Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Boss and his Trucks

Something doesn't quite gel; North Korea is supposed to be dirt poor. The people there may be technologically brilliant - they can make nuclear bombs and rockets - but ability to come up with products that are commercially acceptable requires a different kettle of fish!

One  usually needs industrial clusters and economies of scale to make a product that will appeal to buyers. If you look at the trucks in the picture, the cabs do appear great in terms of aesthetics, far better than many of those that are being produced in China. However, we really do not know if these trucks are for real. We have to give the Boss the benefit of the doubt. They also have huge beasts when they show off their rocket arsenal. They certainly look solid; not the make-believe WMD variety Saddam Hussein used to claim.

You have to take your hat off to this young Boss. He has got good taste!

Robert Kuok, A Memoir

Robert Kuok has been a legend for many decades. Much has already been said about him, so when his autobiography was released a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t expect the book to be sold like a hot cake, especially in Singapore, where Robert Kuok is not really a household name, even though his two Shangri-la hotels in the island are a cut above most others in the same league. I was advised by Kinokuniya that I had to wait for the reprint.

In the meantime, I had to be content with the excerpts in the South China Morning Post that were being circulated by friends. Those parts on his advice to the then incoming prime minister of Malaysia Tun Hussein Onn and on his disappointment with the Malaysian government’s decision to see the existing shareholders’ equity diluted in MISC, as expected, did not go down well with many in the country. But I suspect these people have not really read the book.

The three copies I ordered finally arrived just before Christmas. It is not a great literary work, but you could hardly put it aside once you opened the first page. My wife, who normally does not enjoy reading autobiographies, especially by businessmen, also finished the book in one day!

Internationally, Kuok is held in awe as the world’s Sugar King. To me, Kuok’s name is synonymous with the Shangri-la chain of hotels. I have stayed in several of them – Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Singapore, Beijing, Jakarta and Yangon – and found my stay in every one of them comfortable. But I really do know something more about Kuoks besides the Shangri-la hotels.

I was introduced to his brother-in-law Leslie Cheah in the 1980s, thanks to my good Highlands & Lowlands mentor Sayed Mohammad. I harboured fat hopes then that I would one day be introduced to Mr Kuok. It never happened. Years later, I had the opportunity to join Tan Sri Frank Tsao’s entourage to call on Malaysia’s VVVIPs in one of his usual Hari Raya rounds. (Readers of Kuok’s memoir would remember that it was Frank Tsao whom he approached to start the Malaysian International Shipping Corporation.) Kuok had his own entourage as well. Many of the destinations of the two tycoons were the same. We ended up in the same place and at the same time often. People of Kuok’s stature usually carry themselves with tunnel visions. But Kuok was different; would always make it a point to exchange a few pleasantries with lesser mortals and hangers-on like me. But before that, I had already heard a great deal about the greatness of this extraordinary man. I did have the opportunity to work for MISC for a few months in early 1990s. “Jepun” Ali, a colleague then, used to serve as MISC’s manager in Hong Kong. He said Kuok would always leave something for evrybody in business negotiations. In short, he does not believe in zero-sum games. That itself is a great lesson to teach in management schools' classes!

Kuok was quite blunt with those who seem to have short-changed or been mean to him. To those whose names were mentioned – the British bankers, the Australian charlatan, the Indonesian and Korean tycoons, and the Japanese corporate pretenders – he didn’t mince his words at all. Despite his harsh words about the atrocities committed by Japan during Word War II, and about colonialism, he is generous in his praises to those who have conduct themselves with principles. The book is all about fairness, humility, honour and above all, his concept and practice of filial piety.

Kuok must be one of the few who spurn honorifics. Many of his key staff are Tan Sris or Datuks. He might already be one, but he certainly does not want to be addressed as one.

Kuok is a no ordinary Chinese entrepreneur. He is really an exception.

Extraordinary lessons from an extraordinary man! 

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Bangkok, is your standard of care on the wane?

I got invited to attend a function - as an observer - in Bangkok last week. I decided only to show up during the first day of the do.

I took the last TG flight from Singapore to Bangkok. Departure was delayed by an hour because of the late arrival of the aircraft. It was a large plane, a Boeing 747.

