Thursday, March 14, 2013

On the Emperor's Shoulder

My late father was a devotee of Daoist beliefs. To those who knew him, he was an authority on Chinese traditional rites. He was also an accomplished calligrapher.

He never made it in business, although he had a number of chances.

Come spring festivals, village folks would ask him to favour them with some “red scrolls”, and he would gladly oblige.

A neighbour’s son was getting married so could he select an auspicious date for the occasion? And when should the bridegroom leave the house?

He was also the consultant to the local third-generation Daoist priest. Apparently my father knew more classics and traditions than the latter did.

When someone he knew died, he would be the busiest man around. He obviously enjoyed the attention and respect.

I was a rebel. I had never been able to get along well with my late father. I would ridicule his beliefs. He came to Kuala Lumpur once in a while, but he would always be in a hurry to go back to Muar. He did not feel at ease putting up with me. Many of the things I did were simply too "western" to him. To me, everything about him was so archaic.

However that does not mean that I do not miss him. He courageously clung on to his last breath when the doctors in the Malacca general hospital asked us to make “arrangements”. We were lucky to have a brother-in-law who was a consultant gynecologist in the hospital. The hospital did everything to help us. An ambulance was summoned and accompanied by a doctor, we rushed him back to Muar, which is some 28 miles from Malacca.

In spite of his condition, he sat upright, asked for his favourite Quaker Oat, took a sip and before we realized it, he was gone.

* * * * *    

I was the youngest boy in the family, and that made me someone special. I would get the biggest ang-pow ( 红包) for the spring festival, more allowances than my older sisters, and many other trappings of the “office”.

My father used to consult the “Thung-shu(通書), a Daoist yearbook, and look indulgently at the pages that foretold the fortune of his nine children. He told me many times that I would be married by the age of 18. (He was quite wrong as I married at the age of 24, although I first courted my wife when I was 18.) He said I did not have to pay for the bride (I suppose he was referring to the dowry), which happened to be true. (But who gives dowries these days?)

To this day, I still remember something significant that he told me.

In the “Thung-shu”, there is one page where you find a picture of an emperor on his throne. And depending on your “eight characters”, your status in life is all predicted there. If your eight characters correspond to the emperor’s crown, your future is all assured, for you will grow up to be someone high ranking in society. If it shows that you are on one of the emperor’s boots, hard luck!

My father said mine was not too bad – on one of the emperor’s shoulders. I would always be an assistant to the greats.

Looking back, I think he was quite right.

My first four years was spent in MIDA. I was too junior in the hierarchy to be close to the people at the top. When MIDA released me to Bank Pertanian, I had a divisional manager to report to. He in turn reported to the general manager. The chairman of the bank who was the CEO was somebody in the clouds, too high for us to go near. But within six months or so, I was already seeing the chairman direct. I did not mean to bypass my superiors; indeed they were glad that I could get decisions from the chairman without having to involve them. Guess who the chairman was? – Dr Agoes Salim. The junior executives used to joke among themselves: If the chairman smiles at you, you had better go buy four-Ds.

I could not see myself advancing very far in a bank since I was an engineer by training. So when its head-office building was about to be completed, I decided to look for a new job. An offer in Penang came along but I decided to turn it down. Genting was looking for a development manager. I applied and got the job. Teng Woon Soon was acting as the GM then but within weeks, I was reporting directly to the big boss or Old Man Tan Sri Lim Goh Tong.

Tan Chong Holdings was my next destination. The late Tan Sri Tan Yuet Foh thought I had a PhD. He told colleagues I was Dr Lim! It was a real pleasure serving him. I always think of him as a marketing genius. But the chap whom I was supposed to replace changed his mind and decided to stay back. I decided to move on.

When I responded to High & Low’s advertisement for a senior position in corporate planning, I had to be interviewed by its chairman Dr Syed Mahmood and one other gentleman who was none other than the late Tun Ismail bin Mohamed Ali. High & Low’s board was a board of chairmen, not directors. I had to present all the papers myself to the corporate gods of the day.

When High & Low was taken over by Guthrie, I was first assigned to work under the controller of corporate planning, a Harvard MBA. But before long, I was made controller of corporate development and reported directly to the executive chairman Tan Sri Rashdan Baba. When Tan Sri Rashdan joined Telekoms, I knew my days would soon be numbered. Tan Sri Ani Arope thought I should report to someone down the line. How could someone of my caliber report to him direct!

Engku Alias offered me a job in MISC. But being so used to helping decision-makers make decisions, I felt like a ship out of water in MISC.

I returned to Gentimg, then to Low Yat Group and after that IMC. There was an emperor in each of these conglomerates; I could only cling to their shoulders.

I forgot to ask my father and now it is already too late now to ask him this question: “How can I climb above the emperor’s shoulder”?

No comments:

Post a Comment