Benjamin Dubertret (H.95)
The Excellence

When we arrived to Singapore, everybody told us about Benjamin and told us that if we had to make only one interview, it had to be Benjamin’s, not only because he became the Ambassador of France to Singapore  when he was 40, which would be a sufficient condition, but also because he is very clever, interesting and frank. Once again, we were not disappointed.

Read full transcript…

HU: Hi Benjamin, thank you for welcoming us. Let’s start with our little Chinese portrait. So, if you were a color? 

B: Blue, because of the sky.

HU: An animal?

B: I would be a bird, maybe because of the sky, again. At least because of the freedom they enjoy, defying gravity.

HU: A meal?

B: Probably something exotic, like simple Chinese food. I have always been interested in exotic stuff.

HU: A song?

B: Let It Be, because there is some wisdom in it.

HU: A movie?

B: That’s tricky… What I like about movies is that you have got the diversity, the choice… I’d say The Lord of the Rings.

HU: A sin?

B: Probably gluttony. I quite like eating.

HU: An object?

B: I suppose a ball, because it has to keep rolling and I think that’s what life is about.

HU: A sport or a game?

B: Tennis. It requires stamina and determination. My favorite sport for sure.

HU: A book?

B: Like films, there are so many universes…. Le Rivage des Syrtes, by Julien Gracq. It’s a magical and very evocative book and the style is beautiful.

HU: A (super)hero?

B: I don’t believe in superheroes. We need inspiring people, for sure, and I admire a lot of people who showed courage and stood up for what they believed in. It can be Général de Gaulle, it can be Nelson Mandela it can be Aung San Suu Kyi. Political figures who at some point stand up and fight for what they think is right are the most admirable.

“Beyond what people imagine of diplomatic action as something abstract or theoretical and not tangible and concrete, my job is actually to push very concrete projects.”

HU: Now, can you sum up your professional background in 30 seconds?

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B: After my baccalauréat I went to HEC, then to Sciences-Po, where I studied political sciences and then to ENA, the school for civil servants. From there I went to “Inspection Générale des Finances”, at the Ministry of Economy and Finance, during four years. I spent two years in China as an economic advisor to the French Embassy in Beijing. From there I moved back to France for 6 years. I was member of the management Committee of the “Caisse des Dépôts” and I was running the French savings fund, the “fond d’épargne”. In October 2013 I moved on to Singapore, as ambassador of France to Singapore, where I have been posted now for 2 and a half years.

HU: How did you become a diplomat? Not obvious for someone who went through the “Inspection Générale des Finances”.

B: Before entering HEC I was at a bilingual school, the Ecole Jeannine-Manuel back in France and my mother is half-English so I suppose I have always had this interest for international topics and this opened culture. I also enjoyed very much my time in Beijing and I had the opportunity, when I was at HEC, to be an intern at L’Oréal in Jakarta. I really wanted to move abroad and so on…

However, coming out from ENA I didn’t make the choice to go to diplomacy. It’s a choice I could have made but I didn’t make it and I am not changing my mind now. It was an incredible opportunity, when I was just 40 years old to come here as ambassador of France to Singapore, which is such an incredible hub and one of the most dynamic places on earth now. There is a lot to do in terms of business, in terms of finance and a lot to do to promote French interest.

It’s a conjunction of a personal taste for Asia, that’s for sure, and this professional opportunity.

“Many countries have cultural ties with Singapore, others have economics ties, but we’ve got the whole range.”

HU: What the French embassy’s missions in Singapore?

B: One of the interests but at the same time of the challenges of that job is that you have such a variety of topics that it’s difficult to have the same depth, which you can do when you have one job focusing on one sector and one type of action that you undertake.

They are incredibly varied and it’s difficult to explain in just a few minutes. As an ambassador, you touch upon a series of very different issues. It is the case in many countries I suppose, but here France has a great variety of interests. We have a strategic partnership with Singapore and the scope is extremely broad: it goes from defense, culture, economics of course, business ties or finance… Consular interests as well (visas, passports…) We touch upon not only the topics concerning Singapore itself, but also the broader region, the whole ASEAN. A lot of the teams here at the embassy actually work on topics that are more related with neighbouring countries.

photo prise lors du 1er tour des elections presidentielles francaises de 2012.

French Embassy in Singapore

HU: What is your role as ambassador?

B: The whole idea and the way I see that job, is that beyond what people imagine of diplomatic action as something abstract or theoretical and not tangible and concrete, my job is actually to push very concrete projects.

