Sunday, June 25, 2017

Confucius (Kung-tze) meets 21st Century Chinese

I read with disbelief that something like this can happen to the children of Lee Kuan Yew. Family feuds in Chinese tradition usually happen during the era of the third generation. But for siblings to fight over a seemingly small issue only two years after the passing of the patriarch is something earth-shaking especially if the patriarch was the founding father of a nation and known to be practitioner of oriental virtues.

Sibling harmony ranks high in the hierarchy of Chinese virtues. What has become of this family?

As far as I see, the siblings are NOT fighting over the 38 Oxley Road property per se! The inheritance and ownership matter has already been settled. It is true the late Mr Lee had wanted the house to be demolished after his passing, or if the daughter was still staying there, after her moving out. Many Singaporeans want the house to be preserved as a remembrance of the late Mr Lee. So, I understand, does Mr Lee Hsien Loong as the prime minister of the country. However, Prime Minister Lee is prepared to recuse himself from the cabinet committee that has been tasked to study the matter. Of course, in Singapore, cabinet committees’ recommendations are usually accepted by the government.

Through reading the postings of the siblings, Madam Ho Ching and one of the sons of Mr Lee Hsien Yang, I could not help but jump to this conclusion: A case of “second son” syndrome!

It is certainly not for a nobody outsider like me (a non-Singaporean to boot) to say who is right or who is wrong in this case. But the cynical me likes to lay the blame on China’s greatest sage: Kung-tze!

What an audacious thing for me to say, isn’t it?

My own family first: Yang came first; he was followed by Monica. Hwa and I thought we had achieved a perfect number and stopped thereon. And like most parents that have been brought up with some Confucian expectations, we are very happy that our firstborn is indeed a boy. When my daughter Monica gave birth to Kaeden, my son-in-law Konfir was on cloud nine. Less than two years later came Maxel, another boy. I had expected Konfir to be slightly disappointed. But not at all; he said he now had double-insurance! And Konfir makes it a point to love his two boys equally. Yang has three boys. I hope we don't have this "second son" syndrome later!

I was strict with Yang and partial to Monica. Fortunately, Hwa was more balanced in her love. I don’t seem to see much friction or rivalry between the two even when they were young. They are all grown up now, and I suppose they understand the true meaning of sibling love. On the other hand, when I was young, even though I was the youngest son and had all my parents’ indulgences, I always tried to find fault with my older siblings. My siblings are all very forgiving. Fortunately, as we age, we care for one another more than ever.

Families in the Confucian tradition have a patriarch to lord over things. Usually he is the grandfather. (Grandmother also holds sway in some.) If the great grandfather is still around, he is symbolically the patriarch, but chances are he might be too old or not too clear-headed to exert any authority.) When the old man passes on, the anointed one – usually the eldest son – would assume the “reign”. (If he has an older sister, he may also defer to her in many family matters.)

The anointed one would usually inherit the bulk of the patriarch’s estate. But he is also to look after
the well-being of his siblings and their families – as the new patriarch. But the 21st century truth is that few junior siblings are happy to play a submissive or subservient role. Many are as educated or qualified, and may even have done better than the anointed one in life. Sibling love and care for each other is usually there, no matter how diluted it has become. But when wives enter into the equation, all hell may break loose. Daughters-in-law are likely to suppress their own ambition or likes and dislikes when the older generation is still around. But few can see beyond the edge of their own dressing table when it comes to family issues. And how many cousins care for each other or one another?

Sibling love can hardly be built on Confucian dictates. Economic beholdenness breeds rebelliousness. It is nurtured through heart, not head. Parents should be able to see “aberrations” in their children’s behavior when they were young. Address the matter when it is still addressable!

LKY and wife in all their wisdom should have seen it coming long time ago. Surely, their rivalry did not happen overnight?

Monday, June 12, 2017

A Felda without Ungku, No wonder!!!

The public spat between Felda Global Ventures (FGV)’s chairman and CEO that is being played out may not be as gripping as the other SCC (state controlled corporates) in Malaysia. However, it does reflect the sad state of the affairs we are seeing in some quarters of the country today.

I do not know the two protagonists well enough to make any meaningful comment on the story that is breaking out now. If you want the superficial version, you can get it from one of the country’s mainstream dailies; and if you want the “dig-deeper” version, then Malaysiakini has got a good write-up on it.

But one thing is certainly true: the Felda (Federal Land Development Authority of Malaysia) today is a far cry from what it was during Raja Alias’s time. When FGV got listed and its CEO was bold enough to call himself a Dr So-and-so, even though his PhD was from a degree mill, you knew something was definitely not right. After all, success and failure of organisations hinge on the leader. And was he the key decision-maker in FGV? It appears that there was another supremo he had to answer to. His boss’s record has not been that exemplary either.

