The will to survive, capacity to trust


STARBIZ: How would you describe yourself when it comes to managing a business empire and as patriarch of the Tan family? What are your guiding tenets? 

Tan: In one word, dedication. I dedicated a great part of my life to creating a group of companies. My “guiding tenets” were to mind capital carefully by launching innovative projects such as condominiums and hotel apartments in Malaysia that were not beyond the means of my companies.  

Hong Kong shipping magnate Frank Tsao has said that it is not the hundreds of millions you make along the way that count; it is having the last million or even less when the bank calls your loan. People say that cash is king.  

Based on my experience, cash is emperor; banking facility is king; and you are a prince among men, my friend, if you can pay off when the bank calls your loan. 


StarBiz: What contributed to the successes in your life? 

Tan: Hard work, perseverance and common sense. Common sense means understanding reality and acting correctly; you get common sense through hard work and seeking knowledge.  

You come to know a subject so well that you have a sixth sense or common sense. What seems muddled to others is clear to you.  

Some say that my having an English-language education may have given me the confidence to look to the West for ideas when working in property development. I have never been afraid of showing my ignorance by asking questions.  

My friend, Datuk Yap Lim Sen, a former managing director of IGB and the man who headed the famous restoration of the Queen Victoria Building in Sydney, has said that my “secret of success” is a genius for choosing the right people and partners – and then to trust them. 

Two underrated virtues in business are the will to survive and the capacity, quite simply, to trust people you have hired. 


StarBiz: Whom do you consider important in moulding your outlook in life? 

Tan: I dedicated my memoirs, Tan Chin Nam: Never Say I Assume!, to my mother Choo Moh Hooi. In my book I write about my mother possessing the strength to handle a family of 14. Her entire life inspired me.  

There are also a couple of specific moments where she played a role in pointing me to my destiny. Early in my working career, she insisted I leave government employment in the British Military Administration. I took a 50% cut in pay, but her faith in me soon paid off.  

A bit later, I was offered a job in the late 1940s for 36,000 Straits dollars annually, an inconceivably large amount of money at that time.  

I turned down the offer, preferring to work for myself, remembering my mother’s advice never to short-change my ambition. 


StarBiz: Is writing this book a form of sharing with the people?  

Tan: All of the royalties from my memoirs will go to the Tan Chin Nam Foundation and be used to provide scholarships to the needy. In financial terms, I will not profit by a penny. 

In the beginning was the Word, and I hope that some of my words will be added to the sum total of human knowledge.  

The message in my memoirs is that I spent a lifetime trying to make the world just a little better place for my having lived in it – and to provide for my family.  

I was unquestionably a good provider for my family and, I hope though do not claim, that the sum of my business activity has been for the positive. 

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