The irrepressible Teo Soo Cheng


The late Tan Sri Teo Soo Cheng

MORE than 20 years ago, as one drives towards Sg Buloh on what is the Lebuhraya Damansara-Puchong (LDP) today, the landscape was mainly oil palm plantation, orang asli settlement and small factories after leaving Taman Tun Dr Ismail (TTDI).

Over time, the palm trees disappeared and bare yellow earth stretched over the horizon as development set in. That was the beginning of Bandar Utama, one of the most popular townships in Petaling Jaya today with its first phase of double-storey terraced housing sold at about RM180,000 in the early 1990s. Today, they cost more than RM1mil.

The man behind the township was Tan Sri Teo Soo Cheng, the patriach of the See Hoy Chan Holdings Group (SHCHG) who passed away on May 15 after living to a ripe old age of 93.

The second son of Datuk Teo Hang Sam, Soo Cheng and his father came to then-Malaya in the 1930s by sea. He was 12 and had only two years of education in China.

Says his son, Datuk Teo Chiang Kok: “There was famine in China. My father and grandfather came to sell mandarin oranges which he had brought from Swatow. Had he returned to his village, he would have faced certain losses. They were told that there was demand for them here and he brought them on his back. Both had this strong survival and pioneering spirit. The plan was to sell the oranges and return to China but they decided to stay.”

Hang Sam later set up a business selling eggs in Central Market with his sons, Soo Chuan, Soo Cheng and Soo Pin. Hang Sam has altogether eight sons. Little is known about his daughters, if he had any. From eggs, the Teos extended their trade to include rice and supplied them to hotels and the army in the 1940s. The business flourished to include other commodities a decade later and they expanded into Singapore. They also incorporated the business See Hoy Chan.

“See Hoy” means the four seas while “Chan” means profit. Literally, profit from the four seas.

Soo Cheng went into property development when the rice trade was nationalised. His first project was Paramount Garden, Petaling Jaya. He had bought between 50 and 60 acres, according to his then chief supervisor Yeoh Kim Chin, 73, and started development in 1964.

“He was then in his early 40s. Developer Lee Yan Lian was building SEA Park next door to us. In 1965, he started his second project Berkeley Garden in Klang,” says Yeoh who worked for him for 40 years. On the single trait he recalls of his late boss, he says: “He was a very honest and straight-forward man.”

His days as a rice trader may explain why Paramount Corp Bhd, incorporated in 1969, was formerly known as Malaysia Rice Industries Bhd. When the assets were subsequent divided by his dad, Hang Sam, Paramount went to his younger brother, Soo Pin, says a family friend. His older brother, Soo Chuan, inherited “the Singapore assets.”

1-Utama shopping centre in Bandar Utama, Petaling Jaya
1-Utama shopping centre in Bandar Utama, Petaling Jaya.

Simple life

A developer of low-cost housing, Tiah Toh Twin, 77, says Soo Cheng led a simple life, but even then, he and his developer friends were unprepared for the simplicity of his Section 5 family house in Petaling Jaya when they went to the wake last weekend.

“The flooring where the casket was kept was Pakistani onyx, which was used 40 years ago. People with a fraction of his wealth would have changed (the flooring) or rebuilt the house, but he did not.

“It amazes us that he has a hotel, a mall, set up schools and colleges, and yet lived so simply. Last year, he threw a lavish 70th wedding anniversary for his family and friends but he lived such a simple life. We are impressed with his way of life,” says Tiah. The family lived there since 1963.

Says his son-in-law Dr Khoo Boon Hock: “Even until the 1970s, he flew economy class. He is not into branded goods. His shoes are cheap. He always says, it is all right to be frugal to yourself but it is good to be generous to others.”

Recalls his oldest son Chiang Kok: “My dad delivered eggs to a customer who came in a car. He told the family he wished he had a car.

“Years later we offered him a Rolls Royce. He declined. He said he had not reached that class yet and he did want something ostentatious. This is from a young man who used to deliver two bags of rice from Cecil Street (now Jalan Sultan) to Klang on his bicycle.”