Just to give one example, we are about to launch this evening the French Cultural Festival here in Singapore. It’s something that used to exist some years ago but with ups and downs so I decided last year that we should make it again. We had a first edition in 2015: about 40 cultural events during 7 weeks. It was a big success and we touched about 300,000 people who came to the different events because lots of them were free of ticketing. We are doing the same things this year. Now we have a very nice and perennial project, which gathers everyone with one common objective.

Actually, if I had to sum up what from a sort of a management point of view being an ambassador is, I would say that it is about managing to push forward very concrete projects in the interest of France, but the only way to manage that is to make sure that people endorse your project, endorse your ideas and follow you. It’s about gathering energies from companies, entities or institutions to work in the same direction.

On the small scale there is the same challenge within an embassy, because an embassy is a collection of silos. You have people who deal with culture, defense, internal security, economics, trade promotions and so on… Getting to have everyone working together is actually challenging because it’s not in the traditional culture of an embassy, but I believe in synergies, between all these different areas. Typically, areas between university cooperation and science on the one hand, and then trade promotion and economics and the other hand. These are two areas of specialty that actually need to work together. I believe in opening up the natural boundaries that used to exist within embassies and that’s pretty much what my job is about here.

“I went through HEC, Sciences-Po, ENA and I have this degree in law, and I am not saying this because you are interviewing me, but my best memories are by far with HEC”

HU: Is France a country that matters in Singapore? What are France’s strengths here?

B: I think it does matter even if we haven’t got the same historical ties as Britain. Nevertheless, France was the first European country to acknowledge Singapore as an independent nation in 1965 and since then the relationship has always been quite intense.

France was the second country after the United States to sign a strategic partnership with Singapore and that I believe is recognition of a fact that we have quite a special relationship, special because very broad and covering many different sectors. Many countries have cultural ties with Singapore, others have economics ties, but we’ve got the whole range.

In terms of figures, we have 15,000 people in the French community, which has doubled in 8 years and tripled in the past 12 years, proving the dynamism of this bilateral relationship. For the 50th anniversary of its independence, Singapore decided last year that the one place it wanted to hold its cultural festival would be France. Another proof that the relationship has been maturing very well over the past few years.

But the whole idea is not to be proud of what we’ve achieved and of how close we’ve managed to become, because we want this partnership to be very forward-looking.

HU: And what are the plans for the future?

B: We are currently exploring areas where I believe there is a good potential for cooperation. Singapore has important challenges in terms of productivity, innovation, reinventing its economic model and I believe that France has a lot to say in that. When you look at all the start-ups that are coming up in a variety of sectors, you understand that France is actually one of the very first places in the world in that category. Look at the recent CES (Consumer Electronic Show) in Las Vegas, the fact that France was the second most represented country after the United States says a lot about the dynamism of that sector.

We have the feeling sometimes that France is a great place for its food, its wine, its tradition and its culture, which shouldn’t be neglected and are actually very important in the people to people relationship that we enjoy with many people including here in Singapore. But what I believe is even more relevant for our relationship with Singapore is precisely our ability to be creative and innovative. That is something I think Singapore acknowledges, recognizes and sees value in.

HU: What makes you happy to go to work every morning?

B: Well two things I suppose.

I am happy because of the diversity of the job, because it’s quite fascinating to jump from one topic to another while having a global perspective of what is happening here, in one of the most dynamic regions of this planet.

The second thing I like about this jo is when I make it concrete: when you have objectives, projects, when you try to embark everyone on those projects and when you succeed.

“A challenge that all democracies have throughout the world, including France, is the difficulty to think in the long run. That’s something that Singapore does very well: planning and implementing what they’ve decided to do.”

HU: If you don’t have a typical day, what are your usual tasks as ambassador? What are your days full of?

B: What I could highlight is that it’s a peculiar job in the sense that I sort of have two lives. One is a normal office life: meeting people, answering emails, organizing meetings and so on here at the office.

But I also have a second life, which is going out of the embassy to conferences, a great variety of events. Last Monday morning we had a big conference opened by the Singaporean minister of Foreign Affairs regarding internal security, gathering specialists from whole the world including France for a few days. It can be also around culture. This evening I will go to the Voilah! opening dinner, Voilah! being the name of our French cultural festival.

This is an amazing mix and you when think your day is actually finished, or befire it even started, you have what we call “representation tasks”, but they are extremely important if you want to remain plugged on what is actually going on and if we want also to make sure that France has the proper level of visibility from the point of view of the Singaporean authorities, all our partners here and all the other countries as well.

