Ben Jones has big plans for Singapore and beyond. The Mandala Group co‑founder and CEO is hard at work cultivating a new age of culture driven by community, an appetite for risk, and a little bit of rock and roll

Belonging to a private members’ club has long been a unique representation of wealth and power in Asia—particularly during the 1980s and 1990s, the elite couldn’t get enough of their local country club’s slatted plastic deckchairs and poolside club sandwiches (that were mediocre, at best).

Now, there’s a new breed of private members’ club that caters to the next generation’s appetite for culture and community. More substance than status symbol, these spaces serve as conduits for creativity through programmes that revolve around the arts, current affairs and networking, alongside exclusive, intimate experiences.

One such establishment is Mandala Club, owned by Singapore‑based real estate and events company Mandala Group. “Everything we do is blanketed in the human need for meaningful connection, whereby we can create depth of community,” says Ben Jones, the co‑founder and CEO of Mandala Group. “If you’ve got 2,000 members and they don’t know one another, it’s not a community—it’s just a group of people. Our job is to facilitate genuine connection.”

In 2021, Mandala Group officially acquired and renovated the 22,000 square feet, four‑storey heritage shophouse at Bukit Pasoh that was formerly Straits Clan, a private members’ club that paid tribute to Singapore’s clan associations. After taking over the space from home‑grown hospitality company The Lo & Behold Group, it officially rebranded the property as Mandala Club.

Read more: 5 Exclusive Private Clubs In Singapore

There were some concerns from existing members and the community at large during the transition: could a group that’s essentially run by foreigners really embrace and represent Singapore’s creative set, or was it destined to become another watering hole for expats? To that, Jones says: “Mandala is a company that was born in Singapore—and which is proudly Singaporean. If someone wants to tap into the dynamic and exciting elements of arts and culture in this country, [Mandala Club] is the place to do it.”

Born in Wales, Jones was five years old when his father, a teacher, got the opportunity to work in Hong Kong. His family lived there for six years until a head teaching role at an international school in Penang brought the Joneses to the Malaysian state.

“My father still lives in Penang,” says Jones, who returned to the UK to finish secondary school before attending the University of Bath, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science, Business Administration and Management. But Jones had other interests. In his teens and early twenties, he shares, he would buy Wallpaper magazine rather than men’s fashion titles such as GQ. “I was always a very creative person and in school, my passion was always design,” he shares. “But after graduating, I had the opportunity to get into investment banking. And in the 1990s and early 2000s, banking was what tech is now: the big industry where everyone was earning lots of money. Everyone wanted a piece of it.”

Investment banking ultimately brought Jones back to Asia, where he worked at Goldman Sachs and then UBS in Hong Kong, before moving to Singapore to take on a role at VTB Capital. “It was a kind of homecoming. London is one of my favourite cities in the world … but only to visit,” he quips. “Asia is home.”

While living in Singapore, and after about a decade of working in the finance sector, Jones’s penchant for design became an itch he had to scratch. His first venue was gastropub Oxwell & Co, followed by the beloved cocktail bar Operation Dagger, which was a mainstay on The World’s 50 Best Bars list before it closed permanently in 2020.

“It was that classic ‘banker sets up a side gig’ situation,” says Jones, who was hands‑on in the interior design process for his venues, all done in‑house. He then took his ventures to Bali with the development of premium beach club Ulu Cliffhouse and a series of luxury private villas, including Mandala the House, which, with its sunken living room and glass‑bottom pool, is one of the most copied villas on the Island of the Gods.

“All of these projects combined my passion for design and hospitality. There was a point about four or five years ago when my wife said to me, ‘You’re putting half of your heart and soul into two things. You should pick one and do it as best you can,’” Jones recalls, adding that even though he wrestled between the stability of banking and the excitement of following his passion, he ultimately chose the latter.

In 2019, it all came full circle when Wallpaper, the magazine that inspired his love for design, published a story that read: “In just a few years, [Mandala Group] has become something of a byword for luxury accommodation in Bali.”

Read more: The Tatler Guide to Bali: Best Dining Spots, Hotels, Attractions and More

During the pandemic, Jones and his team added five more villas to their Bali repertoire with The Residences, four three‑bedroom villas in the heart of the island’s Berawa district, and Mandala the Oasis, an impressive five‑bedroom villa in buzzy Canggu complete with a private gym, a Moroccan‑style rooftop and an infinity pool overlooking rice paddy fields. When travel restrictions to Bali eased in early 2022, Jones travelled to the island in April on a dual mission: to see the newly built villas for the first time and to return to Ulu Cliffhouse, which welcomed its first major international act—Berlin‑based South Korean DJ Peggy Gou—since Bali halted international travel due to the pandemic.

