarships at schools of higher hospitality education; and to make charitable contributions.


An industry is only as strong as the wisdom, vision, compassion and actions of its leaders; leaders who define excellence for the benefit of all those who look to them to know the way to realize their dreams and ambitions and not be left behind.  In the end we are judged not by whom we include, but by whom we exclude.  Great leaders inspire and teach all those who seek to be included, because serving the least of us is truly the highest calling and the only measure of service from the heart.


This evening we come together to announce the 2013 FTA Hospitality Awards for Excellence and the scholarships in the names of those whom we recognize; and to donate to charity.  This is truly a very special evening for us all and I thank you for joining us, because as I say at every FTA dinner, YOU are the dinner.


But the deeper meaning of why we come together is really at the very heart of why the hospitality industry is so special to those of us who have come to consider it our calling.


Hospitality is about SERVICE and in particular, Service Excellence.  Service is truly the Highest Calling.  It is not what we do for ourselves, but what we do for others that are the measure of our worth to humanity: And simply because it is the right thing to do: Not for personal recognition.


The truth is that we are free to dwell at any given moment in as beautiful a place as our hearts are open to loving others and our willingness to serve them without regard to our advantage.


Life is a series of micro steps from the time we arrive to the time we depart and the quality of our life is but a reflection of the quality of our contribution to the peace and happiness of others: It is not about pleasing ourselves or collecting “things”: It is about serving others and after one’s basic, personal needs are met, allowing what remains of what comes our way to pass through our fingers for the benefit of those less fortunate.  While I have nothing against luxury goods, when it is your time to pass from this life, do you want to be remembered for your collection of Rolex watches or your charity for those less fortunate?  I am confident if Mother Teresa or Mahatma Gandhi was given a Rolex, they would have honored the gift for 24 hours and then offered it to someone they thought would cherish it.  So, why should we be any different?  I ask you to consider making charity your way of life, rather than an annual after thought for a tax advantage.


I ask everyone to please remember those less fortunate, especially the estimated 500,000 refugees at the United Nations camps in Kenya, which is running out of water and food; not to mention the now 50,000 refugees in camps in South Sudan, some of whom are without water; and the 1,000,000 refugees from Syria. And the poverty and suffering in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, China, the Philippines, Cambodia, Vietnam and everywhere else; as well as the massacres taking place in Africa and the Middle East.  A recent report by UNICEF and the World Health Organization says that annually at least 7.5 million children under the age of five die from preventable diseases. The suffering of so many continues, as does their need for your compassion, including the recent natural disasters and floods around the world.  On a recent Clinton Global Initiative panel carried on the BBC & CNN International, Deepak Chopra said 50% of the Earth’s population is living on USD$2.00 a day; and 20% is living on USD$1.00 a day.  So, I ask you to consider your comfortable lives, and accordingly, open your hearts, just a little bit more to those less fortunate and in need.


And while the few luxuriate on the finest of culinary delights at Five Star and other such comfortable hotels & resorts, the many go wanting; and some go wanting to starvation.  Is this the envisioned world of Voltaire’s Candide “….the Best of all possible worlds”?  I think not.  We as a Human Race can and must do better.


I was born into an upper-middle class, American family with both upper class society standing as well as lots of money.  My family had a very prosperous food distribution business in Albany.  I was sent to the finest schools; we belonged to the “old money WASP country club”, which quietly discriminated against everyone who was not exactly like us, because of their race, religion, education, income and neighborhood.  We had a live-in combination maid & cook, plus a cleaning lady who came on Thursdays to help with the heavy cleaning.  We vacationed at fashionable resorts in Florida; my parents went on luxury cruises around the Caribbean and from the west coast to Hawaii.  I was sent to ballroom dancing classes; I attended all the area society cotillions both charity and debutant; I was sent off to one of the best prep schools in New England beginning with the 8th grade, where I found myself academically and I awakened to my skills as a writer.  I was taught that all of these advantages and all of my energies should be spent towards retaining and carrying-on the family name and standing; and to selfishly hoard as much money and as many conspicuous possessions as possible to grow the family reputation.  It was all about hoarding wealth, power and our social standing at the expense of all others.  Our charity was to appear generous; and to seem to have an altruistic, social consciousness; not to mention the annual tax benefits for our charitable contributions.  The ego of the family and my own ego were to be constantly massaged.


And when I realized that I needed to move to NYC to achieve the kinds of success my family expected after my prep school, university and graduate school education, in October of 1974 I found myself in the Bronx at Hunts Point, the token gentile at a very successful, but aggressive Jewish food distribution business.  And it was this experience that changed my understanding of discrimination forever: For instead of discriminating against the Jewish in Albany, the Jewish in the Bronx were discriminating against me.  I learned for the first time in my life what it felt like to be the object of discrimination with few options of avoiding it on a daily basis.  I must say it was one of the most important lessons I have ever been privileged to learn.