No wonder!

Felda, which holds the biggest stake in FGV, is an organisation that I had always looked up to during Raja Alias’s time. He was then, and even until today, reverently addressed as “Ungku” since he is a descendant of a branch of royal lineage in Negeri Sembilan. (He is also a real Tan Sri. You know what I mean with the bold highlight on the Tan Sri title, don’t you?)

I first came to know Ungku when he was an “executive” director of Highlands & Lowlands, whose first chairman was none other than Sir Frank Swettenham. The company, though a relatively small plantation house, had had the biggest cash hoard in any public listed company of the day, thanks to the compensations it often received out of the government’s acquisitions of its estates in fast urbanizing Selangor. (Its estates in the Klang Valley and around Port Dickson made everybody salivate! Shah Alam was basically carved out of its estates!) It was fondly called High & Low; shareholders loved the good dividends it paid out year after year. The company was controlled by four main shareholders: (a) Permodalan Nasional Berhad (PNB), which is the body set up by the Federal Government to spearhead the country’s affirmative action to bring up Malay equities in corporate Malaysia, (b) Pernas, another “affirmative action” body but with “sogo-shosha” missions, (c) Kuala Lumpur Kepong, which was controlled by the late rubber baron Tan Sri Lee Loy Seng, and (d) Felda, which everybody is talking about today. (The background behind the setting up of Felda is also well documented. For starters, one van visit Wikipedia. There is not much more I can contribute.)

After High & Low was acquired by Kumpulan Guthrie and knowing that I would be sidelined in a bigger organisation, he was kind enough to offer me to head the IT unit of the Malaysian International Shipping Corporation (MISC); I did not take up the offer, since it would appear – to my narrow mindedness at that time – that I was accepting a lesser position. After I actually quit Kumpulan Guthrie and found that I was not able to make any headway elsewhere, Ungku came to the rescue again and made me a senior manager in Corporate Planning at MISC. But the overly ambitious me soon was enticed to join Tan Sri Frank Tsao’s IMC office in Kuala Lumpur.

My stint at High & Low and MISC gave me the opportunity to know Ungku’s leadership at close quarters.

I had to present papers to High & Low’s Board at its Executive Committee meetings from time to time. It was chaired by Syed Mahmood Syed Hussain. The other members were the late Tun Ismail Ali, the chairman of PNB then, the late Tan Sri Lee Loy Seng and Ungku. The chairman had little power. The members were there to protect their turf. What could a young “corporate planner” do in a world that was dominated by these three corporate and business titans? No decision was usually the best decision – when a proposal from lesser mortals like us were discussed.

But one man was always different. He was Ungku. I could see that he genuinely really wanted High & Low to grow! The others were more interested in form rather than substance.

Ungku read all management and board papers. He didn’t leave to the managers and functional directors to struggle to present during meetings. He would usually help lay out the case and then invite the officer involved to take on from there. This removed anxiety and allowed spontaneity and confidence on the part of the officer to make his presentation coherent and comprehensive. Good decisions were therefore made.

Because Felda was so well run, it generated huge cash surpluses year after year. Under the direction of Ungku, it took up substantial stakes in many public listed companies besides High & Low and MISC. Ungku was the chairman of Boustead by virtue of Felda’s stake there and a director of the largest bank in the country namely Malayan Banking, amongst many others.

A visit to his office would tell you how frugal the man was. His regular office was at Felda’s headquarters. His room was frighteningly spartan. At the appointed time, he would emerge from his office to meet his guest. Simple tea and light cakes would usually be offered. After a few pleasantries, it was all work-related talk or discussions.

Ungku’s office is on the first floor of the building nearest to the guard house. Apparently, he would always be amongst the earliest to clock in. I was told that he would sometimes appear at his office’s balcony at 8am, which was when Felda would begin its day officially. How dare one come late?

My colleague at High & Low, Hussein Jalil, who later became the managing director of Boustead had this to reminisce: He had just been posted to a new Felda scheme in the remote corner of Muar in Johor. On a certain Sunday, he decided to take his Land Rover for a round of the scheme, since there was nothing better for him to do. Sometime into his rounds, he spotted another Land Rover at the far end, he decided to “intercept”. To his “horror”, the driver of the other Land Rover was none other than the chairman himself! (Lady Luck certainly smiled at Hussein! His career was all well paved from then.)

Officers taking things easy just before the end of the day beware! On a rainy day, a chap thought it was time to take it easy since 4:30pm was just minutes away. He rested his two legs on the working desk and spread out the newspapers of the day to read. A gentle knock, but it was too late for him to retract his limps. The chairman was right in front of him! “Continue reading,” the chairman said calmly as he walked away. That must be the biggest regret he had ever had in his whole life!

