Ex-CAD director Glenn Knight and ex-MCA president share stage at leadership conference.
THERE is usually nothing too exciting about two speakers sharing a stage to talk about bouncing back from failure, especially not at a dime-a-dozen leadership seminar.
But on July 23, former Malaysian magnate and Cabinet minister Tan Koon Swan galvanised the audience at the Suntec International Convention Centre in Singapore when he spoke alongside Singaporean lawyer Glenn Knight.
For about an hour, both took turns to speak of their past and how their Christian faith had sustained them through life’s setbacks.
In 1986, Knight, the first director of the Singapore Commercial Affairs Department (CAD), charged and prosecuted Tan for abetting a criminal breach of trust in the high-profile Pan-Electric Industries (Pan-El) case. Listed Pan-El and two other listed companies related to it went under after being some S$480mil in debt.
Their collapse caused the unprecedented closure of the Singapore and Malaysian stock exchanges for three days and
triggered an overhaul of the share-trading system in Singapore.
Tan, then the MCA president, was jailed for 18 months and fined S$500,000.
By then, Knight was known as a crack crusader against white-collar crime. But in 1991, he was arrested and found guilty of trying to cheat three businessmen of S$3mil and faking an invoice to get a government loan.
He was jailed for a day after the court reduced his three-month jail sentence. He was also fined S$17,000 and disbarred.
Then in 1998, Knight was jailed for a day and fined S$10,000 for misappropriating government funds.
Today, Tan, 68, advises his family business while Knight, 64, is a litigation partner at Colin Ng & Partners.
The two men were speaking to more than 1,300 mostly-Christian delegates at the biennial Eagles Leadership Conference. It was organised by the Singapore Christian-based non-profit organisation Eagles Communications, which develops leaders.
The crowd erupted in applause when the two called the other “a good friend”. They said they were appearing together publicly for the first time since Pan-El to show that anyone could survive even abject failure.
Speaking to The Sunday Times later, Tan revealed that he never felt bitter about Knight. As he put it sanguinely: “I’ve nothing to forgive him because he had not done anything wrong against me. He was just doing his job.”
In 1985, before Pan-El went bust, Tan had paid Knight a visit at his office or, as the latter put it, “a courtesy call”. Knight returned that courtesy in 1986 when he visited Tan in the latter’s jail cell shortly after a rather rough interrogation. He told Tan that he bore no personal malice against the latter, and also told him to prepare to be made a bankrupt.
Indeed, throughout this interview, each egged the other on to tell his side of the story and sometimes even finished the other’s sentences. When Tan said he feared repercussions from this chat, Knight reassured him: “Never mind. It all sounds good.”
Asked what they could possibly have in common besides their faith and Pan-El, Knight said: “Because he was flying high. He was MCA chief. He was the top dog. So was I.”
Of his own tumbles, Knight told the audience earlier that God was “disciplining’ him for something else he had done in the past.
As he put it: “I had to ... come down to earth and accept that everyone is a normal human being. I suppose I had to be brought down.”
Tan was in town with his second wife, Penny Chang, who was famously described as his “constant companion” during the Pan-El trial as she was always by his side.
Now 60 but looking very much younger, she was dressed in a chic black and white outfit. Her straight, shoulder-length hair was pulled back in a pony tail to reveal fine-boned features and tanned skin. Her serious “don’t-mess-with-me” look throughout the event kept most people at bay. The couple have three daughters.
The son of a waiter and hawker, Tan grew up in Selangor and rose from a government clerk to a rainmaker chief executive who helped create the Genting Highlands casino. He then became an MP and MCA president.
But he became notorious because of Pan-El. He was plunged into debts of more than RM400mil after trying to, as he put it, rescue Pan-El by taking over and resuscitating the ship-salvaging and brokerage business. In its heyday, Pan-El owned more than 300 ships and its shares were red-hot on the Singapore stock exchange.
Tan entered into some US$100mil worth of dodgy forward contracts, in which loans were secured by shares with sometimes vastly inflated prices. While in prison, he lost 19 kg within three months. But he said what really broke him was seeing Chang getting fed-up with his self-pity and buckling under intense media scrutiny. She visited Tan almost every day throughout his incarceration, “drenched in tears”, he said.
Watching her falter emptied him of pride and bitterness, which proved his salvation. As he put it: “For God to save you, you’ve got to be really remorseful.”
At that time, Tan and Chang were not legally married although they had a daughter. He was then already a father to three other children with his first wife, Catherine Chong, a paraplegic.
In 1988, the Malaysian High Court declared Tan a bankrupt and some estimated it would take him 36,000 years to discharge himself. But two of his friends bought a piece of land on his behalf and then sold it so handsomely that, by 1995, he erased his entire debt.
Tan was coy about his exact dealings these days, but allowed that he was “in the background” as a corporate adviser to a Malaysian-based property development business run by his children. He would not say more.
More than two decades on, both men took pains to stress that they were at peace with themselves and others now.
As Knight put it: “It’s just a hiccup in your life. It may be five years or 15 years; get on with it.” — Singapore ST