But today, I do the reverse.  I draw no salary from my consulting business: I have converted my business into a social entrepreneurship.  We give away to those less fortunate all our monthly and annual company profits, leaving no reserves, except just enough to keep our business checking account open at the bank.  We help some families and students weekly with funds for food, housing, tuition and daily necessities; we help others monthly; and yet others at year’s end, depending on what remains upon audit.  And via our FTA dinners we now give seven annual $2,500.00 scholarships in the names of those we honor in equal partnership with the schools benefitting, resulting in most cases in $5,000.00 scholarships, as the schools match our donation; and a total of $1,000.00 or more per FTA dinner to charity from a portion of each dinner’s proceeds; with a total of $1,500.00 being donated at New Delhi, New York City Spring & Fall, Mumbai and as well at Hong Kong.


I no longer worry about my social standing: I am simply a Soul, temporarily residing in a body vehicle; and just like everyone else, doing my best to get by.  I only replace clothing if it can no longer be sewn or repaired, for appearances mean very little to me now.  I would rather be judged by the openness of my heart to all others; by my compassion for those less fortunate than myself; and for my deeds, rather than my words.


I will not be with you in years to come, for my time is nearing its closure in this life in this dimension.  I already sense the call of what is to come and I welcome it, for coming and going is what we all must accept, if we are to remain grounded: The only question is “when we pass”; not “if we pass”.


But the Buddhists have a beautiful saying, “One never knows which comes first, the next morning or the next life”.  I pray that as a result of our coming together this evening for higher purposes, namely recognizing human excellence, providing much-needed scholarships for students of limited means and charity for those less fortunate through UNICEF and Habitat for Humanity International, that we will all be reminded that people are more important than things and that we all wake-up in the morning in THIS life; but rededicated to devoting our lives to serving others, simply because it is the right thing to do; and not for others to praise us or to cater to our ego.


For Service with an Open Heart and Right Intention is the foundation of our hospitality industry: So, from this moment forward, let “Service unto Others” be your mantra, until it is your time to wake-up in the NEXT life.  Thank you very much.  (Pause)  And Now I ask for just a few more moments of your time. (PAUSE)

Please allow me to introduce my lovely, new Cambodian wife, Toeng Ly, seated to my left: Toeng Ly, please stand and be recognized.  And let me add the wonderful news that Toeng Ly is expecting our baby girl on 26 December.  So, now allow me to briefly tell you a beautiful story that I trust will warm your hearts.

Saving A Cambodian Family-Everyone Can Save Someone or Some Family

The story began on 6 December when I came across them on the street in Bangkok, shoeless, very dirty, hardly and barely clothed.  They were staying on a cement slab underneath the outdoor staircase over Sukhumvit Road that connects The Westin Grande Sukhumvit with The Sheraton Grade Sukhumvit.  All their worldly possessions were in five, small plastic shopping bags: They really looked a though they could use a good, warm meal.  So, through a nearby Thai student interpreter (the mother only speaks Cambodian and Thai), I was able to invite them as a family to be my guest at the McDonald’s just 100 feet down the sidewalk adjacent to The Westin.  The mother nodded “Okay”.  And I must say they ate as though they had not eaten in quite some time.  I believe I was back to the counter four times between more Sprite & Coke, French fries, sandwiches; and of course, ice cream desserts.  Thankfully, there was a large wash sink in the restaurant, which allowed everyone to use the much-needed liquid soap and hot water; and for mom to clean her baby.


But in the brief 30 minutes we spent in McDonald’s, I realized how truly desperate were they and that I had to do more; which is our mission at FTA, to serve others, especially those less fortunate.  The baby badly needed disposable diapers and as they had nothing in the way of soap, toothpaste, whatever, so we went shopping next door at the Tops Market.  Afterwards, I took them all next door to Robinson’s Department Store to buy them clothing: And about 90 minutes later, when we left the store, they no longer looked like beggars on the street, but a normal, happy family, nicely clothed, the 12 year old girl with her first doll and the 2 year old boy with his first educational toy.  I then offered them 200 Baht (about USD $7.00) for taxi fare to wherever they were staying at night.  But the mother looked confused: And as the taxi driver spoke English, he explained to me that she was telling him that they were living under the nearby staircase; they had no place to stay.  What to do?  So, I marched them four blocks to the Nana Chart Youth Hostel and I paid for a safe, clean two bedroom, air conditioned room for them for 8 nights, until I had to return to the U.S. for the Christmas holidays.  And every morning I would arrive at about 8:00am and we would all have breakfast together; every lunch I would return and we would eat something on the street; and every evening I would return to take them to the same, nice, casual restaurant for a wholesome dinner.  And when I left for the U.S., I gave her enough cash to return them safely on the buses to Cambodia; and for food until I could fly to Phnom Penh the first week in January and get a better handle on their true situation and attend to the acute dental and medical needs of both the 6 year old boy and the 12 year old girl.