Following the trip, an elated Jones took to Instagram to post a spirited caption accompanying a gallery of photos from his trip: “Onwards, upwards … because Bali’s back! Canggu was buzzing, all our properties are full, [Ulu Cliffhouse] had over 2,500 through its doors for Peggy Gou, and there is some new exciting stuff in the pipeline!”

ROOM TO GROW

Jones’s risks keep paying off. When Mandala Group took over Straits Clan, it had 600 members. In a year as Mandala Club, membership grew to 1,800—and counting. The group recently confirmed a second location in Singapore, which is slated to open in the third quarter of 2023. “This second space will allow us to purpose‑build certain elements that couldn’t necessarily fit here,” says Jones, who hints at the possibility of music‑centric studios, event spaces, and even a swimming pool and hotel rooms.

“Singapore may not be the traditional or obvious place for the inception of a brand like Mandala, but that’s changing, and due to change even more, because so much is going to be largely dictated by this part of the world—it’s all about the Asia‑Pacific mindset when it comes to business, culture, arts,” Jones explains. “The [Singapore] government has done a great job of supporting the arts. We’ve been approached by a number of government bodies in the arts to explore how we can work together. Mandala Group has a great platform that transcends lifestyle and the arts, and I think they recognise that.”

Mentoring and nurturing future generations of creators and innovators is an important part of Mandala Club’s mission and one of the reasons there’s a steady increase in young Singaporeans eager to sign up as members. In 2021, the club hosted a four‑month‑long Artist in Residence programme with four local artists, including André Wee, whose work is now on display in the club. Mandala Club also hosts a regular mentorship programme. Each month, a handful of members under 30 years old are given access to a different mentor with whom they can book one‑on‑one sessions. To date, in‑house mentors have included Richie Eu, the managing director of his family’s multi‑million‑dollar traditional Chinese medicine company Eu Yan Sang, as well as tech and finance whiz Chua Ee Chien, the business development director of Endowus and the owner of food and beverage brand Jekyll & Hyde.

“Mandala Club encompasses so much more than business and hospitality. It’s about community, networking, career progression,” says Jones. “It may be that you’re an established individual interested in meeting upcoming entrepreneurs to mentor, or vice versa, or maybe you have a start‑up and you want to network to raise money. We support Singapore’s young entrepreneurs, and the arts, as best we can, and hopefully, that leads to bigger things.”

Following the success of Mandala Club in Singapore, Jones and his team are working on plans to expand the concept to other Asia‑Pacific destinations; current contenders include Mumbai, Sydney, Hong Kong and Tokyo. But Jones says they’re taking their time. “We’re sensitive to localising the product. Being representative of the dynamic community in that city is super critical,” he explains. “Community is everything. We want to be very measured in our growth.”

When I speak to Jones for this interview, we are seated in large leather armchairs in the Library on the club’s second floor. The room is wallpapered in dark green, with floor‑to‑ceiling dark wood shelves lined with design, art and fashion books published by New York publisher Assouline—one of the many collaborations Mandala Club has formed with brands that are esteemed in the arts world.

On the club’s third floor, in The Straits Parlour and The Orchid Room, are artworks acquired in a collaboration with Opera Gallery, including works by blue‑chip artists including Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí. There are also bold, abstract paintings by New Zealand artist Rob Tucker and the textural works, formed with vinyl and sand, of Italian artist Umberto Mariani. Of course, Mandala Club showcases works by Singaporean artists throughout the venue as well, including those by Dawn Ng and Eugene Soh.

Jones is an art collector himself, and owns contemporary pieces by the likes of Andy Warhol, Tracey Emin and David LaChapelle. “I like having a mix of things that might not obviously go together. I’ve got some classic oil paintings from Penang and around Malaysia next to a photo of The Rolling Stones,” says Jones, who is a big fan of the iconic British rock band—so much so that he even gave his son the middle name Jagger.

“[The Rolling Stones] have been on the cutting edge of music and culture for four decades. And who else has done that? Nobody,” he says. “I mean, they’re going into their 60th year of touring, which probably explains why they’re still alive. That would be a very good reason to live.”

