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!

Friday, May 5, 2017

The "Art" of Headhunting

I have never worked in any HR role throughout my career. But I had the opportunity to interview candidates for senior positions from time to time. (I had also gone for interviews many times, for job openings, of course.) I have come to learn a few things, which I would like to share with friends.

Many organisations are happy to entrust the task of searching to headhunter firms. This has its merits, since headhunters usually have a large pool of potential candidates to tap on. But I have also come across a few who are responsible for recruiting in these firms desperately asking help from me! One glaring shortcoming in this approach: headhunters tend to go for “fit” – usually in the technical aspects. So-and-so has in many years as a hotel accountant, therefore he or she is proposed if you are looking for an accountant to work in your hospitality industry. Ditto many other similar needs. This is fine if you are looking for functional roles to fill.

However, if you are looking to fill more strategic positions in the organisation, chances are, this stereo-typing approach will land you with one who may prove to be a disaster. Technical fit is but a small aspect of such leadership considerations. Cultural fit, resourcefulness and ability to strategically problem-solved matters are in fact more important. These desired traits could only be discerned if the interviewers are discerning themselves!

Panel interviews are not helpful in these exercises. Interviewers tend to hold back difficult questions or awkward questions, since they are also do not want to look stupid to the eyes of their colleagues. In most cases, the candidate who has been recommended by the headhunter firm are accepted as a matter of course.

Ideally, the candidate should be arranged to see those-who-count in the organisation on an-one-to-one basis, in a number of situations – in office, factory, and lunch room and over dinner. It is important to put the candidate at ease and questions should not be the “do you know this or that” type. Such line of questioning questions usually does not bring out real weaknesses or inadequacies in a candidate. Rather, one should ask for the candidate’s approach if he is placed in a certain situation – knowledge wise, skill-wise, and attitude-wise. A good interview normally frames his questions deliberately - not too long but be very probing. While he listens to the candidate's response, he also looks out for the usual telltale signs – from facial expressions, hand gesture, body language, etc. - to form an overall impression.

Many interviewers are also not capable of playing a discerning listener's role. Many have the tendency to talk too much. They invariably lead their interviewee to answer what they want to hear. Remember, LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN and OBSERVE, OBSERVE, OBSERVE.

I shouldn’t be teaching bosses how to suck eggs, should I?

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Can Huaren Count on China's Coattail?

I was alerted by my wife of a review of a book in The Straits Times of Singapore last week: The Rise of China and The Chinese Overseas: A Study of Beijing’s Changing Policy in Southeast Asia and Beyond by Leo Suryadinata. I lost no time in picking up a copy at Kinokuniya.

I have often admired Professor Wang Gungwu for his insightful writing about overseas Chinese and Chinese overseas. (They are quite different, more of it later.) I have not heard about Professor Suryadinata. But from the review, I could discern that they are quite like-minded in so far as the substances go.
From Wikipedia, I learned that Professor Suryadinata (Liauw Kian-Djoe or Liao Jianyu; 廖建裕) is a Chinese Indonesian sinologist. In this book, he identifies himself principally as a senior visiting fellow at Yusof Ishak Institute (ISEAS).
Like Wang, Suryadinata took pain to define Huaqiao (, Chinese living overseas, with implication that their stay is not permanent), Huayi (华裔, descendants of people originally from China) , Huaren (, people of Chinese origin of people who are ethnically Chinese), and the various terms used by the leadership in Mainland China to describe Chinese diaspora across the world. (In place of Hua, one can also use Han ””which is the name of a dynasty Chinese commonly identify themselves with historically.) I am no China scholar; I would just use Huaren to describe someone like me – born outside China to a second-generation immigrant family; bred locally and called the birth country “home”.
The book is an easy read. The message is quite loud and clear: Don’t count on China’s coattail!
With the emergence of China as a power to be reckoned with, many Huaren tend to think we now have a big brother who can stand up to protect us in case of trouble.
Suryadinata examined many instances where Chinese appeared to have been bullied by their adopted countries’ natives. His conclusion was quite persuasive. China couldn’t do much at all. In fact, any strong stance by China usually turned counter-productive.
Suryadinata’s also spoke of the present leadership of China to court Huaren to support its One-Belt-One-Road (OBOR) initiative. He thought the effort was quite misplaced.
We have often heard of this OBOR (some called it BRI (Belt & Road Initiative) since President Xi assumed power. Professor Victor Feng of the University of Macao has spoken in its favour in many academic fora. Sure, there are certainly many win-win opportunities to be had for countries under OBOR (or BRI). But the reality for Huaren in these countries is this: Don’t harbour too much hope. All the project goodies are likely to go to the powers that be in the respective countries!
This OBOR or BRI enthusiasm reminds me of a talk I attended in Singapore recently. A panel of four speakers from China spoke on “Building the Maritime Silk Road in the 21st Century”. Except for one, none of them seems to understand the sentiments of China neighbours well! Theirs is largely a conception of themselves. It’s all China’s way! The arrogance was quite disturbing, really. I couldn’t help raise my hand to register my concern about China’s lack of understanding of local sentiments in their planning. To me, the initiative is simply too China-centric. I was 