HU: Have you coped with a difficult choice in our professional life? If yes what have you learnt from it?

B: Professional life is made of difficult choices. The most striking I had to cope with was with my previous capacity as Head of the savings fund with “Caisse des depots”. We had a major project, which was about reinventing our whole IT system. It was a very costly project but at some point we realized we were heading in the wrong direction, so we had to decide to terminate this project, even though we had already put a lot of money into it.

It’s one of the things that struck me and that I feel not so happy about but at the same time I think that you need to open your eyes, to be realistic and to see what the next step actually has to be and not persevering in your previous errors. I learnt from it that it’s very challenging to make good decisions on topics that are very technical: you need to have the right tech guys around you to give you proper advice, while keeping your perspective on what are the objectives of the organization as a whole. Making sure that the two match is not easy.

HU: Let’s stalk about more about Singapore now, but in a different way. When do you like to go on Sunday afternoons, when you have nothing to do at the embassy?

B: I have got three young kids, so I suppose the choices I make for my Sunday afternoons are quite different from those I would make if I was alone or just with my wife. When I have spare time I want to spend it with my family and Singapore is a wonderful place in that perspective, with a lot of places geared for kids needs. Typically I would just go to the zoo or aquariums or whatever. But what we also like to do and what is quite specific to Singapore is just to out walking, in the jungle or around MacRichie reservoir, Bukit Timah nature reserve. Those are great places for kids.

Singapore-Bukit-Timah-Hill

Bukit Timah reserve

It’s very warm here, not to say too warm but you can remain active in those places and that what I would do on Sunday afternoons.

“It seems to me that Singapore is fully conscious that its number one challenge is productivity and innovation. How do you change your economic model from one that is of extensive growth and the accumulation of labor and capital factors to something that is simply more productive?”

HU: Let’s put differently then. Imagine you have only 24h left to spend in Singapore but on your own: your family is fine and you are alone to enjoy the city one last time. What would you do?

B: There so many different areas here: Little India, Chinatown, Arab Street… I guess I would like to have a small taste of all these different flavors. I would certainly go to all the iconic places, walking a lot and I would be tired at the end of the day, just to get that feeling of all these different places and to see this incredible mix one last time.

HU: What do you like about Singaporeans?

B: They are friendly, they are open and it’s a characteristic that is not that common. They have been used to being opened to different cultures, their neighbours and so on. Each one is retaining his own culture but also sharing at the same time a sense of nationhood. They are constantly asking questions about what it is like in France and they actually travel quite a lot and they are always curious to discover more.

HU: What do you think France could learn from Singapore?

B: A lot. The situation here is completely different and obviously not comparable but there are at least two things we could learn from them.

First, the way that they always think about the longer term when they devise their public policies. A challenge that all democracies have throughout the world, including France, is the difficulty to think in the long run. That’s something that they do very well: planning and implementing what they’ve decided to do.

Second thing we could learn is culturally speaking. They have managed to achieve a very harmonious multi-ethnics, multi-religious and multi-racial society. As I said before, they built a mind-set within their people and that’s quite remarkable. I don’t know how we can translate that into our country but we see that our country is currently challenged in that respect and we have got some things to sort out and there is a lot to learn from Singapore.

“I just loved to have some free time. It’s good to have free time and students there should enjoy their free time because after that it’s a bit more complicated!”

HU: We understood that the main pillars of the Singaporean economy are suffering today: finance, maritime transport and the oil refinery industry. What are Singapore’s challenges today?

B: Two different things. There is a bit of a cyclical part in it because China is slowing down and that has a big impact on the whole region and on Singapore in particular because there are very close ties between Singapore and China.

At the same time, the situation is not going to run like this for another 5 to 10 years, Singapore has more structural issues and it probably needs to reinvent itself a little bit. Singapore has a remarkable achievement interms of accumulating capital and work force in precise sectors of the economy and became very good and very attractive in those sectors.

But in such a small country (720 km2) that is already fully packed with people, factories and offices, there is a certain degree of limitation to this continuation of this process of accumulation. It seems to me that Singapore is fully conscious that its number one challenge is productivity and innovation. How do you change your economic model from one that is of extensive growth and the accumulation of labor and capital factors to something that is simply more productive? That is a political challenge as well as an economic challenge.