After it landed, the plane taxied along in a snail-like manner. Never mind, maybe Thai pilots are a very careful lot.

No air-bridge was in sight when it came to a complete stop. We were ferried to the terminal on coaches! For a Boeing 747? And the aircraft was full? This must be crazy, I said to myself.

Along the way I spotted many air-bridges that were not serving any aircraft. Why?

* * * * *
The host was most thoughtful; I was attended to even before I cleared Immigration.

But the hotel was disappointing. The air-conditioning was freezing. Where is the thermostat? Never mind; I was too tired to look for it. (The next day, I found it located inconspicuously near the door!)

The meeting started promptly in the hotel's big meeting hall the next morning. I encountered my first frustration: Wifi came on only available intermittently!

I returned to my room after my part of the function was over. These were the things I saw; I leave the judgement to readers:

The key holder, which serves to trigger power supply to the room, appears as if it is about to fall apart!
Tucked in the most awkward manner under the desk, how do you plug in the sockets without injuring your back?

A safe that does not work; probably the battery has run out.

This must be from a second-hand shop!

Montien Riverside Hotel is a fairly large hotel. I don't suppose it is a five-star property; but it certainly is not a budget hotel, since it had been chosen to house the organisation's guests, which are supposed to be High Officials from the ministries of education in Southeast Asian countries.

And I forgot to mention, the Wifi was also not working in the room!

Friday, November 24, 2017

Two good books

  As I become older, I realise that I have also become more and more skeptical of opinions that, not only economically but also militarily, China would soon become the world's greatest power. Being ethnically Chinese, I would seem to be very un-Chinese to many, especially who are ethnically also Chinese.

My pessimism is premised on a number of concerns, chiefly revolve around behavioural weaknesses in what I see in many Chinese and in China - self-centricity and self-exultation, casualness to details, tendency to short-change customers, and elephant's memory on atrocities committed by Militarist Japan during the Second World War. The last is perhaps the most formidable mind-set for many to overcome. It also shuts out a source of emulation and learning for many Chinese and China. Japan has many great cultural strengths to offer to the world, among them: the way they bring up their children, which translates into a life-long habit or cleanliness, orderliness, respect for seniority and loyalty to benefactors. And in the bigger scheme of things, they grow up to be totally obsessed with exactness, good tastes, and quality in anything they do. China can say that its high speed trains are faster than Japan's, but anyone with a pair of discerning eyes will tell you which one is really better. Japanese houses may be small, but everything is neat, beautiful and exquisite. Even the tiny patch of garden, if there is, is a sight to behold. And how many of us have a Chinese-made camera to show off?

China is certainly not without ability to catch up. But it needs a paradigm shift; and everything has to start at the most fundamental level. Bottom-up from early childhood and top-down from the sage leaders that China traditionally want to portray their top leadership to be.

I came across these two books recently: Asia's Reckoning by McGregor and Destined for War by Allison. The former is about China and Japan vis-a-vis the United States - the roots of hostilities between the first two, the idiosyncrasies of the players on both sides and the hands of America in handling these conflicts. The second book is about the emergence of China and the lessons that can be learned from history since it is being seen to be challenging the supremacy of the United States. Thucydides Trap is a term that is used to paint the inevitability when when a reigning power is being challenged by a rising power, i.e., WAR. The Greek historian Thucydides first wrote about this centuries ago - when Sparta was being challenged by Athens. The author who used to be the founding dean of Kennedy School of Government offers a number of steps that both China and America could adopt to avoid wars. They are quite thought-provoking.

The two authors are not the typical western variety, where everything about China is always measured against their own perceptions of democracy and other worldviews. I find the two authors' views objective and balanced. Maybe friends might want to get hold of them to see how they can help change Chinese and China!

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Jack Ma, the new management guru

Jack Ma is now the latest management guru. Goodbye to Peter Drucker, Jack Welch, Lee Iacocca!

And on top of that, you can also forget Michael Porter, Henry Mintzberg, W Chan Kim, not to mention Rosabeth Kanter, Tom Peters and a couple of others.

