Asian shipping pioneer, Malaysian Frank Tsao, dies aged 94

Tsao(pic), who held Malaysian citizenship and was made an honorary citizen of Singapore, died peacefully in the Lion City on Monday, his family said in a statement sent to This Week in Asia.

SINGAPORE: Tan Sri Frank Tsao Wen-king (pic), the Shanghai-born entrepreneur who fled to Hong Kong amid the turmoil of the Chinese civil war and went on to build one of Asia’s biggest shipping empires, has died aged 94.

Tsao, who held Malaysian citizenship and was made an honorary citizen of Singapore, died peacefully in the Lion City on Monday, his family said in a statement sent to This Week in Asia.

Tributes poured in from shipping industry publications, with the magazine TradeWinds describing Tsao as “one of the creators of the modern Hong Kong and Singapore shipowning scenes”.

Trained in economics at Shanghai’s prestigious St John’s University, which closed in 1952, Tsao first moved to Hong Kong as a 22-year-old in 1947, before the Communist Party took control of the mainland.

He co-founded the Great Southern Steamship Company in 1949 with the purchase of a solitary coal-burning ship from a Singaporean businessman.

Within two decades, he had established International Maritime Carriers (IMC), which later became IMC Group.

The firm – now based in Singapore – has a diverse fleet of five bulk carriers and 21 tankers owned either directly or through joint ventures.

Tsao handed over control of the company – now a multi-business industrial conglomerate – to his third child, Frederick Chavalit Tsao, in the mid-1990s.

The elder Tsao was also a founding member of Suntec City Development, a venture by 11 Hong Kong tycoons – including the city’s richest man, Li Ka-shing – who went on to develop Singapore’s Suntec City mall.

The acumen in shipping was also tapped by Malaysia, where he, along with another billionaire with Hong Kong ties, Robert Kuok, co-founded the country’s national shipping line Malaysian International Shipping Corp (MISC).

Kuok – Malaysia’s richest man – wrote in his memoirs published in 2017 that he had sought Tsao’s help to set up MISC on the advice of Malaysian government officials.

For his contributions to the country, Tsao was given the title of “Tan Sri”. He told the Post in 2003 that Malaysia’s Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad – who led the nation from 1981 to 2003 and is currently back in the job – offered him citizenship in the 1990s.

“I had to sit a test in (Bahasa) Malaysia, and I learned enough to pass. Before that I had a BNO (British National Overseas) passport, which nobody trusted, ” Tsao said in recollection of his early days.

Tsao’s accolades include the honorary citizenship Singapore awarded him in 2008 – the highest honour the city state’s government can bestow on a foreigner. He helped to establish the Centre for Maritime Studies at the National University of Singapore in 2005. The Hong Kong government awarded him the Silver Bauhinia Star in 2006.

Tsao is survived by his children Calvin, Mary Ann, Frederick and Cheryd. — SCMP

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