Huazong status lifted by new home

Standing guard: The two lion statues at the front of the building are gifts from the Chinese government.

The spanking RM80mil Wisma Huazong is a reflection of the association’s struggles, what it is about and what it plans to do.

HUAZONG (or Federation of Chinese Associations Malaysia), one of the most moderate national Chinese organisations in the country, sees its status being lifted after the recent launch of its new home – Wisma Huazong in Seri Kembangan.

For a long while, this national body enjoyed only divided support from the Chinese community partly because two leaders from the previously influential and outspoken Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall (SCAH) failed to get elected to Huazong’s top post by a small margin.

But the huge success in building the RM80mil Wisma Huazong within five years under the leadership of Tan Sri Pheng Yin Huah amid uncertain economic conditions has impressed many. Recently, even his former rivals gave their support to the building fund.

For this organisation that was set up to safeguard Chinese interests and promote Chinese culture in Malaysia, it is a cause for celebration to finally have a place to call home. Before this, it had made do with limited space provided by the SCAH.

The 12-storey building certainly makes heads turn. Before the Wisma was officially opened by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak last month, many were sceptical about whether Pheng had the ability or influence to raise enough money to put the finishing touches to the building, with its facade resembling the Great Hall of the People at Tiananmen Square.

Pheng, who pledged to build a home for Huazong in 2009 when he was elected Huazong president, had been panned by critics who said he had little formal education and struggled to stay afloat in the corporate world.

Achievement: Pheng standing in front of Wisma Huazong.
Achievement: Pheng standing in front of Wisma Huazong.

The self-made businessman from Pahang controls financially-distressed listed steel makers Kinsteel Bhd and Perwaja Holdings Bhd, which have been hit by the plunge in international prices since 2008. Currently, a firm from China is in the midst of taking over Perwaja, now burdened with debts of over RM2.2bil.

But the completion of the grand Wisma Huazong, described as one of the most magnificent architecture ever constructed by a Chinese association outside China, proves critics wrong. In fact, the final structure is much bigger than originally planned.

It shows that despite Pheng’s setback in his steel business, support for him as a Chinese community leader tasked to build the costly Wisma Huazong has been undeterred.

According to Pheng, millions began pouring in from Chinese tycoons in the Who’s Who list in Malaysia after he located a piece of land costing RM15mil in Seri Kembangan.

Tan Sri Yeoh Teong Lay of YTL Group led with RM6.5mil donation, Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah of Sunway Group and Tan Sri Koo Yuen Kim of Perfect Group followed with RM5mil each.

Tan Sri Lee Shin Cheng of IOI Group and Tan Sri Lim Wee Chai of Top Glove Corporation contributed RM2.5mil each while the MCA, Pheng and Tan Sri Kong Hon Kong of Nirvana Asia each donated RM2mil.

A total of 31 other tycoons who gave RM1mil each including Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay, Tan Sri Vincent Tan, Tan Sri Chua Ma Yu and Tan Koon Swan.

Stately: The RM80mil building has boosted the standing of Pheng and Huazong. (Bottom left) The Tan Sri Yeoh Tiong Lay Hall inside accommodates 1,500 seats.
Stately: The RM80mil building has boosted the standing of Pheng and Huazong.

Tan Sri Abu Sahid Mohamed, the bumiputra business partner of Pheng in Perwaja, also donated RM1mil.

But the most significant achievement in this fund-raising campaign is the strong support from Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, who announced a Federal Government allocation of RM5mil to Huazong building at its ground breaking ceremony in December 2011 and an additional RM3mil at its official opening.

In terms of the amount donated, the Government is the top donor. This is unprecedented as it is the first time the Government has given so much for a development by a Chinese association.

“I am grateful to the Government and the Chinese society for their strong support as this fund raising has not been easy for us. I am also grateful that many Chinese businessmen came forward to offer help. For example, Tan Sri Yeoh volunteered to donate RM5mil at the very beginning and later another RM1.5mil. He also persuaded other tycoons to help,” says Pheng.