Friday, April 28, 2017

JY Pillay, A Giant of Giants

I came face-to-face with a giant on Wednesday when The HEAD Foundation was hosting a lecture by Prof Tan Tai Yong who is going to be the new President of Yale NUS College in a matter of days.

Physically, this giant is no different from the members of the audiences we welcome to our talks on a regular basis in terms of vintage and simplicity. But the moment he walked in, I could recognize his face!

JY Pillay is a living legend. He is perhaps most remembered for his chairmanship at Singapore Airlines. But that’s just a side dressing! His has served as the top dog in all the important ministries before becoming the Managing Director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore and of the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation, among many, many others.

The following is carried in SGX on Mr Pillay:

Mr. Joseph Yuvaraj Pillay served as the Managing Director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore and of the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation from 1985 to 1989. Mr. Pillay held a variety of positions in the government of Singapore from 1961 to 1995, rising to permanent secretary in 1972. He served in the ministries of finance, defence and national development. Mr. Pillay serves as the Chairman of Commonwealth Africa Investments Limited. He serves as the chairman of Assisi Home & Hospice. Mr. Pillay served as the Non Executive Chairman of Tiger Airways Holdings Limited until July 31, 2014. Mr. Pillay served as Non-Executive Chairman of Singapore Exchange Ltd. from November 18, 1999 to December 31, 2010. He served as Chairman of PT Tigerair Mandala. He served as the Chairman of Council on Corporate Disclosure and Governance from 2002 to 2007. He served as the Chairman of Asia Converge Pte Ltd., and served as Director of Singapore Exchange IT Solutions Pte Limited, Securities Clearing and Computer Services (Pte) Limited and SEL Holdings Pte Ltd. Mr. Pillay served, in a non-executive capacity, as Chairman of the board of several government-linked companies, including: Singapore Airlines Ltd from 1972 to 1996, Temasek Holdings (Private) Limited from 1974 to 1986, Development Bank of Singapore Ltd from 1979 to 1984 and Singapore Technologies Holdings (Private) Limited from 1991 to 1994. He serves as Honorary Director of Securities Investors Association (Singapore). Mr. Pillay serves as a Director of Singapore Exchange Securities Trading Limited, Singapore Exchange Derivatives Trading Limited, The Central Depository (Pte) Limited, Singapore Exchange Derivatives Clearing Limited, SGXLink Pte Ltd., Singapore Indian Development Association (Life Trustee). He serves as a Director of Mount Alvernia Hospital, Temasek Advisory Panel of the Temasek Holdings (Private) Limited. He served as a Director of Tiger Airways Australia Pty Ltd. since July 8, 2013 until May 22, 2014. He served as a Director of Tiger Airways Holdings Limited from July 29, 2011 to July 31, 2014. He served as Non-Executive Director of Singapore Exchange Ltd. since September 2007 until December 31, 2010. He served as an Executive Director of Singapore Exchange Ltd. until September 2007. Mr. Pillay served as a Director of Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation Limited, Keppel Capital Holdings Ltd., KTB Limited (formerly known as Keppel Tatlee Bank Limited) from June 30, 2001 to June 29, 2004. Since 16 August 2001, Mr. Pillay has served as an Executive and Non-independent Director on the SGX Board. Mr. Pillay serves as a member of the Council of Presidential Advisers and of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights of the Republic of Singapore, Chairman of the Assisi Home and Hospice, Director of the Mount Alvernia Hospital, Life Trustee of Singapore Indian Development Association, member of the Investment Committee of the United Nations Pension Fund and Chairman of Commonwealth Africa Investments Limited. He serves as Member of Investment Committee of the United Nations Pension Fund, Asia-Europe Foundation and Financial Sector Development Fund Advisory Committee of the Monetary Authority of Singapore. He serves as Member of Presidential Council for Minority Rights, Singapore Hospice Council. Mr. Pillay was conferred with an honorary PhD in Law from the National University of Singapore in 1996 and with a Fellowship of Imperial College in 1997. He graduated with a first-class BSc (Hons) degree from Imperial College of Science & Technology, University of London in 1956.

