Westports executive chairman Tan Sri G. Gnanalingam fields the 10 questions posed to him by our readers.
1. How and why did you venture into the ports business? Did you actually want to do something else and what was it? – Suresh Nair, Malacca
I decided to venture into port industry when I realised that 95% of international trade is via the sea. As for the remainder, all the aircraft in the world can only carry 3% of world cargo while the other 2% is by rail. Ships spend 65% of their time at the ports. Anybody who can reduce this to 50% and believe in fast vessel turnaround can win this game.
In 1994, we estimated that RM300bil worth of Malaysian cargo has been transhipped at other ports. Malaysia is the 17th largest trading nation. As such, direct calls by shipping lines can reduce the time of our inventory in reaching its destinations. We studied the 25 best practices why some ports become big and we tried to replicate and improve on all of them.
Most of all, we took a paradigm shift. Today, we are among the top five in the world. Westports is a Harvard Business School case study with 100% Malaysian workers. Leading Westports is like winning the English Premier League every year!
2. You are a member of Pemudah, a special task force to facilitate business. How do you hope to make a difference in helping Malaysia to become more business-friendly? What are the things that you are pushing for? – Nordin Omar, Subang
Pemudah has succeeded in cutting red tape to make licensing “painless and seamless” for investors and foreign and local businesses.
About 80% of the work in achieving the objectives of Pemudah is actually contributed by the civil servants.
Pemudah is a classic case of business-government partnership. I have to emphasise that the credit for all this must definitely go to the public sector who have worked on this tirelessly and it is always welcoming further suggestions to make Malaysia more competitive in a globalised world.
3. You were educated in Malaysia under an English system. What do you think of the move to revert to teaching of Maths and Science in English and hypothetically, what would you like to see before you enroll your kids in public schools? – Tan Hock Seng, PJ
Making compulsory English language and English literature is a good policy. Additionally, school certificates should be confined to the 10 core subjects only.
The core of our education system must be the headmasters who should behave like CEOs, have assistants for sports and extra curricular activities. We also need teachers who have passion to teach. Perhaps, this explains why 30,000 Malay students go to Chinese schools and other Malay parents want their child to attend Halim Saad College in Malacca.
Do you know that we have more than 30,000 foreigners studying in private institutions in Malaysia and more than 100,000 Malaysian students studying overseas. Perhaps soon, parents will have a choice of where they want to send their kids to and reduce the burden on the government in terms of education.
4. What does 1Malaysia mean to you? – Martin, PJ
For us Malaysians, when squash prodigy, Nicol David wins the world championship, we are all proud of her regardless of race, religion or age. That is 1Malaysia to me.
There were also few sporting events that we stood as 1Malaysia, namely the 1989 SEA Games when Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak was the Minister of Sports, the 1998 Commonwealth Games as well as whenever we won the Thomas Cup in badminton.
At the RMC, I had friends like Azzat, Jui Leng and Gurdial Singh. It was an institution where 60% Malays, 30% Chinese and 10% Indians. That was 1Malaysia to me.
In United Malaysia, we tolerate other religions. In a Malaysian Malaysia, other religions are acceptable. To me, 1Malaysia is where we respect each other’s religion.
Personally speaking, I am a Hindu, my wife is a Buddhist, my son is a Muslim and my daughter is going to marry a Christian and I love them all. Perhaps, this is the ultimate 1Malaysia!
5. Happy 65th Birthday, Tan Sri. What are your biggest regrets and what haven’t you done which you would love to pursue? – Angelina, Penang
Thank You Angelina. The one regret I have is 20 years ago, I should have picked 50 young Malaysians, 6 feet tall and groom them into becoming some of the best footballers in the world, especially since Ghana (Michael Esien), Ivory Coast (Didier Drogba) and Togo (Emmanuel Adebayor) can do it.
Today, I would have sold them to the European Leagues for £10 million each at least, and once in 4 years, I would re-assemble these 50 guys for the World Cup!