“These tycoons believe that Malaysia needs a united voice to speak on Chinese issues and Huazong, which has always endorsed moderation in its approach, is the most suitable organisation to play this role,” adds the elated 68-year-old Pheng, who is also involved in property development, electronics and the IT business.

Sharing his fund-raising experience, the president says: “Once you accept the role of a community leader, you must be committed to working for its cause and deliver what you have promised. I was touched and motivated when Tan Sri Yeoh, while passing his cheque to me, said: ‘I have full confidence in you’.”

Pheng also scored another goal when Tan Yew Sin, whom he defeated in Huazong’s presidential election in 2009, donated RM100,000 for the building fund.

Generous contributions: Building patrons with huge donations displayed prominently inside Wisma Huazong
Generous contributions: Building patrons with huge donations displayed prominently inside Wisma Huazong.

Despite having little formal education, Pheng roped in highly educated people to join him in managing Huazong. Among these is Dr Chua Yee Yen, a former economics lecturer at the University of Hong Kong. Chua was appointed by Pheng as secretary-general.

Seen to be close to the Prime Minister, Pheng has surprised many that under his leadership, Huazong has continued to speak up on many Chinese issues – ranging from language, culture, education to business and economics.

But unlike some other fiery Chinese groups, Huazong avoids confrontations.

“As a group safeguarding Chinese interests, we have to show concern and speak up. But I believe in moderation and having dialogues. For example, when asking the Government for approval to set up the Kuantan Chinese High School, it was done through persistent and quiet reasoning,” says Pheng, who has contributed much to Pahang Chinese education by lobbying to set up the new Kuantan school.

Now that the building is standing proud, Huazong’s profile has been boosted further and it is expected to play a bigger role. This expectation was voiced by Najib on Jan 16 at the official opening when he urged Huazong to promote inter-racial cooperation so that all races in Malaysia could benefit from China’s One-Belt One-Road Initiative.

Asli chairman Ramon Navaratnam has suggested that Huazong invite government-linked companies to work together and actively participate in the silk-belt road projects.

In a two-hour interview with Sunday Star at Wisma Huazong, the humble Pheng also talks about his beliefs and leadership qualities, the planned museum in Huazong, and his business ventures. Below are excerpts:

Regal hall: Tan Sri Yeoh Tiong Lay Hall inside Wisma Huazong accommodates 1,500 seats
The Tan Sri Yeoh Tiong Lay Hall inside accommodates 1,500 seats.

Why did you decide to build a bigger Wisma Huazong? Do you have problems raising additional funds?

I started the fund raising exercise in 2010, a year after I was elected Huazong president. Looking for land was no mean feat and it took us one year to settle on the 1.4ha land here in Seri Kembangan.

I was fortunate to have businessmen such as Tan Sri Tang Yeam Soon (owner of The Store Group) to help me run around to look for a suitable land for Huazong for one year.

After the location was identified, we started our campaign to raise up to RM40mil. But when we went around looking at designs, we wanted one that is as magnificent as the Great Hall of the People in China. And we also wanted to have a large Chinese museum and some space to let out to generate income for future activities. To accommodate these features and renovations, the cost had to be raised to about RM80mil.

We had raised over RM70mil (then) and I was confident we could raise the balance. This is mainly because Chinese entrepreneurs have shown great concern towards Huazong. Now, almost all successful Chinese entrepreneurs in their respective economic sectors are our patrons and major donors.

What is the pull factor in you?

People are convinced that I am sincere and committed to serve the Chinese society. Businessmen place their trust in me also because I am determined to deliver with the huge responsibility that comes with this position and development project.

For the Chinese society as a whole, they see the need to have a united voice at the national level to speak up for them.