The rest is an even longer story, but suffice it to say, I had no idea of how bleak, how desperate was the small, filthy, unsanitary, unsafe, dark, cinder block, single room they rented for $25.00 per month including limited electricity and a water pipe for the toilet plastic wash basin (but the water was unfit to drink); all this down a long, dark, depressing hallway off a dirt road to Hell.  I slept on the cement floor with them for one night, before deciding I could not let them live like this a moment longer.


So, with great thanks to financial contributions from industry friends as well as many special favors by Charles-Henri Chevet, Area General Manager, Sofitel Cambodia and his Team (our base at Phnom Penh until we could find them a fit place to live), and with about $30,000.00 to date of FTA direct charity from our dinner revenues (Including a portion of tonight’s dinner revenues); and with the invaluable help of so many wonderful Souls I met along the way from Batambang, Cambodia where they lived (about a 9 hour taxi ride from Phnom Penh); and all the way to Phnom Penh, the family is now in a safe, clean apartment in a very nice residential area of downtown Phnom Penh; the children are at last in a wonderful, nearby public school; and they look just amazing in their blue and white school uniforms.


The six year old has now had under general anesthesia in an operating room four of his baby teeth removed, which had become infected with his left cheek swollen like a balloon and he was in constant pain.  Everyone has now had medical examinations by an MD at the Chenda Clinic in Phnom Penh, including blood tests, which revealed that none of them were protected from Hepatitis; so they are now all inoculated and the baby even received the two doses of a vaccine not administered after birth; plus they were given other medicines to take in case they have any internal issues from their poor diet and lack of sanitation.  And they all had eye exams by an eye doctor at Chenda Clinic; and as a result, the mother and 12 year old daughter finally have the reading glasses they needed so badly, but never could afford. 


And thankfully, at our recent FTA Saigon dinner, we found our “Operation Angel”, Andrew O’Brien with Treasury Wine Estates, who completely funded the 12 year old girl’s facial surgery to remove 5 hideous, red tumors that were growing in size, the result of untreated Tuberculosis at age 3; and though the surgical scar will take some time to heal, she can at long last smile without feeling self-conscious. And recently at Singapore, Andrew met with me and handed me the funds to cover the family’s Cambodian Passport applications, so they will at last have comprehensive identity documentation as well as the ability to travel.  And our Hong Kong Disneyland Angel is our dear friend, Rudolf Muller, Executive Chef, Hong Kong Disneyland.  At our Singapore dinner, when he heard that the first trip the family will be taking with their new Passports is to Hong Kong Disneyland. He vowed to do everything possible to insure the experience would be one to forever, fondly remember.  But we still need a Dragon Airways Angel, to cover the roundtrip, economy airfares; so, if that Angel is among us tonight, it would be my honor to shake his or her hand.


In addition, the mother, Toeng Ly has had no means of transportation for herself and her three young

children; and so, likewise, thankfully, we most recently found our “Honda Motorcycle Angel” in

Henry Phua, Managing Director, visMarketing.  And, thankfully, there continue to be other Angels who have

contributed towards the family’s sustenance, such as Jake Jacob, who substantially helped with the April

apartment rent at Phnom Penh: Jake, kindly stand and be recognized.


And so now you know how we spend some of the revenues we collect from our many valued dinner sponsors across Asia Pacific and at NYC; and of the many compassionate Souls, like Andrew, Henry and Rudy who have helped us and continue to help us succeed with our most recent direct humanitarian effort in Cambodia.

Thank you very much for your kind attention.


And one final footnote

The children desperately needed a loving, caring father; and the mother very much needed a loving, providing husband.  And so one day in late January, the last night we were staying at the Sofitel Phnom Penh before moving them into their apartment; and with the two oldest children soon to be in school; and their lives beginning to become stabilized, the 12 year old girl, with the others standing around me, looked up at me and said “Pa”.  And I looked into her eyes, knowing this was a very, very important moment in time: In fact, a life-changing moment.


So, I smiled broadly and replied “Yes, Pa”.  And from that moment, I was officially adopted by the family.  I became the father of the children and the husband of the mother.  And now whenever I am home, I arise at 5:00am Monday through Saturday, to be sure the children are up at 6:00am; and at 6:30am I ride the “tuk tuk” to school with Mr. Sna and the 6 & 12 year olds; and I even help feed the 2 & ½ year old baby some of the time. So, if you want to find me from now on, when I’m not at one of our 12 annual FTA hospitality industry humanitarian dinners at NYC Spring & Fall or across Asia Pacific, just come to Cambodia.


And while we will continue to shoulder this humanitarian effort from our dinner revenues month in and month out, as there is only so much to go around, there continues to be a continuing need for more Angels to help us to help Toeng Ly and the children.  If you would like to help, just let me know tonight or afterwards and I will be happy to let you know how to do so.   Thank you very much.