You can dispense with Niccolo Machiavelli and Sun-tze’s writings as well.

Jack Ma is indeed a phenomenon. For someone who was not educated in English, he delivers his talks in English so confidently!

I have watched a number of his talks. You cannot help being impressed or mesmerized. The messages are inspirational – you can make things happened if you really want to do it – the “Just like me!” type of evangelism.

But as you see more and more of it, you start to discern a pattern in his speeches. He shocks you into agreeing to his form of non-conventional wisdom. Of course, he has tons of examples to back up his contentions.

His Alipay has taken China by storm; even Lee Hsien Loong is impressed. I am seeing this App in Singapore’s taxis now. I thought I should also keep up with the kneah-sus in Singapore and therefore accessed Apple Store to down the App. I couldn’t go beyond the first few instructions, even though I have some working knowledge of Chinese. It is still very China- or Chinese-centric. I am just curious; for a man of Jack Ma’s global reach and ambition, how can the App be so “cheeeena”?

Jack Ma always claims that he applied to Harvard four times and was rejected every time. Of course, he is trying to tell you that you don’t need a Harvard MBA to make good. Maybe if he had been accepted by Harvard, he would already have become the emperor of the global business world by now?

I have always a nagging doubt about his “joke” about the Harvard part. If you want to go to Harvard, besides a good degree, you also need to sit for GMAT and score well. Usually there is no difficulty for many to do well in the quantitative parts, but to score well in the qualitative parts, where a high degree of proficiency in English is called for, that’s an extremely tall order for those whose principal education is not in English. Did he actually apply to go to Harvard?

I used to know a Dr Yap XXX. He claimed he had a PhD in Chemical Engineering from Manchester and an MBA from Strathclyde (or was it the other way around?). Every colleague took it as a matter of fact. Later, it dawned upon me that he had never used IRR or NPV in financial evaluations. And in another occasion, I found him totally muted when the subject of corrosion was brought up for discussion amongst colleagues. How can a PhD in Chemical Engineering not know something about corrosion? Obviously, he degrees cannot be real, can they? Don’t tell me standards in British universities are so bad!

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Who wants to be the first one to boooooo?

I am copying the following from Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (Harari, Yuval Noah; Random House to share with you…

On 21 December 1989 Nicolae Ceauşescu, the communist dictator of Romania, organised a mass demonstration of support in the centre of Bucharest. Over the previous months the Soviet Union had withdrawn its support from the eastern European communist regimes, the Berlin Wall had fallen, and revolutions had swept Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia. Ceauşescu, who had ruled Romania since 1965, believed he could withstand the tsunami, even though riots against his rule had erupted in the Romanian city of Timişoara on 17 December. As one of his counter-measures, Ceauşescu arranged a massive rally in Bucharest to prove to Romanians and the rest of the world that the majority of the populace still loved him – or at least feared him. The creaking party apparatus mobilised 80,000 people to fill the city’s central square, and citizens throughout Romania were instructed to stop all their activities and tune in on their radios and televisions. To the cheering of the seemingly enthusiastic crowd, Ceauşescu mounted the balcony overlooking the square, as he had done scores of times in previous decades. Flanked by his wife Elena, leading party officials and a bevy of bodyguards, Ceauşescu began delivering one of his trademark dreary speeches. For eight minutes he praised the glories of Romanian socialism, looking very pleased with himself as the crowd clapped mechanically. And then something went wrong. You can see it for yourself on You-Tube. Just search for ‘Ceauşescu’s last speech’, and watch history in action. The YouTube clip shows Ceauşescu starting another long sentence, saying, ‘I want to thank the initiators and organisers of this great event in Bucharest, considering it as a—’, and then he falls silent, his eyes open wide, and he freezes in disbelief. He never finished the sentence. You can see in that split second how an entire world collapses. Somebody in the audience booed. People still argue today who was the first person who dared to boo. And then another person booed, and another, and another, and within a few seconds the masses began whistling, shouting abuse and calling out ‘Ti-mi-şoa-ra! Ti-mi-şoa-ra!’ 18. The moment a world collapses: a stunned Ceauşescu cannot believe his eyes and ears.