I believe the Prime Minister reads our statements in the Chinese media as his secretary sometimes calls to understand our complaints. The PM has acted on some of our proposals. These included our proposals to appoint Mandarin speakers to be second (International) Trade Minister and Deputy Education Minister.

Has your close ties with the PM helped in the fund-raising exercise?

Before the PM was invited to officiate the ground breaking ceremony, we had already raised RM15mil for the land purchase.

Apart from serving the Chinese community, does Huazong have other roles to play?

We often hold seminars or discussions on national issues and the economy. The Budget and the ringgit plunge are recent topics.

We have also carried out activities to promote inter-racial harmony and unity. For example, we teamed up with Yayasan Usman Awang in late 2014 to give out “unity awards”, paying tribute to people from all races whose work has contributed to national unity.

As the local economy is not doing well, we must help our people to seize business opportunities from and in China. With the support from the second Trade Minister, we should be able to woo investments from China.

We have an advantage here because China’s leaders have often emphasised that Malaysia is their best neighbour in South East Asia. In addition, Huazong is respected in China. China’s one-belt one-road economic strategy should be quite exciting and I believe our foreign direct investments and bilateral trade will hit new peaks if we get it right.

The Malaysia-Kuantan Industrial Park should also be reactivated to bring in more Chinese investments. I hope the Government will be more aggressive to add life to this project.

Please talk about your steel business and its future.

Malaysia’s steel industry faces a lot of pressure from competition outside. So, I have proposed to the Government to buy locally-made steel products. This ruling should also be enforced on foreign companies which were awarded Malaysia’s infrastructural projects and government buildings.

The government uses at least 30% of the steel and steel products in the country for their projects. So, it is important that the Government supports the local players who have invested billions in the sector.

For Kinsteel Bhd, we are thinking of diversifying into transportation linked to Pan-Asian projects under the One-Belt One-Road programme. But nothing is concrete yet.

As for Perwaja Holdings Bhd, TianJin Zhiyuan Investment Group Co Ltd’s rescue plan announced last year (for Perwaja) is still ongoing. The creditor banks have agreed to the plan and we need to get official approvals. I hope all can be settled by middle of this year.

Your term as president is ending in September 2016. Will you continue to lead?

Although the building is completed, there is still renovation work and many other matters to attend to. I hope to finish all these before passing the baton to a future leader. This is responsibility and commitment.

As of now, I am unsure if I want to continue to serve another (and final) term as I am into the seventh year leading the organisation. I may decide to focus more on my steel, property, IT and electronics businesses.

Does your support for the PM affect Huazong’s role in speaking up for the Chinese community?

Huazong’s role is very important for the Chinese community. What needs to be done must be done.

If the Government implements policies that have negative impact on the community and nation, we will speak up. Depending on the nature of the issues, we may choose to go for dialogues or issue press statements to convey our views.

We know many issues need to be discussed behind close doors, particularly the racially-sensitive ones.

What is so special about Wisma Huazong compared to other buildings of Chinese associations?

In terms of size, this 12-storey building is now the tallest and biggest among the Chinese associations. It is also the most magnificent.

There will be a big hall at the ground floor, which accommodates 1,500 people. This can be let out for weddings and other functions.

There will also be other floors to be let out.

But two floors will be devoted to set up a Malaysian Chinese library cum museum. Headed by our former president Tan Sri Ng Teck Fong, it will have a vast collection of books and information on Chinese in Malaya and Malaysia, South East Asia, as well as pictures, antiques and cultural artefacts.

Xinhua News Agency has agreed to put up 52 valuable pictures depicting Malaysia-China relations as permanent exhibits. Several museums in China have signed cooperation pacts with us, and some experts are offering support.

How united is the Chinese community now?

Overall, we are quite united. I am glad that all major Chinese associations have contributed to our development fund.

And apart from tycoons, individuals and small organisations, like hawkers’ associations, have also done their part in cash contributions. All our constituent state Chinese assembly halls in 13 states are behind Huazong now.

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