Learning from pioneer entrepreneurs in the history of M’sia


Datuk Tan Chin Nam passed away on Sunday at the age of 93. Together with his brother, Robert Kuok, Ang Toon Chew and some friends, they will always be remembered as the pioneer entrepreneurs in the history of Malaya and Malaysia. They were the risk takers with great vision and most of all decent human beings of upright integrity. A handshake and a promise was all that was needed then.

Datuk Tan Chin Nam passed away on Sunday at the age of 93. Together with his brother, Robert Kuok, Ang Toon Chew and some friends, they will always be remembered as the pioneer entrepreneurs in the history of Malaya and Malaysia. They were the risk takers with great vision and most of all decent human beings of upright integrity. A handshake and a promise was all that was needed then.

BACK in the good old days of carefree living as a student in University Malaya, I remembered that I hardly studied except for the last two months before the final exams. The only problem was that our final exams were always conducted in the months of February and March, which run smacked into our Chinese New Year celebrations.

So for three years, the outstation Chinese students would make a mad dash home for the New Year family reunion dinner and they would then crawl back into the libraries a few days later to prepare for the exams. There were not many choices of local universities at that time (probably five if you exclude ITM) and there were no private universities except for TAR College (not a university then).

If you come from a rich family, you will be studying in the UK or Australia. For the less affluent families, it is either getting a place in the local universities or you will be applying to the local banks for a clerical job after completing your form six exams.

Immediately after my final exams in March 1983, I started applying for jobs with companies that I have had contacts with from my time in Aiesec club. Within two weeks, I had three offers and I chose Mulpha Trading – selling building materials because they offered me a princely sum of RM1,000 basic salary plus RM200 car allowance.

There were no holiday trips before graduation because I just simply could not afford to do so. In fact, I had to work immediately so that I could contribute towards my family’s expenditure. Nowadays, the young graduates including my children take multiple holidays before graduation and then take gap months “chilling out” before they apply for a job.

Anyway I lasted just three months selling cement and steel and through the introduction of my cousin brother, I joined IGB Construction. Within two years, I was moved to IGB Food Systems (Swensen’s Ice Cream) and then to IGB Maintenance (cleaning services). IGB office was in Plaza Pekeliling at that time. I then left to start my first trading company partnering Ang Guan Seng of Petaling Gardens Bhd in 1985.

Ipoh Garden at that time was building a conglomerate of companies. From Ipmuda Trading (building materials) to the merger of IGB Construction with Jurutama and Mudajaya into IJM Construction, the Tan & Tan brothers together with Datuk Yap Lim Sen were making big plans to expand locally, Singapore and in Australia.

Ipmuda Trading and IJM Construction were eventually listed. The other companies from their group that was listed included Wah Seong Corp Bhd and Goldis Bhd. The Tan brothers, the elder Tan Kim Yeow and Datuk Tan Chin Nam have built many businesses and their companies have contributed tremendously towards the socio-economic development of Malaysia for the last six decades.

While building the massive Mid Valley megamall project, Kim Yeow passed away in 1997 and Chin Nam had to struggle through the deep recession of 1997-1998 to ensure that the first phase of Mid Valley Mall could be completed. In his memoirs, Chin Nam sold many businesses at that time to raise money so that his dream project could eventually be launched in 1999. Those were tough years for Mid Valley megamall, launched in the depth of recession but his vision was proven correct as Mid Valley is one of the most successful megamall in Malaysia today. The Garden Mall was completed and launched in 2007, some eight years later.

Datuk Tan Chin Nam passed away on Sunday at the age of 93. Together with his brother, Robert Kuok, Ang Toon Chew and some friends, they will always be remembered as the pioneer entrepreneurs in the history of Malaya and Malaysia. They were the risk takers with great vision and most of all decent human beings of upright integrity. A handshake and a promise was all that was needed then.

Not many people know the history of Petaling Garden Bhd (now a PNB company). A group of Chinese businessman led by Ang Toon Chiew pooled together RM1mil in 1959 and bought thousands of acres in Petaling Jaya to develop townships in Section 5, 6 and 17. The original shareholders were Ang Toon Chew, Robert Kuok, Kim Yeow, Chin Nam, Ho Yeow Khoon and Low Boon Chian.

The Ang family started many manufacturing companies, Malayan Pharmaceutical, Malayan Feedmill, Malaysia Plastic etc and were original shareholders of Robert Kuok’s Federal Flour Mills and Malayan Sugar. Robert Kuok became the sugar king and was asked by Tun Dr Ismail, Deputy Prime Minister then to start a shipping company which became MISC. Robert Kuok built the Shangrila Hotel chain, which is now a famous brand name worldwide.

Together with other pioneer entrepreneurs like Lim Goh Tong, Lee Loy Seng, Loh Boon Siew etc Malaysian Chinese entrepreneurs like Chin Nam have been the architects of economic development in post-war Malaya and Malaysia. Their contribution towards the building of a prosperous Malaysia should be appreciated and acknowledged and certainly not to be denied in our history.

To the young entrepreneurs, there are many lessons to be learnt from these pioneer entrepreneurs. Integrity, courage, perseverance, visionary, risk taking, humility etc. And if you genuinely put all your efforts towards the economic development of our beloved country, Malaysia will be unbeatable.

My own entrepreneurial journey pales in comparison. I am still in awe of his achievements.

Chess well Uncle Chin Nam. Win another Melbourne Cup.

Tan Thiam Hock