SIM Choo Kheng has much in common with fellow Penangite Jimmy Choo. Both are better known outside Malaysia for something that their homeland is not well known for — creating theme parks and high-fashion shoes.
Sim has 23 years’ experience in the international theme park industry. From humble beginnings in Air Itam, he ventured to tough markets in the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Iran, Syria and Yemen.
As an entrepreneur, he has taken risks for what he believes in. With passion, focus and determination he has pulled through and emerged stronger.
Sim tells StarMetro about his business journey and what it takes to be Chief Escape Officer.
Other than your name, you don’t seem to be a typical Malaysian CEO. Where did this non-conformist and quirky personality come from?
I sometimes don’t take this description as a compliment because it implies some social incompatibility with my birthplace. I grew up in a kampung in Air Itam where I mixed with all races, followed by formative years in Ireland and a total of 16 years living in different countries. Their cultures and business ethics have moulded my personality, making me a more capable and adaptive person. Even my eight siblings find me odd, but I’m not. I’m just being globally minded.
Has your personality helped or hindered your business?
My mother told me that I was the black sheep of the family and that I shouldn’t be different from my siblings. My personality didn’t help me fit in. Although I was an inquisitive student in a typical Chinese school, my disruptive pranks were not appreciated. The experience of being caned regularly has been with me ever since, making me connect non-conformity with pain. In hindsight, my wilful personality has been key to my success.
It sounds like you didn’t enjoy school and were a problematic student. How did school affect you?
I hated school. From an early age, I found primary school boring. I asked my mother to move me to a national school so that I could mix with children of other races. My mom did not agree.
Although bored, I did well in my exams and went on to Chung Ling High School in Penang. To me, this was a military-type school that required every student to think the same and even look the same. After six long years, I left for further studies in Dublin, Ireland. I dropped out after a year when I realised that institutional learning would not prepare me for life’s challenges. I am a self-directed learner and have no limits to my syllabus.
Can you expand on how your personality has driven your business?
It’s challenging in the Far East because I can’t comply with the false diplomacy and sucking up. You won’t find me in a karaoke bar entertaining potential clients or pretending to lose in a friendly game of golf. I guess I have accomplished more in places where I find the business culture to be more straightforward.
I’m very lucky that my personality has driven me to do business in competitive markets. By seeking out the level playing field, I have to be good at what I do.
Creativity has allowed me to grow as a person and helped me find new opportunities. I’m not interested in being the biggest or the richest; what matters most is doing something different that gives me satisfaction.
You have travelled to many countries with your theme park business. What’s your advice to Malaysians who want to grow their businesses overseas?
Many Malaysian businesses expand into countries that are less developed than Malaysia. Few Malaysian companies and entrepreneurs raise the bar by entering first-world markets.
This is the wrong approach in a borderless global economy. If you want to be a professional footballer, you should play in the English Premier League or Bundesliga.
Looking closer to home, how did Escape come about?
Many things are born out of frustration in my life and one of them is herd mentality. The theme park industry is in a rut of using the same old business model with an over-reliance on the fastest/tallest/scariest rides. Take a look at theme parks around the world and see how many of them are only there to promote housing developments. This has resulted in a cookie-cutter approach and the true purpose of the ‘entertainment park’ has been lost. Being a kampung boy at heart, I appreciate the value of play — the kind of play that is lacking in many of these parks where the visitor is strapped into a scary ride which is mistaken for fun.
The Penang government wanted a special tourism product and Escape won the resulting tender based on a park created in a natural environment in Teluk Bahang. Escape introduces self-directed play. There is no script that has to be followed and there are no grand parades.
How do you plan to grow Escape?
Firstly, I plan to complete the expansion of Escape. By adding Waterplay and Treetops hotel, Escape will become a showcase for our next phase — which is to make it a franchise brand around the world. We are already in the process of signing agreements. This expansion will be managed from my Dubai head office.
What challenges have you faced in setting up Escape?
Many, but the one that immediately comes to mind is lack of imagination within the banking industry. Over the past five years, I have had countless discussions with bank managers who want to provide financing to Escape.
When proposals reach the guys in the big chairs, there is little effort to understand and appreciate the opportunity. The banking industry in Malaysia is so conventional that when something innovative comes along they cannot get their minds round it. Such an environment is not conducive for building the nation.
What made you decide to set up head office in Dubai? Do you have projects there?
Yes I have projects running in the Middle East and most of them are in Dubai, which is preparing for World Expo 2020. Others include a female-only family waterpark project in Saudi Arabia, a ski dome in Egypt and an indoor waterpark in Ulyanovsk, Russia.
In fact, I have been in the Middle East since 2002. It’s very difficult to find the creative talent in Malaysia that’s required to drive an international business. Our education system and parents’ obsession for all-A report cards have resulted in a workforce lacking in critical thinking, initiative and problem-solving skills.
Dubai may be seen as expensive but in reality it is cost-effective and business-friendly. Without much fuss I can employ the right people from all over the world within a short time.
What are your thoughts on the Penang tourism market?
Having been involved in the tourism markets in many regions, I am very concerned about the competitiveness of our tourism industry in relation to how fast global tourism is changing.
Some fundamental issues need to be addressed. We are still unable to maintain clean public toilets or prevent illegally built eateries from dumping rubbish into the sea. Without fixing these problems, there is little point in proposing grand plans that will ultimately be undermined.
Today’s tourists are well informed and they do not wish to visit places that fall below their expectations. I worry that our tourism thinking is fractured and outdated. No doubt Penang is a jewel but it requires polishing to be truly admired.
People have been trying to define what makes Penang great but sometimes what you are looking for is right in front of you — all you need to do is open your eyes and see it. Penang has its own charm and character. It is this character — with its natural beauty of hills, beaches, history and culture — that creates the tourism environment and proposition.
We must stop the destruction of Penang’s character. I am not against development. What I’m calling for is a strategy to attract quality tourism dollars.
Penang cannot sell itself cheap. I have no issue with backpackers gaining life experience and becoming the next generation of global tourists but we must not allow Penang to become a budget destination. Penang has the opportunity to become a premium brand, and it will take youthful creativity — with new direction and expectations — to make it happen.
We cannot ignore the fact that other countries and tourism destinations are trying to attract high-worth tourists. Penang has to change the formula to achieve both quality and quantity.
You sound like you have a manifesto but has this received any attention from our tourism council or association?
I have yet to be approached for my opinion on tourism and the way forward. I would welcome a dialogue. My business philosophy is based on making the right decision rather than being popular. As a business owner, I don’t need to seek re-election.
Are you in touch with Malaysian politics and local affairs? What’s your view on where Malaysia is heading?
Fellow Malaysians often tell me we are better than Myanmar — and politicians agree with this viewpoint. I’m disappointed that we have not benchmarked higher. Also, we need to acknowledge that corruption is rampant in the private sector and left unchecked. The underlying issue is that people are either not aware of the problem or it has become so ingrained in society that it is accepted without question.
There is no easy solution. We need the determination of policy makers as well as cultural change. What hope do we have when a new contractor at Escape tells me that this job is among the very few which required no bribe.
Malaysia is my home and I am passionate about it. I miss the good old days of fresh air, swimming in the river, playing with my friends – all in a world that wasn’t driven by greed.