Public Bank Bhd founder and chairman Tan Sri Teh Hong Piow was born on March 14, 1930, into a humble and modest family in Singapore.
According to the Chinese calendar, he was born in the Year of the Horse, which symbolises speed and power.
He is the eldest son of a migrant family. His father was an immigrant from Guangdong province, China, who left for Malaya at the age of 15.
His father worked as a cook for free board and lodging until he had scraped together enough to become a small-time salesman and trader, dealing in clocks, watches, spectacles, vegetables and fruits – turning his hand to anything to make a meagre living.
Teh's mother died when he was six.
“I had to take care of my siblings which made me a more caring person at a young age,” Teh told StarBiz.
Teh at the office
It probably sowed the seeds of the caring boss he was to become.
His father re-married and the family grew to six boys and three girls. “He had to exercise thrift and stringent management of his meagre income to support the family,” Teh said.
Teh grew up knowing what it was like to be poor, speaking of hand-me-downs, which were too large, worn and patched. He had very little pocket money and could not buy food at the school canteen like the other boys but had to make do with bread from home, to the derision of his more fortunate companions.
He used to save his money for a rare treat of his favourite food – beef noodles or mee siam. He also did not possess a bicycle of his own but had to make do with the shop bike with its large, tell-tale carrier at the back.
The Teh family was highly traditional. “My father was a very strict disciplinarian; I took his words as command,” he said.
His father had very little communication with the children, except as an authority figure. Teh had to be home by 9pm even as a teenager.
Teh was bright at school and loved books but unfortunately could not afford to further his studies.
“In school, I was very active in the Boys Brigade. I was also a class monitor. My early ambition was to study law after secondary school, but my father could only support me up to the Cambridge Overseas School Certificate level. I had to start work the day after I sat for my school leaving examination,” he said.
This was nothing new. Teh remembers having to work while still schooling to support his family.
“Being the eldest son, I had to help my father in his business,” he said.
Even then he had an eye for profit, earning money for himself from his hobby of photography. He also enjoys reading and was a keen football fan.
During the Japanese occupation, he sold cigarettes on five-foot way to supplement the family income.
Tan Sri Teh Hong Piow having a chat over drinks with Datuk Seri Tay Ah Lek (left).
The hardship was not without a legacy. Teh learned very early the virtue of hard work. It also made him very resourceful. Denied of higher education, he had to seek upward mobility in less conventional ways.
If leaders are not born, life's experiences make them such. In Teh's case, it was his years at Oversea Chinese Banking Corp and Malayan Banking that were the incubators of his future career.
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