It’s no surprise, then, that Jones’s favourite room in Mandala Club is The Analogue Room on the second floor. “I love that room. It’s like an eccentric uncle’s living room. It encompasses what I believe to be the best selection of art, the best sound system and a great vinyl collection,” says Jones, who has been known to take over the playlist at the club some nights.

Mandala Club’s design, with its clashing prints, chunky furniture and objets d’art scattered thoughtfully throughout the space, reflects Jones’s personal decorating style as well as his overall approach to life and business: shunning the minimalist trends du jour, he’s more inclined to a bit of curated chaos.

“We’re quite a nimble or dynamic organisation, which is a polite way of saying we’re quite hectic,” he says. “We’re trying things and failing, but also trying things and succeeding. No one’s going to be told off for trying, whether it’s something experimental or controversial, because every now and then, you’ll do something that’s best in class.”

 

AHEAD OF THE CURVE

A perfect example of this is when Mandala Club opened a pop‑up with chef Mauro Colagreco, whose restaurant Mirazur in Menton, France, was voted the world’s best restaurant in 2019. Following the accolade, Mirazur was temporarily closed due to the pandemic; Jones saw an opportunity, and offered Colagreco and his team a space at Mandala Club for a pop‑up starting in May 2021—a residency that lasted for five months. “We regretted it when [it had to close] on day two because of sudden changes in [Covid‑19] restrictions,” Jones tells me with a laugh. “But we’re risk-takers. We did it because we’re motivated by doing things for the members, for the community.”

It was a tumultuous five months, given Singapore’s unpredictable easing and tightening of Covid‑19 restrictions at the time, but not only did they tough it out, Jones and his team were hungry for more. Just two months after the end of the Mirazur residency, Mandala Club announced the next pop‑up, this time with renowned Bangkok‑based Indian chef Gaggan Anand. It was originally slated for a two‑month takeover, but when reservations opened in September last year—first to club members and then to the public—all tables were snapped up in just two‑and‑a‑half hours. The pop-up has since been extended to the end of this month.

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Mandala Club’s cultural programming goes beyond dining to bring experiences spanning the arts, music and culture to club members, giving them exclusive access to some of the world’s most prominent thought leaders, innovators and rule-breakers by way of talks, events and pop‑ups—the “best in class”, as Jones put it.

This January, Mandala Club played host to an intimate afternoon chat between iconic English actor and comedian John Cleese and Singapore‑based BBC World News presenter Sharanjit Leyl. With Singapore’s nightlife back in full force, June sees legendary British DJ Benji B—who in January this year produced the soundtrack for late fashion designer Virgil Abloh’s final show—play a set in Mandala Club. He is one of the first international acts to play on the island nation since the start of the pandemic.

These projects have led to the launch of the subsidiary brand, Mandala Masters, which will continue to bring these one‑of‑one experiences to the wider Singapore community—with Mandala Club members getting priority access, of course. “There’s a hunger for human connection, for people to make up for the last two years,” says Jones, who hopes these experiences will “make our members proud to be part of this community.”

The members of Mandala Club are diverse and dynamic, from hospitality mogul Loh Lik Peng to Singaporean rapper Yung Raja, Lazada co-founder Tim Rath and the fashion world’s rising star Jamie QQ Wu. “They’re a magnetic group of individuals who can inspire a room. But that doesn’t mean by being the loudest or even the most charismatic,” Jones explains. “They are individuals who are accomplished, who have a firm viewpoint or purpose.”

They are also individuals who reflect the current moment. “There are super‑important shifts in the way the world thinks about things such as equal rights,” Jones says. “Our community captures the zeitgeist. We’re able to tap into that and mould our behaviours, our cultural calendar and our narrative to support it.”

This April, amid the ongoing war in Ukraine, Mandala Club hosted a fireside chat with Kateryna Zelenko, Ukraine’s ambassador to Singapore, and award‑winning journalist Tom Wright, author of the bestselling book Billion Dollar Whale and a Mandala Club member. “We can be reactive,” shares Jones. “With the Ukraine crisis, we were able to build a series of events that not just develop the narrative and educate our members about what’s happening, but also fundraise.” The club raised close to $60,000 for humanitarian aid in Ukraine. “The cultural calendar, while allowing us a voice and tapping into the now, also allows us to mobilise the community for good,” says Jones. “As we grow, our community grows. Not just in Singapore, but also in other countries as we expand.

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