Can we think of someone who can equal Mr Pillay’s accomplishment in life?

Yet the Pillay I saw was so humble in his demeanour. I ushered him to one of front row seats. And I saw he diligently took notes during Prof Tan’s talk. For someone of his age who still thinks he needs to listen, how can we ever say we have learned enough!

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Desaru, how pathetic a destination it can be...

My wife and I decided to spend our weekend in Desaru. We booked a night at Tunamaya. The rate was about SGD100 per night. With breakfast included, that was pretty affordable.

I have been to Desaru about three times, but over a thirty-year span. The first was after the state government's intention to privatize it and I was asked by a potential investor to help look into its potential; that was in the late 1980s. I couldn't quite remember the best route there. I have therefore to count on the GPS I bought in Singapore for the car I am being loaned to go there. But it has lately gone a little crazy. The screen would go black for unknown reasons - just as you needed it most many a time. And it did after I cleared the Causeway.

The sound guided me on. I could vaguely remember the Pasir Gudang Road. We passed Penawar, which is the town before Desaru. I could also remember a little. It looked as if time had stood still there since the last time I visited.

We soon arrived at Desaru.

The staff at Tunamaya were courteous enough. But the whole property did look somewhat tired. The roof of the reception block, which guests have to walk past before entering their rooms, is most pathetic. We can't the management spruce it up a little with, say, potted plants? Because they tend to stain, mat-finished floor tiles are the worst for corridors for resort-type hotels. And this is exactly what they have done it with their floors in Tunamaya! Why Tunamaya as a name? Nobody in the hotel could give me an answer for that too!

But never mine about the hotel. It is pretty clean and adequate in terms of facilities. The beach looks good, but as usual with most of Malaysia's beaches, it was littered with empty plastic bags and bottles here and there.

But I asked myself, why was Desaru and its environs so quiet on an weekend like this?

Does one go to a seaside resort for its beaches only? Our sun is so burning hot. An hour or so would drive guests back to the air condition comfort of their hotel rooms! Why then are places like Penang and Langkawi popular?

Indeed, people don't just travel all the way to enjoy beaches!

There must be history, culture, shopping, sports, other scenic sights, etc to make a trip wholesome and memorable for visitors. There are definitely a few in the surrounding areas for Desaru to capitalize on. But the tolled highway from Johor Bahru's Pasir Gudang to Desaru, insultingly really a single-carriage two-lane road, keeps all the fishing villages, mangrove forests, aquaculture and vegetable farms, and other ways of rural life away from the convenient reach of holiday makers. There isn't much to visit in the immediate neighborhoods of the resort!

