He gave the Actors Studio sizeable space in YTL's Sentul West property development to house its operations after floods irreparably wrecked the original playhouse in Dataran Merdeka. The result is the much-anticipated Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre – or KLPAC – located in a very fine old building that used to be Sentul's railway workshop. The generosity did not end with the mere donation of the slice of property. YTL also looks after KLPAC's design as well as the administration of the facility. It was estimated that around RM25 million is involved to cover the cost of the building, the software and the first few years of operation. He is emphatic that the community project should not be seen as 'a YTL thing.'
"We are only one of the partners, with the Actors Studio running the KLPAC," he says.
Tan Sri Yeoh's rationale for his patronage is uncomplicated and candid: "KL is my city and I participate in its soul." He believes, too, that the arts exert a powerful unifying force among people, and hopes for KL to achieve permanent iconic stature on the global arts scene. Adding to his own iconic status as one of the most generous patrons of the arts, Tan Sri Yeoh is credited with having been President of the Kuala Lumpur Symphony Orchestra for five years. YTL has also been sponsoring the YTL-Penang Arts Festival since 2000.
On the global front, Tan Sri Yeoh orchestrated a performance by three famed tenors – Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras – for the city of Bath, in Wessex County in the United Kingdom, to an audience of 50,000. The fact that the supply of water came from YTL's newly-acquired Wessex Water company was a happy coincidence.
He loves the opera, books by C S Lewis, and food, especially pasta and noodles. Claiming to know all the best pasta restaurants in the world, Tan Sri Yeoh actually knows a lot more about restaurants and shopping malls, having given the Starhill area of KL's Golden Triangle a new lease of life.
The entire compound referred to by KL-ites as Starhill, a loose translation of the name of the area it sits in – Jalan Bukit Bintang – is home to not only the JW Marriott Hotel (a YTL acquisition during the 1998 recession), but also a string of impressive eateries. Human and automobile traffic is almost impossible to navigate during the weekends in this part of town, but that can only be a good thing. Starhill, labelled as a 'brand new shopping experience' during its launch in August 2002, has reflected its glory and sparkle back to its developer.
A devout Christian, Tan Sri Yeoh recently collected an Honorary Doctorate from his alma mater in early 2004, in recognition of his prowess as an internationally savvy conglomerate-builder. Back on home ground, he won the Ernst & Young Master Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2002. He has been branded a contrarian who has been known to pick the winning 'horse' initially spurned by others.
Fresh out of school, he bought a then-relatively unknown listed company called Hongkong Tin, based in London. Tan Sri Yeoh was confident of its success, when many thought he was merely blowing his trumpet. In less than 10 years, when his detractors have walked into the sunset, he has been the driving force behind the metamorphosis of Hongkong Tin into a part of his empire.
Yeoh's father, Yeoh Tiong Lay, started his construction business in 1955, and Tan Sri Francis Yeoh did more than merely tag on their power-producing arm (YTL was the first independent Malaysian power supplier) and acquire international outfits, or successfully re-brand one of the oldest parts of town. His efforts have been interpreted by observers as a classic case-study of putting your house in order during downtime, so as to be ready when the economy bounces back, which was exactly what he did. In the late '80s and the early '90s, he was ready for the opportunities. His house - YTL – has been streamlined, the administration and the procedures made more efficient, and the collection of data scrutinised. Tan Sri Yeoh delivers what he promises, and he does it all with more than just technology and financial finesse.
"We accept the fate of societies that fail to build empires of the mind. What is the fate of societies that turn their backs to build empires of the heart? A new word has gained currency in recent years – re-engineering. If we tackle the root causes of injustice and deprivation, we will create a better life for all."
Written by Amanda Suriya Ariffin