Up close with HELP founder Paul Chan


  • Business
  • Saturday, 06 Nov 2010

DATUK Dr Paul Chan never imagined the vision he shared with his wife Datin Low Kam Yoke to help people to better their lives through education would result in such a successful and profitable venture.

HELP International Corp Bhd, the brainchild of Chan and Low, is now one of the most well-known educational institutions in the country.

“I cannot believe what is happening to HELP now. My wife and I plunged into a venture that we knew nothing about – we never knew what HELP would become, whether it would survive even.

“We just did what we believed in. We never pursued profit or thought about how much money to make. It all happened from honest hard work,” says HELP president and co-founder Chan.

“If we had thought about the money then we may not have been so successful – the driving force would have been different. The sacrifices would have been different.”

Things were very tough for the husband and wife team when they first started HELP back in 1986 with just RM25,000 capital.

Chan also left a very successful teaching career in Universiti Malaya.

HELP started business in a small shoplot with only two classrooms in Kampung Attap, Kuala Lumpur teaching the BSc Economics external programme from the University of London.

“We did not have salaries – the few of us were paid little and for some months could not be paid immediately,” Chan reminisces.

To Chan, the name HELP is very apt as it signifies the helplessness in the world.

It is also the acronym for higher education learning programme and now higher education learning philosophy.

Chan, himself, has a thirst for knowledge since childhood.

“I love to study. During the school holidays, I would feel sad as I missed school and my friends. Being so poor, I used to sleep in the kitchen and my bed was made of books.

“I went to a school for drop outs for my primary education and after that to private school, Methodist afternoon school for my secondary education.

“However, I wanted to go to a better school – Methodist Boys School (MBS) – and I persevered and managed to get into MBS in Form 6,” he says.

He, then, pursued his higher education in various prestigious universities such as Universiti Malaya, Mc Master University in Canada and the Australian National University.

Chan had a difficult childhood.

He came from a large family of nine and lived in the slums of Pudu which had no electricity, water and toilets.

He was born in Kuala Lumpur and the second youngest in the family.

His father was a petition writer and operated on a five foot way on Jalan Mountbattern (now Jalan Tun Perak) with a typewriter and a bench where he typed letters for people.

“I lived with my aunt until I was about 10 years old.

“My mother became ill after she had me and according to Chinese belief it could be because I did not bring good luck so my father’s sister looked after me instead to change the luck,” Chan says.

He helped his aunt to man a small counter in Pudu selling loose cigarettes and sweets.

“My aunt was a very strict, austere and proud person. That was where I got my values – discipline, being independent, frugal and hard working – from,” he says.

When Chan was 11 years old, he would look after his father’s typewriter every afternoon.

“We were so poor that every other month he had to pawn his typewriter. I lived in the slums of Kuala Lumpur until I was 18 or 19 years old,” Chan says.

His life experience has taught him to be a self driven and independent person and to always make do with what he has.

“My biggest assets are that I have very strong self discipline and I don’t miss many things in life because I have very little attachments due to my upbringing,” he explains.

Being so self driven has its disadvantages as Chan admits.

“I expect a lot from people. I can be impatient with people who cannot perform. I critique things and am always dissatisfied with the status quo,” he says.

To Chan, success comes from having a great partnership with his wife who is HELP’s chief executive officer and co- founder.

“She is my mentor. My wife influences my life. She builds my moral character and tells me to count my blessings. I always consult her in everything I do.

“She provides the guiding principles. She is a strong complement to me as I am more of a conceptual visionary while she is a detailed financial person. This enables us to specialise in what we do best,” he says.

Chan remembers how scared and devastated the family was when they found out that Low had an aneurysm on both sides of her brain in 2001.

“She had only an 18% chance to live. The first operation took over eights hours. We went to Bangkok for the second operation. It was a miracle everything turned out fine.

“My life and my children’s have never been the same again. To us life is to be enjoyed and above all to be appreciated and grateful about,” he says.

Chan and Low have two children – Juliet and Adam. Both are also involved in the business.

“I have four grandchildren aged four years to three months. I always enjoy my time with them and look forward to seeing them.

“I missed seeing my children growing up as we were struggling to make a living. Now it is a second experience,” he says.

He also enjoys music, movies and reading in his free time.

After having achieved so much, what else is in store for HELP?

“We hope to build a robust succession plan – to have people who can take over from us and continue the mission to help people succeed in life and live a life of significance through education.

“If that mission is violated then the real purpose of HELP is gone,” Chan says.

On the standard of education in the country, Chan feels it is only mediocre.

“There is a lot of scope to improve especially in the teaching aspect. All my teachers did not have degrees but they loved education and what they did.

“They did not choose to teach because they could not get other jobs. Despite having high qualification and access to so much knowledge now, there is a lack of curiosity, commitment to self improvement and caring attitude,” Chan says.

“If young people are not given quality education then how can they compete with a few 100 millions in Asia who have good education.

“Only good education and training can help a country to progress.

“We must have a culture of performance and meritocracy. If a country is not driven by meritocracy and competitiveness – and this can only come from education – then the future is not very bright.”

PERSONAL: Married to Low Kam Yoke and has two chidren Adam and Juliet

HIGHEST QUALIFICATION: PhD at the Australian National University (ANU) in 1974

CAREER: 1978 to 1984 - Chairman of the Division of Applied Economics at UM 1986 to present - co-founder of HELP Member of the Distinguished Alumni Hall of Fame, ANU President of the ANU (Malaysia) Alumni

FAVOURITE FOOD: Hawker food

FAVOURITE PLACE: Shanghai

HOBBY: Thinking and observing,enjoing and appreciating life

VALUES: Discipline, courage, fairminded, responsibility and accountability

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