Our bureaucrats in Johor Tourism need to have common sense. Take a trip to Thailand or Singapore to see how people do things. Let's don't waste money on half-hearted projects like Fishermen's Museum or tourist souvenir shops - if there is hardly anything in them to interest visitors! 

I usually take some pictures when I visit a place. I came back without even a single shot. This speaks volumes of Desaru as a destination!

Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Tortoise and The Hare

Two recent talks I attended kindle my desire to share this piece with friends.

The first was given by retired professor Michael Heng on the need for Cultural-Intellectual Rejuvenation in Asia at the HEAD Foundation and the second, which was a dialogue organised by SMU (Singapore Management University) in collaboration with Stratagem Group on China’s new Belt & Road initiatives at Carlton Hotel, Singapore.

Michael was a long-lost friend; we got reconnected only quite recently, thanks to WhatsApp. He and I were classmates in our Junior high school days. I left for Kuala Lumpur and later Penang to do my upper secondary; he continued his at High School Muar. We met again at the University of Malaya – he did Science and I, Engineering. After a teaching stint in Malaysia, he left for UK to do his master’s and the Netherlands for his PhD. He has held academic positions in many countries – the Netherlands of course, but also Australia, Taiwan, China and Singapore, amongst others. He has also worked with one of the most eminent scholars of the day, the venerated Prof Wang Gungwu of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.

But Asia is such a huge and diverse continent; when he accepted my invitation to speak, what I actually had in mind was simply this: If China wants to lead the world, it has to go through some form of rejuvenation, culturally and intellectually. Or a form of Renaissance really. Michael spoke much more than China. 

Sure, not every would agree with this. Present in the audience were some very distinguished scholars and thinkers. But there was one voice that made me very uncomfortable. A young man who hails from China and who has spent many good years stood up to opine in Mandarin that what Michael had lectured and what we had been discussing were no longer relevant! Under President Xi, he seemed to say, China was already on its way to be No 1 in the world. The arrogance was disturbing! Unfortunately, we did not have time to debate with him.

The keynote address in the dialogue at Carlton Hotel was delivered by a Chinese bureaucrat. He gave the impression that he had just woken from a deep slumber. He was just parroting China’s official lines on the Belt & Road initiative. There was hardly any soul in his speech. Of the four panelists, except for a certain Dr Xu, who apparently is a director at Beijing’s National Institute of International Strategy, the others are not unlike the Chinese scholars and thinkers you see in CCTV’s Dialogue programmes – officious, shallow and what-have-you. The substance of what had been given by one of them appeared to be a complete regurgitation of what he had learned in his MBA classes.

The kay-por (Fujian Ming-nan slang, meaning ‘busy-body’) lost no time in writing to this Dr Xu.

Dear Liping,

I did introduce myself to you at the end of the session. I am the head of The HEAD Foundation ( but I am giving you this feedback in my personal capacity.

Most bureaucrats from China tend to parrot your government's line. The chap who was giving the keynote address is a typical example. Moreover, he spoke with little conviction!

The danger I see with China is its sense of 'self-exultation'. Many of your thinkers and policy makers are really quite ignorant of your neighbours' true feelings. You cited the flag incident in Indonesia. If I may help explain:

The more educated natives in Southeast and South Asia during the Second World War saw the Japanese as liberators!!! The Japanese were able to win their empathy and hearts even during that short period of occupation. Chinese on the other hand were largely aligned with the colonial powers then. They had always been perceived as economic exploiters by the locals. That feeling persists today.

China does not know how to project soft power even today. It is too self-centric in its dealings with the world. Chinese officials are generally poor communicators. I live in three cities - Melbourne where I call 'home', Kuala Lumpur where I have a second home and Singapore where my office is. There was this Beijing-based Australia journalist called John Gannault who kept bashing China unnecessarily. I wrote to Ambassador Fu Yin to alert her. You know what, I didn't even receive an acknowledgement from her office! Your tourists are swarming the world, but your government has made little effort to teach them social etiquette. You protested each time a Japanese prime minister visited Yasukuni Shrine but people in the West would ask, "What's the big deal?". Look at the way the Jews tell their Holocaust stories; they can
 teach the Chinese a lesson or two in Public Relations! (Do check out museums and see for yourself!)