Even though Felda was an affirmative organisation, which means it was founded to advance the wellbeing of Bumiputras in the country, Ungku did not hesitate to promote non-Malays to key ranks. Friends like Yong Moh Lim, Edmund Liew and a certain Mr Singh can testify to that.

He was also prepared to promote people who did not have “papers”. My mentor at High & Low Tuan Sayed Mohammed is a case in point. He started in Felda’s Audit Department and rose to become a senior officer in Felda before being sent to High & Low to be one of the two general managers there to manage plantation operation. When High & Low was taken over by Guthrie, Sayed lost his job, but was soon brought back to the Felda fold even though he was already past his retiring age.

I saw with my own eyes how aboveboard Ungku was. I was tasked with launching MISC Haulage and had to purchase a few hundred prime movers (the truck that hauls containers). Each would cost a few hundred thousand Ringgit. Ungku left it entirely to my team to evaluate and make recommendations. At no time did he interfere and try to influence anything!
Visiting him during Hari Raya is another humbling experience. Big shots or mall fry, everyone is welcome. The festival’s goodies are laid out for all to sample. Ungku would move from table to table to make guests comfortable. No one is left out in the cold.

These are just some of the snapshots of the great man. I have not in my career come across any greater entrepreneur-manager.

What is happening to Felda and FGV today must be heart for Ungku!!!

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The last time I visited Yangon was more than 20 years ago, first as a member of the entourage of the late Tan Sri Lim Goh Tong of the Genting fame, and second, with one of his children who was independently exploring some business opportunities there. Nothing worked out from these visits. But I vivid remember the visits. Everybody who was somebody was a general. And all men seemed to be going around in sarongs.
The deal-cutting place in Shangri-La

The 'tired" part of Yangon
The icon of Yangon

But it is worth only 1SGD!

"Musang King" in Myanmar? Smells as good, though.

Am I in Singapore's Orchard Road? But where are the shoppers?

This time when we landed, the Yangon airport was a surprise! It is very modern. The immigration clearance concern came as a non-issue. We were quite swiftly cleared. There was an Alphard waiting for us; all very comfortable.

Even though it was a Sunday, the roads were full of cars.

Do you notice how they drive here? My colleague Jim who has been here a couple of times asked me. He continued, “they drive on the right side of the road even though their cars are the right-hand-drive makes.”

No wonder!

And you don’t see motor cycles. Apparently, during the military rule, someone important was nearly gunned down by one assassin on a motor cycle. The ban on motor cycles is therefore still in force, I heard.

Even though it is already more than 20 years old, the Shangri-La is still as contemporary as its sister hotels around the world. I was told they have many five star hotels in Yangon now, but its lobby lounge remains the favourite deal-making place in town.

The mall at the annex building of the hotel is like the Paragon in Singapore – ultra modern shopping for, I suppose, the nouveau riche of Yangon.

It was raining cats and dogs during our three days there. We didn’t get to see many places, except for a personal visit to Yangon’s icon, the Shwedagon Pagoda. Yangon is certainly trying to catch up with the rest of Asia. Fortune seekers are everywhere. Be that as it may, the city still looks tired. But it holds great promises for those who are daring.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Hello, Captain, where are you taking us to?

I am sure the following type of screen is all too familiar with you. Every long haul flight will carry a running screen to give passengers his aircraft's location, altitude, ground and head or tail wind speeds, distance to destination, local time, etc, and, as you can see below, even outside air temperature. I always wonder what good does the last piece of information provide. Say, at Minus 55 - what's the significance?

But something always puzzles me. Look at the picture below. Anyone who knows a little about Geography will tell you Singapore is on the east of Melbourne. But why is that in all maps all this nature, regardless of geography, the port of embarkation is always shown on the left and the arrival port, right? Unless the aircraft is taking the longer route flying around the other side of the globe!) This eerily reminds me of MH370!

Once in a SQ flight from Singapore to Melbourne, I saw that the destination in the display was "Sydney". I informed the steward and the mistake was duly corrected. However, if there was no alert, would the captain be actually taking the aircraft to Sydney, which is about 1 thousand kilometers north of Melbourne?


Thursday, May 25, 2017

Your right of way? Or mine?

On pedestrian walkways, should you keep right or keep left?

If you are from a Commonwealth country, chances are you would keep left by habit. However, if you are from the States, or China or Europe or Philippines, it is natural that you tend to keep to the right.

Your cars are designed the opposite way, left hand drive for driving on the right side of the road, and vice versa.

Similarly, directions of elevator flows are also programmed this way. Left elevator up and right elevator down. It is simply a matter of convention.

However, things can be quite unruly in Singapore where half of the people you see every day in the CBD are, I guess, hail from foreign countries.

