TAKE it from the master. Nothing happens by chance, not in the corporate world, not on the chessboard, not on the racing circuit and certainly not on the golf course. Not for Datuk Tan Chin Nam, the patriarch of the Tan family who controls IGB Corp Bhd.
He should know. He has been through all the booms and busts of an economic cycle, the rise of a company, the fall of another. Be it war or peace, he has been there.
Tan retired from the corporate world in the early 1990s and is no longer a director of any publicly listed company now. He, however, has substantial shareholdings in a couple of companies under the IGB group today. Gold IS Bhd and Wah Seong Corp Bhd being two of them.
“I retired at the age of 70. Nobody thought I would. I am now 77. Because to just make money, is that what life is all about? How much is enough? Will it ever be enough?
“A million was a lot of money before. Today, it is almost hay. It is not the RM200 million you make but whether you have the last RM100,000 when the bank calls for it. Businessmen learn this the hard way during every crisis.”
No university taught him his business skills, no mentor. And forget the manuals.
Tan quit school at 16. “I passed standard seven and was supposed to go to Junior Cambridge,” he recalls. World War II took care of that. But Tan is no less rich because of that. If anything, he may be the richer for it.
A mere lad, he went into the world of buying and selling. That was his first job. “On my first day of selling ayam (chickens), vegetables and fruits at the roadside, my former fellow students in Victoria Institution saw me. I was malu (embarrassed), humbled even though I was making an honest living.
“There were no shops. Everybody was a broker, everybody traded. I was determined just to survive, not live. I didn't have the luxury of living. The moment I owned Straits Dollars (SD) 1,000 I was happy.”
That SD 1,000 came by luck. “Ninety per cent, it's pure luck,” Tan says in his penthouse office suite at Menara Tan & Tan in Kuala Lumpur, his autobiographer Larry Parr present throughout the interview.
He bought a cash sweep, a form of empat ekor (numbers sweep) and won SD 1,852.
“I used that as an investment tool to go into business and invested in a trading company called Wah Seong.
That name is significant. Today, Wah Seong Corp Bhd is a company with big plans. It aims to transform itself from a medium-sized Malaysian industrial group into “a major Asian/global oil and gas service infrastructure group” by the year 2007. Tan is a major shareholder there.
The company specialises in the coating of pipes used in the oil and gas industry. It took over the listing status of Perdana Industri Holdings Bhd last July 2002.
“My philosophy was simple. If I had Straits dollars 10,000, I was one in 10,000 in South-East Asia in the old days, that's roughly where I would be standing. My ambition was to have SD 20,000, and SD200,000 was the grand finale. After that, I stopped counting. Likewise with horses. After I had a stable of 20 horses scattered here and there, I also stopped counting. It no longer mattered how many horses I had, but how many times I won.”
Tan is the only Asian to have won the Melbourne Cup, one of the oldest and most prestigious races in the world. Indeed, he is the only horse owner to have won it three times.
The Melbourne Cup is in the same league as the English Derby, America's Kentucky Derby and the Dubai Cup.
Twice in 1974 and 1975, it was with Think Big, a horse he co-shared with Malaysia's first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman in 1975 for his second win and the third was in 1996 with Saintly.
The largest stake money he ever won was the 1996 Melbourne Cup - A$ 600,000. Tan has horses in Hong Kong, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and elsewhere.
After about 20 minutes, Tan changes pace, moving from a game of speed to one of intellect.
Enough of horses! Let's play chess. Describing himself as a business man who is a chess player and not a chess player who happens to be a business man, Tan says he can play “eat and sleep” chess for days.
“You know why I enjoy it so much? It teaches discipline and it is a game that forces one to think. I have been promoting the game since 1974. There is a need in this country. Where do our young people spend their free time?
“Too many of them get involved in crime and drugs. In my time, we had the boy scouts. We caught spiders, played tops and marbles, had our fighting fish and swam in Dusun Tua.
“What do our young people do today? I saw the direction our youth were heading a long time ago and I am only sorry that the people in authority cannot see what I see.”
Tan has been spending an average of RM100,000 annually since 1974 to promote the game. Beside the intellectual somersaults that the game accords him, Tan enjoys the friendship he has made over the years.
Comparing the manoeuvres on the chessboard with those in the business world, Tan says it is a wrong move (on the chessboard) versus a wrong word on the corporate field.
“If you offend someone in a game of chess, the worst is that you are banned from playing. In the business world, it is different. So you have to be very careful with what you say.”
In the chess world, when you are with a chess friend, money does not count. In the business world, one is a friend because it serves a business requirement.
Tan once described friendship like a piece of music. It transcends time, culture, class and race. “I valued friendships then, as I do today. With a true friend, one does not seek to ask for help when in need. Help is offered even before one asks. In life, there are very few friends of that calibre.
“Each of the friendships made contributed to my life in different ways. There cannot be one single one that ?”
Tan pauses, turning back the pages of his mind. Lost friends but not lost friendships.
“The Tunku (Malaysia's first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman) is one of them. We shared more than just Think Big, the horse which won the Melbourne Cup twice and which the Tunku co-shared with me for the second Melbourne Cup win in 1975. He paid me RM30,000 for his share of the horse. He confided a lot in me, although he was 23 years older than I.”
“My philosophy on friendship has not changed. Always make new friends but never forget the old. Not only because the more friends you have, the happier you are, but also because the fewer enemies you have.
“I like to consider some chess moves now.”
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