Chinese museums and historical sights are generally poorly maintained; the English translations found there (even in Beijing) are atrocious! I feel embarrassed to be a Chinese!!!

But your Silk Road initiative is indeed visionary. President Xi is a great leader. But China and he need much more in terms of true philosophy instead of strategy, strategy and strategy to succeed. (The speaker from Cosco was just regurgitating what he had learned in his MBA classes!)

Incidentally, Prof Victor Feng of the University of Macao is going around to help explain China's BRI to the world. My question is: How many of you have heard of his good work?

Hope you don't feel offended by my ranting!

Kind regards,
Lim /YuBook
And this reply came promptly from him:

My Respected MR. Lim,
                       Thank you very much for your constructive comments to our presentations yesterday in Carlton Hotel. Indeed, I appreciate your frankness
and your honesty. Although China is already the world's second largest economy, we still have a lot of shortcomings. To our neigbours including Malaysia,
 Indonesia and Singapore, China should more listen to their voices, pay attention to how they feel. So, we have a lot of work to do in the near future.
                       I am looking forward to hearing your more voices and making more cooperation between us for promoting mutual understanding China-
                      Tomorrow morning, I will leave Singapore to Beijing, I hope we can meet in Beijing or Singapore in the near future.
Best Regards,
Xu Liping/Director of Center of South East Asia Studies, National Institute of International Strategy, CASS, Beijing, China.

China has a future!!!

The latest issue of The Economist runs an article entitled China and America: Tortoise v hare. The leader reads: Is China challenging the United States for global leadership? 

The tortoise will win the race, isn’t this what the fable has taught us?
Forever the tortoise?

I beg to differ somewhat, though. This is not a great outcome in my eyes.

Of course, with Trump’s “I know better than you” sense of superiority, the hare will lose. But if China’s win is a result of America’s complacency, this is not good for China!

Another animal besides the tortoise would have won the race if it could participate!

To me, China must shed off that heavy cultural and intellectual shell if it wants to lead the world! Notwithstanding the hare’s arrogance or stupidity, it should transform itself complete with a new mindset - culturally and intellectually, I repeat - to speed forward. 

Unless China can produce a Rolex or Mercedes totally on its own, it is still not "THERE" yet, let alone to lead the world. 

Friends are free to disagree, though.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

From Deity Worshiping to Christianity

I finally got reconnected with another long lost junior high school buddy of mine.

Leng Hong and I went separate ways after Form Three. I left for Kuala Lumpur and he, Singapore - for his senior high school as well as to seek medical treatment.

WhatsApp is doing wonders. I recently lost my eldest brother. Cedric has tracked down Leng Hong and he whatsapped me to say that Leng Hong would be coming with him for the wake.

Leng Hong I remembered was a pinweight. But the Leng Hong today is a big man. He also goes by a Christian name now - Peter. Unfortunately, I didn't have a chance to reminisce with him long, since I had to leave these two old buddies early to fetch my son who was flying in from Kuala Lumpur.

Although Peter was in physique one of the smallest in the class, his demeanor gave the impression he was well-connected in the “adults’ world”. No one dared to bully him. But he was really a caring friend. I used to cycle with him to while away our time around our very sleepy town – Muar in Johor.

We met up for dinner with his wife at East Coast's Jumbo. We were also joined by Cedric and wife and my daughter Monica who was in transit in Singapore to pay last respect to her beloved uncle.  

The first thing I asked Peter was about the hole in his heart.

“The Lord has healed me!"

But wasn't he a very staunch deity worshiper?

"Yes, I was, but that’s history."