All this happened live on Romanian television, as three-quarters of the populace sat glued to the screens, their hearts throbbing wildly. The notorious secret police – the Securitate – immediately ordered the broadcast to be stopped, but the television crews disobeyed. The cameraman pointed the camera towards the sky so that viewers couldn’t see the panic among the party leaders on the balcony, but the soundman kept recording, and the technicians continued the transmission. The whole of Romania heard the crowd booing, while Ceauşescu yelled, ‘Hello! Hello! Hello!’ as if the problem was with the microphone. His wife Elena began scolding the audience, ‘Be quiet! Be quiet!’ until Ceauşescu turned and yelled at her – still live on television – ‘You be quiet!’ Ceauşescu then appealed to the excited crowds in the square, imploring them, ‘Comrades! Comrades! Be quiet, comrades!’ But the comrades were unwilling to be quiet. Communist Romania crumbled when 80,000 people in the Bucharest central
square realised they were much stronger than the old man in the fur hat on the balcony. What is truly astounding, however, is not the moment the system collapsed, but the fact that it managed to survive for decades. Why are revolutions so rare? Why do the masses sometimes clap and cheer for centuries on end, doing everything the man on the balcony commands them, even though they could in theory charge forward at any moment and tear him to pieces? Ceauşescu and his cronies dominated 20 million Romanians for four decades because they ensured three vital conditions. First, they placed loyal communist apparatchiks in control of all networks of cooperation, such as the army, trade unions and even sports associations. Second, they prevented the creation of any rival organisations – whether political, economic or social – which might serve as a basis for anti-communist cooperation. Third, they relied on the support of sister communist parties in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe.

Despite occasional tensions, these parties helped each other in times of need, or at least guaranteed that no outsider poked his nose into the socialist paradise. Under such conditions, despite all the hardship and suffering inflicted on them by the ruling elite, the 20 million Romanians were unable to organise any effective opposition. Ceauşescu fell from power only once all three conditions no longer held. In the late 1980s the Soviet Union withdrew its protection and the communist regimes began falling like dominoes. By December 1989 Ceauşescu could not expect any outside assistance. Just the opposite – revolutions in nearby countries gave heart to the local opposition. The Communist Party itself began splitting into rival camps. The moderates wished to rid themselves of Ceauşescu and initiate reforms before it was too late. By organising the Bucharest demonstration and broadcasting it live on television, Ceauşescu himself provided the revolutionaries with the perfect opportunity to discover their power and rally against him. What quicker way to spread a revolution than by showing it on TV? Yet when power slipped from the hands of the clumsy organiser on the balcony, it did not pass to the masses in the square. Though numerous and enthusiastic, the crowds did not know how to organise themselves. Hence just as in Russia in 1917, power passed to a small group of political players whose only asset was good organisation. The Romanian Revolution was hijacked by the self-proclaimed National Salvation Front, which was in fact a smokescreen for the moderate wing of the Communist Party. The Front had no real ties to the demonstrating crowds. It was manned by mid-ranking party officials, and led by Ion Iliescu, a former member of the Communist Party’s central committee and one-time head of the propaganda department. Iliescu and his comrades in the National Salvation Front reinvented themselves as democratic politicians, proclaimed to any available microphone
that they were the leaders of the revolution, and then used their long experience and network of cronies to take control of the country and pocket its resources. In communist Romania almost everything was owned by the state. Democratic Romania quickly privatised its assets, selling them at bargain prices to the ex-communists, who alone grasped what was happening and collaborated to feather each other’s nests. Government companies that controlled national infrastructure and natural resources were sold to former communist officials at end-of-season prices while the party’s foot soldiers bought houses and apartments for pennies. Ion Iliescu was elected president of Romania, while his colleagues became ministers, parliament members, bank directors and multimillionaires. The new Romanian elite that controls the country to this day is composed mostly of former communists and their families. The masses who risked their necks in Timişoara and Bucharest settled for scraps, because they did not know how to cooperate and how to create an efficient organisation to look after their own interests. 21 A similar fate befell the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. What television did in 1989, Facebook and Twitter did in 2011. The new media helped the masses coordinate their activities, so that thousands of people flooded the streets and squares at the right moment and toppled the Mubarak regime. However, it is one thing to bring 100,000 people to Tahrir Square, and quite another to get a grip on the political machinery, shake the right hands in the right back rooms and run a country effectively. Consequently, when Mubarak stepped down the demonstrators could not fill the vacuum. Egypt had only two institutions sufficiently organised to rule the country: the army and the Muslim Brotherhood. Hence the revolution was hijacked first by the Brotherhood, and eventually by the army. The Romanian ex-communists and the Egyptian generals were not more intelligent or nimble-fingered than either the old dictators or the demonstrators in Bucharest and Cairo. Their advantage lay in flexible cooperation. They cooperated better than the crowds, and they were willing to show far more flexibility than the hidebound Ceauşescu and Mubarak.