Growth in Singapore has been steadily slowing down over the past years and the trend will be closer to 2%, which is already very good for such an advanced country, but if they want to go higher, they will need to have more productivity and more innovation. They are doing a lot on that and I believe this is an area where France and Singapore can do precise things together.

But it’s also a political issue and the result of the 2011 general election have shown that there was a certain feeling among the Singaporeans that simply letting in foreign talents and foreign workers to come here was limited and it will push Singapore to reinvent its model.

But I am confident that they will manage to reinvent it. They are in their own right very creative and very conscious of the long-term challenges they face.

HU: Let’s talk about HEC now. First, when did you graduate from HEC?

B: I graduated in 1995, because I did a one-year break, the “césure”.

HU: So, back to 1992 and 1993, what were your favorite places on the HEC campus?

B: Many good memories all over the place. Paradoxically, I quite liked the Batzet, because it was very lively. It was of course focused on work but not only, that was also the place where everyone gathered and there was a lots of things going on there. It is associates with lots of good memories.

I could equally talk about the tennis court, close to the lake and, of course, where we had the “soirée du jeudi” was not too bad either, so it’s a mix of all that!

HU: What is your memory from HEC?

B: I am appalled to have to say that, but the “soirée du jeudi” was one of the striking elements of weekly life at HEC.

HU: Ok, now we are sure you are a true HEC!

B: (laughs)

HU: Were you involved in any associations? What were you doing during your free time as a student?

B: I tried to do a little of sport. I was active at some point in the BDE campaign but we failed! (laughs) Out of that I was not involved in associations to be honest, and you must think that was keen to have very long studies, but I went to the Law faculty in Sceaux and I graduated with a BA in Law, simultaneously with HEC and it kept me a little bit busy.

But the real answer to your question is that I think I just loved to have some free time. It’s good to have free time and students there should enjoy their free time because after that it’s a bit more complicated! (laughs)

HU: Would you advise someone to go to HEC today? And if yes, why?

B: Yeah, definitely. I went through HEC, Sciences-Po, ENA and I have this degree in law, and I am not saying this because you are interviewing me, but my best memories are by far with HEC. I think there was the right mix of learning, but also learning to become what you have to become by knowing yourself better. Very honestly, I think I learnt much more there, including skills that are the most useful to me now, than what I learnt in Sciences-Po or ENA, which are apparently more related to the kind of stuff I am doing today.

There is an entrepreneurial spirit, in a general way, as a sense of the enterprise and of the projects you want to move forward that brought a lot to me. That’s something that I could only wish everyone can have a chance to go through and that is useful to me everyday, in my current capacity.

HU: Do you think HEC helped you to become a better civil servant? In your opinion, does the French public sector need this “entrepreneurial spirit” more?

B: I don’t know. What I learnt at HEC was like opening a window on the real world, which was blessing after the preparatory classes. And it’s also true through the various activities that one can have at the side lines of what the associations do, whether you are directly involved in them or not. You are plugged into reality and it is so necessary and helpful for a young person.

Don’t get me wrong, the other eduction institutions I mentionned are not hovering over reality but HEC is the place where I got this sense of the importance of what was going on around and I think it’s simply a different way of teaching and doing things in a very concrete and tangible manner.

I think sometimes France suffers a bit from an appreciation of intellectual debates and theoretical approaches. All that is important and it’s one of the distinctive strengths of the French mentality, but we need to have a more hands-on approach and to deal with reality more than with ideas. What I liked with HEC is that I learnt how to translate ideas into projects and realities. The HEC motto, “Apprendre à oser” (i.e. “The more you know, the more you dare.”), is a great summary of this. Theoretical knowledge frees you up to be more active and more proactive in our world.

HU: Which advice would you give to a 20-year-old HEC?

B: Stick by the motto of the school, honestly. Work hard, but not in a too academic perspective. The world we live in is changing so fast, I think you have to keep tuned. HEC has evolved and today many students take that step of setting up their own company. I think it’s a wonderful evolution. It was there but it had to grow. It’s not the choice that I made, as I decided to carry on with my studies, but it’s something I still have in me and I can’t exclude that one day can take a different road. I would actually love to do that.

HU: You talked about HEC’s motto: “The more you know, the more you dare”. But what would be your own motto?

B: I suppose it would be something around determination. There is something about professional life and life in general that has to do with: “Never give up”, for sure. But HEC’s motto is an excellent one, and it’s not just for students who are there, it’s for everyone, everywhere, at any stage of their career.

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