He showed me a photography of himself taken many many years ago. He was not shy to say that he looked like a drug addict. All of us had to agree; indeed, he looked like one in that picture.

This is his story:

In my earlier days in Singapore, I tried many things, including owning and running a temple. Devotees came to my temple to ask for “divine” favours. For each of these consultation sessions, he had to recite incantations to call upon a particular deity to “enter” the medium. Once in trance, the medium would dispense favours – 4Ds (a form of gambling), or issues that bothered the devotees (health, marriage, fortune, and what-have-you).

I finally met my wife. She took me to church. My health improved and my businesses started to grow.

* * *

I see that Peter is a wealthy man today. He has passed his business to his son and is going places with his wife. He owns properties in Melbourne, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur, I believe, amongst others.

“Do you still believe in all the medium stuff?” I asked.

“Sure, I do.”

“How do you reconcile this with your present devotion to Christianity?”

“The medium stuff is for real. Devils are roaming everywhere all the time. When you recite incantations, a passing devil will “enter” the medium and took it upon itself to masquerade the deity you wish to call upon. You think you are talking to your deity. No, no, no. You are talking to an opportunistic devil. But not all devils are bad.

“You see mediums in their trance would do all sort of self-inflicting acts – chopping, cutting, piercing, etc,, and blood oozes out everywhere, right? Yet there were few signs of injury when the trance stops. He looks all normal after that, right? 

"These are certainly no play-play acts; the devil has actually taken possession of the medium's body.

“But the Lord reigns supreme. He could send all these devils scurrying for cover. He is therefore the only one we should worship!”

I couldn’t help asking, “I thought there is only one devil in Christianity. Isn’t that Satan?”

Peter corrected himself, “No, no; the devils I am talking are actually angels.”

I suppose he meant “spirits”, but never mind, I really do not want to know all these. He has his logic, though.

Before we parted, Mrs Lee said to me, “Do go to church.”

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Some kind of sickos?

My letter to the CEO of Malaysia Airlines and the reply I got...

20 February 2017

Mr Peter Bellew
CEO Malaysia Airlines Berhad
Kuala Lumpur International Airport
64000 Sepang

Dear Sir

I thought I should give up writing complaints to Malaysia Airlines’ CEOs since they had always been answered by the lesser mortals there without really bothering to find out what I had written. (Their answers were usually lifted from, I believe, standard templates.) Nonetheless, I still use Malaysia Airlines for a couple of simple reasons: (a) I live in three cities – Melbourne, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore – and your airline offers the most convenient schedules, (b) your departures and arrivals are generally quite punctual, and (c) your cabin crew are quite service-conscious. (But honestly your food is deteriorating.)

However, an incident on my arrival in Changi Airport on Saturday, 18 February evening prompts me to write to check whether you are in fact no different from your predecessors.

I was travelling with my wife on MH148/MH609 from Melbourne to Singapore (transiting in Kuala Lumpur) on that date. At the Melbourne airport, the lady at the Business/Platinum Card check-in counter was most careful; she took pain to stick “Platinum” and “Priority” labels on the three bags my wife and I checked in, even though she said the “Platinum” ones alone would do. She assured me that it was their procedure also to alert receiving airports of all “Platinum” bag arrivals.

At Changi arrival hall, two of the three bags promptly came out first. What happened to the third bag? It emerged with the last lot of the flight’s arrivals! My question: What’s the use of giving priority to two and I still have to wait for the last one like everybody else? As a matter of fact, it did pose anxiety since we had some important stuff in that bag!

This is NOT the first time I have experienced this pseudo priority promise. A couple of months ago, in Malaysia Airlines’ home airport KLIA1, my bags which carried the “Platinum” labels also came out amongst the last ones.

On the recent flight we flew to Melbourne (Thursday, February 9, MH129), you might also want to know that the aircraft forgot to carry Australia’s arrival forms. They were only distributed at the arrival gate at Melbourne! Just imagine the anxiety of the passengers!