Although some planners of shopping complexes and MRT stations in Singapore have taken the trouble to facilitate the observance of this convention by demarcating their pedestrian passageways with directional arrows, few have bothered to follow. And on roads, it was free for all when light turns green for pedestrians!

And strangely, many elevators are programmed to go up on right and to down on left in Singapore! Maybe the engineers were trained in the “Right” hand country?

In a country like Singapore, where everybody seems to be in a hurry, temper can flare up if no one wants to give way.

I don’t mean to say that all these habits are wrong. But I think every country needs to stick to a system. And all visitors need to be advised of the practice in the country.

One of the current advisories you find in Singapore to citizens is “Be gracious”. Maybe this can be a campaign slogan.

And it might also help if leaflets stating such “norms” are handed to visitors each time they clear the Immigration counter.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Managing Long Numbers

The postal codes in Singapore are an impossibility to me. I can never commit any of it to memory. They come in six digits. My apartment at Cairnhill Road is 229664; that of my office at The Riverwalk is 058416! I understand these numbers have been carefully designed and they actually tell you where your block is.

But how many older folks like me can remember them? I boarded an airport taxi and asked to be taken to Cairnhill Plaza, where my apartment is. He insisted that I gave him the postal code, which I was unable to do so. (It was also the first time I was asked to provide the postal code.) We nearly had a bad argument. “How do you expect an old non-Singaporean to remember 6-digit postal codes?” I demanded. “It is just behind Orchard Road.”

It soon became clear that he was new to the taxi trade, having joined the service only two months earlier. But his taxi was equipped with a GPS device; why couldn’t he just punch in Cairnhill Road?

I always believe many planners do things without thinking through. The postal code system may be a case in point. (Maybe the designer for the Singapore system has a system in mind, which I am not aware of, and it was not made plain to the public.)

It is quite easy for one to remember four digits. (I suspect many Singaporeans are very good in this, since 4-D lottery is very popular here.) However, if an effort is made to split the six digits into two distinct parcels, maybe remembering them can be a lot easier. The Australian banks are very good in doing this. Typically, you remember your BSB (bank state branch) as 033-088 or 03-3088. The first two 03 is the code for the particular bank (Westpac), the next digit 3 is the code for the state (Victoria) and the last three – 088 – is for the branch. And all Australian suburbs will have their postcodes begin with the designated digit for the state (3 for Victoria, 2 for New South Wales, so on and so forth); remembering them is not a big deal, since the design basically takes into account of all these relationships.

I still see companies splashing their telephone numbers in a long big number. More thoughtful ones will have them broken into something like this: 7844-3696. Isn’t this easier to remember than 78443696?

Common sense really.

Malaysian postal codes have five digits; they are also not difficult to remember, since the first of the five digits is a state code. But there is a major flaw; a code’s coverage is simply too wide. 40150 is for much of Shah Alam, which is a city by itself!!!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

A Stanford in Indonesia

I had the opportunity to visit a “Stanford” in Indonesia last week. The Del Institute of Technology is nestled in a place called Sitoluama at the southern bank of Lake Toba in Sumatra. It is about 200 to 250 km from Medan, and the nearest airport (Silangit Airport) is approximately one hour’s drive away. This airport only handles regional flights.

The campus covers an area of about 14 hectares, on which some 30 buildings and facilities stand. The grounds are so well kept that they put many in the First World to shame.

Its vision and mission statement is pretty lofty; loosely translated, it is: To become a centre of excellence that plays a role in the utilization of technology for the nation’s progress.

The institute began as Del Informatics Polytechnic in 2001; it has now become a degree-awarding institute. The founder is General Luhut Binsar Panjaitan, who is still a senior minister in the Jokowi cabinet.
The institute now offers eight programmes under three faculties, namely,
o   Engineering Informatics & Electrical (Informatics Engineering, Computer Engineering, Informatics Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Informatics Engineering, Information Systems);
o   Biotechnology (Bioprocess Engineering);
o   Industrial Technology (Engineering Management).
Apparently, they look up to Indonesia’s No 1 technology university, The Bandung Institute of Technology, as their role mode. The institute has approximately 1,000 students enrolled in this full-board school. The male / female ration is approximately 1:1. 30-40% of the students are from the Lake Toba region. Altogether 70% are from North Sumatra, and 30% are from other parts of Indonesia.
The graduate employment rate is said to be almost 100%. Some of the students could even secure job offers during their internships. Even companies like SAP came to their campus to recruit.

Its residential college system and its resident teachers

play key a role in its students’ character building philosophy. Even though it is based on Christian teaching, it tolerates and respects other faiths.

I have never been to Stanford before, but my colleague CD, a Princeton-MIT alumnus exclaimed: It looks like Standord!