The Star Online, July 31, 2005
Yeoh’s late grandfather came to Malaya in 1920 from Fujian, southern China, with “ a bag of clothes and a handful of dollars”, says the grandson with justifiable pride.
“He started as a clerk in a timber shop in Klang before branching into transport and construction. My father, Tan Sri Yeoh Tiong Lay, established Syarikat Pembenaan Yeoh Tiong Lay in 1955, the forerunner of YTL Group.
“My father started work at 13 and had no tertiary education. As children we were not starving but neither were we rich. Life was not a bed of roses for us . We didn’t have time to stop and smell the roses.
“A day’s outing for us was not to a theme or amusement park but construction site. All we smelled were cement and stone slabs drying in the sun!”
Then came the first energy crisis of 1971 when the Yeoh family very nearly starved. “Oil prices shot up from US$2 to US$40 and our construction business nearly collapsed. In those days there were no such things as fluctuation clauses in our contracts. Our profit margins were barely 5% and we were almost wiped out.”
Like a filial eldest son, Yeoh decided to drop out of school and join his father.
He slaved 18 hours a day and helped pay for the education of his younger siblings. “At 16, I was already in charge of construction sites which were like my second home,” he recalls.
But instead of thanking his son, Yeoh Senior scolded him. “He said there was no point for me to abandon my education because however hard I worked, I could never outwork or outwit him.
“He said because he didn’t have a university degree or diploma in engineering, he could not foresee the need for fluctuation clauses and had to depend on outsiders. He said my future and that of Syarikat Yeoh Tiong Lay depended on my getting the engineering degree. Only then could I really help him and my siblings. To this day, I respect his wisdom on emphasising education for all of us.”
Yeoh returned to his studies and graduated with an honours degree in Civil Engineering at the age of 24.
That belief in education continues with the next generation: “My children, nephews and nieces all know they have to live with a higher expectations than what was expected from their parents and they have to perform. Each is expected to have two degrees from two great universities so there is no room for slackness.”
In this, Yeoh’s children are setting stellar examples.
Yeoh tells me with pride that eldest daughter Ruth, 21, has a degree in Architectural Studies and is now doing her masters at City University of London. Jacob, 20, is doing a master degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Imperial College, London. Joseph, 19, is a first year law student at Nottingham University while Joshua, 17, is doing A Levels at Harrow before pursuing Civil Engineering. The youngest, Rebekah, 13, plans to be a civil engineer.
I note their Biblical names. “I named them for obvious reasons. I hope my children all live up to the personalities of their original counterparts in the Bible,” explains Yeoh.
Jacob was not only head boy at Garden International School but scored straight As in his ‘A’ Levels but also looks more than a movie star or model than an undergraduate. I protest vehemently that his kids should at least be ugly to compensate for their brains.
Yeoh laughs, “My brothers and I are very clever, you see. We all married beautiful women so our kids do not need cosmetic surgery!”
And if you must know, his wife, Puan Sri Rosaline Yeoh, whom he married in 1982, was a Hong Kong star.