Once in a flight from Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur, I wanted to find something to buy in your inflight duty-free sales. But there was no Temptation magazine; one of the crew members said Kuala Lumpur had forgotten to put it in that new aircraft!

I can only conclude that you do have many fundamental problems in your own backyard, i.e., MAS’s SOP in KLIA1.

There are also many many more; in fact, your cabin crew are quite casual about the need to draw up windows when the plane is gearing for landing. Our MH148 flight in the Business Class cabin is a case in point.

Yours truly,
LIM/Yu Book

* * * * *
This is the reply I get from the airline on my mailbox:

Date : 28/02/2017

Case reference : GTS00154615

Dear   Lim Yu Book

Thank you for your compliment on the exceptional service you experienced with Malaysia Airlines.

Your kind and encouraging words have always been a source of inspiration for us to serve you well.  We are truly delighted to show you the Malaysian Hospitality.

We look forward to your continued support.

Yours sincerely,

Mohd Asmawi Alias
Customer Care
Malaysia Airlines

* * * * *

Some kind of joke? Where did I in the letter compliment MAS? And "exceptional service'? Or they don't understand English at all? Or these people some kind of sickos?

Monday, February 27, 2017

A Fake Advisory, but...

I am getting a little annoyed!

This is the latest fake advisory I received from a friend on WhatsApp. There is so much of this stuff around now. Can't she see that it is a fake through and through?

Consuming banana and egg kills???

I have been doing for years! I am still alive!

I forwarded it to a few friends and tell them to be wary of stuff like this.

One friend says he sees it differently. "Can't you see it is all about manhood?"

He is absolutely right! But at that state, it is certainly not dangerous, don't you agree?

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Unconventional Wisdom

My neighbor in Singapore is a devout Buddhist. There is also a large painting of Kuan-ying, the Goddess of Mercy, in her very tastefully furnished home.

Mrs Cheong lives with her husband; they have a Filipino maid. She is perhaps in her 70s, and her husband, 80s. Mr Cheong is always immaculately and stylishly dressed. In his suspenders, he looks stately! I see that they are a wealthy couple – this upmarket condominium of theirs in Singapore, a house in California, investments in China and Papua New Guinea, etc. Their daughter and Canadian husband live in the adjacent block.

Usually people living in condominiums don’t quite care about their neighbours. Mr Cheong is different. One day I struck a casual conversation with him on the ground floor lobby and hearing that I also hailed from Malaysia, he immediately invited me to join him for his family’s lunch gathering which he was about to host at an expensive restaurant in Orchard Road’s Paragon. I was in shorts, but he insisted it was completely fine. He is very knowledgeable; we had many things in common.

From then on, my wife and I got invited to their beautiful home from time to time.

Mrs Cheong believes in yīnguǒ bàoyìng (因果报应), a Buddhist-Chinese cause-and-effect concept in explaining the fortunes and misfortunes of all living beings. To her, every life is a reincarnation of a previous one. Your present good or bad fortune is a result of how you conducted yourself in the previous life. It is not dissimilar to karma in Hindu belief. “Look at those poor children in Africa, have they done anything since birth to deserve those sufferings?” She asks. 
Yīnguǒ is not about this life. It is about your next life! I don’t want my next life to be like that, hence my determination to do good in this life!”
 Can you argue with her on that? Mr & Mrs Cheong are a loving couple. But apparently, he was a Casanova when he was younger. She amused us with tales of his infidelity with him laughing them off embarrassingly in front of us. “I had to spend months on end overseas. My husband had a tendency to stray. He had even brought back women to stay in this very apartment. They knew I knew; but I didn’t say a word. One woman was bold enough to try to plot to make him leave me. I knew he would come to his senses and he did. “People are always talking about revenge or how to spite their husbands or their lovers when it comes to things like this. I don’t do such things. “And many wives lose their husbands, why? “They forget to also love their husband’s parents! “They grumble if their husband is partial to his own parents. How can they do that? You should also love them the way you love your parents!” How wise this lady is!