Up close and personal with Tan Sri Lin See-Yan

TAN Sri Lin See-Yan’s office well depicts him and his twin interests – reading and appreciation of art. It also provides a glimpse of the influence his late father has on him. His office, in a suburb of KL, is one of his favourite spots and despite his bad back, he made the climb up the flight of timber stairs.

“What you see here is a personification of my parents. They like this kind of atmosphere,” says Lin, as he makes himself comfortable.

The room bursts with energy, just like the diminutive 69 year old with his long hair pulled neatly back in a band and wispy beard. Paintings, some of his favourite knick-knacks and book shelves dominate the room.

“There are lots more paintings and books at home and in the warehouse,” he says.

Lin is a man of many interests. He is best known for his views on economics and was with Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM) for 34 years, 14 of them as deputy governor. He joined BNM at 21 in 1961, when the country was undergoing tremendous political and economic changes.

“I was around at the right time, in the right place. When I went to Harvard to do my masters and PhD, on BNM governor Tun Ismail (Mohamed Ali’s) suggestion, I was taught by Nobel-prize winning economists at MIT (Paul Samuelson, Franco Modigliani, Robert Solow) and James Tobin from Yale. I learned my economics, micro and macro economics and long-term quantitative time-series from Wassily Leontief (Nobel Laureate in Economics 1973), Kenneth J. Arrow (1972) and Simon Kuznets (1971).

“It was the golden age for economists then – like today – and I sat at the feet of all of these great teachers. I also enjoy Paul Krugman’s (2008 Nobel prize winner) books.”

On his return, he was made chief economist and adviser. He had always wanted to be an architect.

“I became an economist by accident. I was streamed into science. Because I like maths so much, I was encouraged to do economics and statistics,” says Lin, who sits on the board of several public listed and private companies here and overseas.

He is also a member and a trustee of government and public universities, locally and abroad, and has his own consultancy.

“I can sit on another 10 boards but I cannot be in two places at the same time. That is my constraint, not the power of my brains,” he says.

Serving six PMs

Lin owns the bragging rights of having served all of Malaysia’s six prime ministers, had a stint with the country’s first finance minister Tun H. S. Lee, and served as an economic adviser to Malaysia’s second finance minister Tun Tan Siew Sin and the Singapore government.

“He (Tan) always tells me to have my feet on the ground. Today, I am serving the second generation of prime ministers,” he says, referring to Datuk Seri Najib Razak and his father Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, Malaysia’s second Prime Minister.

He was advisor to Zhu Rong Ji for three years and helped to draft two banking acts for the central bank of China. (Zhu was the mayor and party chief in Shanghai (between 1987 and 1991), vice-premier and then premier of China from 1998 to 2003).

“My father is very Chinese in his thinking. He feels that every family must have someone to contribute to public service. My brother (a paediatrician in Universiti Malaya Medical Centre) and I did that.

“I did not come from a rich family. I come from a big family, of seven boys and four girls. My parents, a headmaster and a school teacher, were ordinary people from China. My father was educated at the University of Tokyo, He was essentially a Chinese scholar and a painter. I don’t paint well but I have his love for beautiful things. I spent a third of my first pay cheque on a batik painting. My colleague, also a scholar who entered BNM at the same time, bought a refrigerator.”

Learning from the best

Lin remembers the high points of the different leaders he served and their influences on him. Although he learned a lot from Tun Tan Siew Sin, his biggest influence was Tun Ismail Mohamed Ali, the first Malaysian governor and Malaysia’s longest serving BNM governor.

“He was very disciplined, excellent in work, thorough, precise and had first class command of the English Language. In fact, the governors in the old days were first class drafters,” he recalls.

For practical knowledge, Tun Ismail sent him to the rubber exchange to trade in commodities. Lin also sat on the board of some government-linked companies.

“One of my best experiences is dealing with housewives. There was a run on sugar and these housewives were hoarding them. I had to explain why they don’t have to. But the moment they left, they went off to buy more sugar. We do not understand the mentality of the people and the effect our policies have on them. This is my biggest criticism of government today. They never consult those their policies would most effect. We tend to take people for granted.”

Today, Lin sits on the board of companies involved in various sectors “to have a good feel of the economy. In everything I do, it has to be relevant.”

Post retirement, he joined Pacific Bank Group as chairman and CEO. His fascination with technology drew him to recyclable environmental-friendly glove maker EcoGlove Ltd Hong Kong a year ago as a director.

He wants to make the most of living. He has trained himself to sleep three to four hours and to finish a book within the same amount of time.

“Why do I want to sleep my life away? If I am lucky, perhaps I’ll live another 15 to 20 years. Our mind is a very powerful tool.”

“Just having an interest is not enough. Interest dies after a while. So in all that we do, there must be passion and confidence in your ability and discipline.

“So many things are new to me. Technology today is moving so fast but I learn. There must be an eagerness to learn, in order for the mind to remain bright. Before you know it, a year is gone,” says Lin.

“How many will agree to say, if you get profits of so much, I get paid (for the board work). Therefore, although I am not paid, I learn a lot. There are some things which we learn only by observation. Tun Ismail taught me that.

“If I sit on a board and it bores me, I quit. Passion is so important because you have to understand the frustration you go through. If you don’t have passion in what you do, it will never happen and things become wishy-washy.

Love of the arts

While he enjoys his work and writing (he writes for The StarBizWeek), he has a great love for literature and the arts.

“Art is what you see in it. The background of the painter, the painted and why he painted it. It does not have to have meaning. A painting pleases me because it is beautiful. So for me, beauty stretches. I see beauty in everything. Look at the Coca Cola bottles,” he says, pointing out to several of them displayed on the shelf.

“People take these simple things for granted. I also enjoy Tom and Jerry cartoons and cowboy movies. Bang! Bang! Bang! I don’t like dramas, too much tension. So when my birthday comes, my friends buy me a set of Tom and Jerry DVDs and I have a good laugh over them.”

He reads to relax and many subjects interest him – English literature, philosophy, psychology, economics.

He is thankful for so many things – his tolerant wife who understood that he needed to do certain things and without complaint attended to their four girls who “attended the world’s top 10 schools”.

“I am very pleased with them. They are all first class kids. I let them do what they want.” But he’s got one regret – he should have sent them to a co-ed instead of an all-girls college.

“I’m not rich. I could have gotten them scholarships, but that is one thing I am strict about. I did not want to leverage on that.

“When I retired from BNM, I did not attend the bank’s functions. Your shadow should not be there when you leave. The only thing I attend is personal friends’ events and weddings. I don’t go out at night except with my children, three of whom are abroad.

“Now that I have the time, they don’t. That’s what economics taught me. You live within constraints, or you will be a complainer all the time. It is a choice you make or a choice made for you. You can always quit and do something else.”

Born: Ipoh, 1939

Personal: Married with four daughters

Education: PhD in Economics, Harvard; Chartered Scientist, London; Chartered Statistician, London.

Career: Director of local and overseas companies, member of government and public universities

Noteworthy: The first non-American to sit on Harvard Graduate School Alumni Association Council, first non-American to chair the Council.

Favourite food: Curry laksa, char kway teow, banana leaf curry

Favourite place: The book store, his office and Beijing

Hobbies: Qigong, walk about the city, chess

Values: Integrity, hardwork, ethic

Inspiration: French philosopher novelist Jean-Paul Satre; Zhuge Liang, a strategist in China's Three Kingdoms period; economic historian and Harvard professor A. Gerschenkron and British economist J.M Keynes.

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