This would have been a great achievement since all Malaysians are football fanatics and would have cheered for 1Malaysia. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the funds at that time.
6. Do you believe in Feng Shui? How has this made an impact on your life and business decisions? – Majorie Chiew, PJ
I am surprised that many young kids today do not believe in Chinese or Indian temples, Feng Shui and Astrology.
They have to understand how these institutions have withstood the test of time. When they get old, I am sure they would themselves go to the temples like their parents and grandparents do.
The problem with Feng Shui is that it is not a perfect science and only the fortunate have been exposed to it. The irony is we all believe in Feng Shui when it comes to modern technology.
During my lifetime, I have been fortunate when some Chinese colleagues brought in Feng Shui to explain the sighting and position of various things in my house or office. I must say all this has probably helped.
Similarly, the Hindus believe in checking astrology before their kids get married. They are checking not the stars but the compatibility and their bio-rhythms. It is amazing how in these arranged marriages, the couples fall in love after marriage whereas most Western people fall in love before marriage and fall out of love after marriage.
7. Can you share the secret of your success, and some of your most interesting experiences so that we can also learn from them? – Albert Noh, Kuala Lumpur
The first major secret of success is the people above you, around you and below you.
Everybody wants to be a winner and a win-win-win strategy is more suitable. To me, every business success is due to its people.
Staff at Westports will tell you that my favourite question to them is who built the Taj Mahal. The normal answer that many will give is Shah Jahan. Fortunately, my mother told me it was the workers.
Let me tell you that 70% of the ideas for Westports came from the staff. Encouraging them to investigate and provoking them to perform is a leader’s job.
8. I understand that you do a lot of philanthropic works. What motivates you to do that, and which are the areas of your passion and why? – Zani Yusof, Tapah
I am indeed surprised to be seen as a philanthropic person. In my daily life, I try to assist where I can with individuals or institutions, I always put myself in the position of a person needing help.
Nevertheless, I am concerned of one phenomenon in Malaysian society. I always say no to a fund-raising dinner because 60% of the money goes for the hotel and food, 30% to the organisers or entertainer, 5% for the VIP gift leaving only 5% for the needy. Therefore, I prefer to donate 100% directly to the fund. I hope we can understand that “fund raising” must be for the needy and not to turn it into “FUN raising” activities.
9. You have groomed your son to take over your business. Are you happy with the progress he is making? Do you feel you need to constantly remind him of the sweat and toil you put into making the company what it is today so he’d appreciate what has been passed on to him even more? Did he want to do something else and would you have allowed it? – Melinda Abdullah, Penang
My son is not working for me and the truth is that I have worked for my children all my life. Ruben was actually working outside Westports for five years.
I approached him three years ago explaining the dilemma I have of finding a suitable successor.
The company has very young managers who are all specialists in their own fields. The company needed a leader who can lead the organisation, not only internally but also externally.
Ruben seems to have the qualities of leading his own company. He is also familiar with the people issues and financial issues. He got exposure at the bottom rank of operations, and over the years, became familiar with our customers.
The last two years, he seemed to endear himself to the senior managers who are working like a football team with him.
10. Is the Malaysian economy really turning around? You should be among the first to see whether our exports are picking up? – Manu B, Banting
The Malaysian economy is not only picking up but has been very resilient to the world’s financial crisis. There are several reasons for this.
First of all, our new prime minister was quick to come up with two packages to re-stimulate the economy.
Secondly, our financial institutions did not incur the wrath of the US or European financial tsunami. The central bank has consolidated 35 banks into 10, insurance companies were similarly consolidated and all small finance companies were closed.
Third, the anticipated unemployment hardly hit us and there is a pickup in employment today.
In terms of exports and imports, we seem to be only affected by 10%. Westports in 2008 did 5 million container boxes and this year, we should do 4.5 million container boxes.
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