End of a chapter in Malaysia’s corporate history

PETALING JAYA: Known as Malaysia's steel tycoon, prominent businessman Tan Sri Eric Chia died from heart attack at the age of 74 yesterday.

His is a Malaysian story to be sure.

Tan Sri Eric Chia

Born in 1933, the former chief executive officer of the UMW group and former managing director of Perwaja Steel made his way to Seremban from Singapore at age 17 in 1950.

Though his father was a millionaire in Singapore where he had founded United Motor Works (UMW), Chia said he did not have it easy.

After having worked in several factories, he hitchhiked on a lorry to Seremban with just five dollars in his pocket.

In Seremban, Chia found work in a bicycle shop for 25 cents a day before he turned bicycle tube salesman and truck driver.

Chia had always said these early hardships gave him a determination to succeed.

At age 23, he was sent to Kuala Lumpur to run K.K. Motor Co, the agent for UMW in Malaya. His father later set up United Motor Works (Malaya), which he managed.

UMW grew to be the country’s largest engineering group with Chia as its chief executive.

In 1987, a rescue of haulage and logistics firm Kontena Nasional gave him the added reputation of being “Mr Fixit”.

However, this reputation would soon be in tatters when the erstwhile Mr Fixit was chosen by the Government to turn around loss-making Perwaja Steel in 1988.

The ensuing episode saw Chia resigning as managing director of Perwaja Steel in 1995, followed by the Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA) launching investigations in 1996 after Perwaja was declared insolvent, with debts and losses totalling RM10bil.

Chia was arrested by the ACA on Feb 9, 2004, and charged with embezzlement the next day.

The prosecution closed the case on May 4, 2007 after calling 29 witnesses.

On June 26, 2007, sessions court judge Akhtar Tahir acquitted and discharged Chia of the charges of criminal breach of trust involving RM76.4mil without calling for his defence, ruling the prosecution had failed to establish a prima facie case against the tycoon.

But his acquittal was bittersweet.

Upon his acquittal, Chia had told The Star: “Once when I put my hands on the table, there were 200 other hands of my friends on that same table. But now there are not enough hands.”

“They have run away. Some of them think I am a crook.”

Recently, the High Court set Aug 28 as the date for case management of a defamation suit filed by Chia on Jan 7, 2002 against DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng, related to comments regarding Perwaja.

Lim, who is Penang Chief Minister, said he would rely on the defence of qualified privilege.

With his demise, a chapter of Malaysia’s corporate history closes.

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