Who, amongst us, wants to be the first one to Booooooooooooooooooooo?

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

University Colleges - Universities of the future?

University colleges are not new. There are many in the United States, but they tend to be elitist schools. There is also one in Singapore - Yale-NUS College. It has just graduated its first batch and already reached its optimum enrollment target. 

But few know the Dutch are leading the way - in the non-elitist way. I had the opportunity to visit the Netherlands and was taken to see four of them - University College Roosevelt at Middelburg, Erasmus University College at Rotterdam and Leiden University College at The Hague, Leiden University is where Einstein once taught.

I was thoroughly impressed!

They basically teach Liberal Arts and Sciences. Classes are small, about 20 in size. (Total enrollment a year is only about 200.) The concept is learning with teachers, rather than being taught by teachers. Teachers appear to be a passionate lot; they instill creativity and curiosity. They become "thinkers" - culturally and intellectually. Such immersion will stand them in good stead even if they choose to pursue something more solid later. 

And unlike their American counterparts, they are not expensive, relatively speaking, of course.

Do consider this alternative for your children!

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Folly of Buying Stuff On-line

Friends may remember the nasty accident I had last year, when a reckless cab driver came straight for me even though I was crossing a road on “green”. I ended up spending 48 days and undergoing10 surgeries/procedures in a hospital. Even though the wound inflicted on my left heel pad has largely healed, I still need a cane to balance myself when standing or walking, lest I may fall over and being accused of outraging some sweet-young-thing’s modesty!

I am a sucker for good taste stuff. But the walking sticks or canes sold in stores here are quite plain. I saw my sister-in-law carried a very well-made one. My niece had bought it for her in Japan. I decided to google and was directed to MonotaRo’s website. This e-commerce company sounds Japanese enough. I quite liked the Royal Brown model (0401-558815), It said that “the product was made in Japanese standard”. I promptly effected my purchase through my credit card: SGD68.41, including shipping.

The one shown in the website

What was delivered

It took weeks before the product was delivered to me. But it was NOT what I expected to see!

It looked every inch China-made, and a very low-end joint for that! True enough, a little sticker confirmed it “Made in China”.

And the canes which I am presently using are made in Taiwan. They are at least few shades better in quality than this China-made one. None cost more than SGD20!

Is it wise to buy stuff like this on-line?

I wrote to MonotaRo to complain; it has yet to give me an answer.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Shanghai Jiao Tong University, global ambition with your type of English?

Chinese institutions and enterprises harbouring global ambitions ought to be more careful with their English when they publicise themselves!

I copied the following from an advertisement in my Facebook pages. I was trying to do a screen shot of it but could not find it after I posted a “Bad English” comment on it. Maybe they have removed it.

No prizes for spotting the mistakes…

想提升自己的学历获得文凭,在职场有更好的发展吗?Looking to deepen your skills and obtain an academic qualifications?

就业率连续4年全球第一,薪资增长率172%,上海交大安泰MBA,真正助您走上职业生涯的巅峰!注册参加分享会获得详情!Signup our workshop to learn about Shanghai Jiao Tong University Antai ASEAN MBA!

时间:826 下午3:30pm
地点:30 Allanbrooke Road Sentosa Island, Singapore 099983

Coming from a university that claims to be one of the top institutions of higher learning in the world, this is certainly unbecoming!

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