Says Chiang Kok: “He was sometimes too frugal. He always asked, ‘how much is it per kg?’ He forgets that prices had moved on. He expects his children to be disciplined. He is always throwing the word ren at me, written with the word “knife” above the heart symbol. It means endure.”

Last year, he asked Chiang Kok why there was a drop in car-park takings for a month in 2013 compared with the previous year. “He is a stickler for details and customs,” says Chiang Kok.

Every week, his father would visit either the group’s properties – the college, the hotel, the estate or the mall. It was on one of those occasions that Datuk Jeffery Ng, Sunway REIT Management Sdn Bhd CEO, bumped into him.

Says Ng: “I had all these bags (of shopping) and he said, ‘very good, buy some more’. Despite his age, he wanted to see his business do well.” Soo Cheng was founding president of Real Estate and Housing Developers’ Association Malaysia (Rehda) and its first patron and contributed to the development of the new building in Kelana Jaya, Petaling Jaya, says Ng.

Soo Cheng’s love for real estate was inherited from his father who taught him to put his money in properties.

Says his son, Chiang Kok: “He was strong-willed and made all the major decisions.” At the same time, he held on to the principle that because he is a businessman, integrity must lead the way. Honesty and generousity close behind.

Says his youngest son, Chiang Hong: “During my father’s time, a handshake would suffice. His word was his honour. Today, even a black and white (contract) may not hold water.”

Remembering his roots

Every year, one of the sons would go to China on Qing Ming (Chinese version of All Souls’ Day) to pay respect to their forefathers because “where we are today were due to our forefathers.” His principle was remembering one’s roots would enable one to retain one’s culture. He was very traditional.

Notwithstanding that, Chiang Kok says his late father was demonstrative of his love for their mother, Gek Hong, 93, from China. They were married at 18. He valued education and self-taught himself English and the Chinese dialects of Hakka, Cantonese and Mandarin.

The family speak a sub-dialect of Teochew. He started his autobiograhy a few years ago.

“We will complete it for him,” says Chiang Kok.

His two passions were education and healthcare. He started Kolej Damansara Utama and Kolej Bandar Utama because he wanted to make overseas qualifications affordable. The two Chinese primary schools in Petaling Jaya Puay – SJK (Cina) Puay Chai I and II – were a result of his belief in Chinese education. The growth in Tung Shin Hospital in Kuala Lumpur was also due to him.

Says IOI Corp Bhd founder Tan Sri Lee Shin Cheng, who knew him for some 40 years: “He was a philanthropist. He was generous towards Chinese education and he donated considerably towards Kuen Cheng High School. Yet, he remained very low profile.

Both of them worked together during their time at the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Says Lee, 76: “He wanted to do something for the Chamber of Commerce. He came across as a genuine person.”

While not contemporary in terms of age, the Chinese entrepreneurs in Kuala Lumpur are close-knit and they continue to play a social and networking role in the Malaysian Chinese society.

Tan Sri Eddy Chen, 62, of MKH Bhd (formerly Metro Kajang Holdings) says: “He was a very humble and down-to-earth visionary entrepreneur. At meetings in his office, being a tea connoisseur, he would personally make tea, brewing and pouring the same in the most meticulous manner to serve us. An exemplary father and husband, he remained married to the same woman for more than 70 years. Raising three sons in his mould is a feat that few can follow. The real estate industry honoured him as our founding president and to this day continued to hold the late Tan Sri Teo in the highest regards.”

Says Tan Sri Yeoh Tiong Lay, 85, of the YTL group: “I am saddened by his passing. We knew each other for many years. I have always held him in high regards as he was a man of great honour and integrity. He was a prolific entrepreneur and presided over many successful businesses. He was also a generous spirit. He gave sacrificially to many causes to improve the lives of individuals and communities. His tireless efforts towards Chinese education were well known. The country has lost a great man, and I have lost a very good friend. I shall miss him.”

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