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A Time For Once, to Celebrate

Datuk Dr Paddy Bowie

Kuala Lumpur, 9 June 2006 


Your columnist ever mindful that what she writes is destined for the BMCC Journal, is always on the look out for any correspondence between Malaysia and Britain. This time she did not have to look far. Both are Monarchies which add a delightful ceremonial dimension to our lives and occasions for celebration. The birthday of the Agong fell on 3rd June. Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her 80th on 21st April, 2006.

Both events produce a Birthday Honours List which as it happens has given us our breaking news for this month. Musa Hitam one of our most prominent Malaysians was honoured with the title “Tun” the highest Federal Award. Another prominent citizen, Francis Yeoh, received the CBE which, him being a Malaysian recipient, makes it also one of the rarest of feats. Between them they offer a contrasting picture of distinction, Malaysian style and some relief from the gloom and doom lobby. Where one is a Bumiputra, the other is of migrant stock. The first true to his origins followed the natural inclination of his race towards politics, the other the tradition of his forebears towards business.

Who then are these two gentlemen we have to congratulate? Yang Amat Berbahagia Tun Musa Hitam, as I am now delighted to address him, is a former Deputy Prime Minister who after relinquishing the second highest political office in the land, has largely devoted himself to service to the nation, both in Malaysia and globally.

The honour roll reads, inter alia – Special Envoy to the United Nations, founder head of Suhakam, our Human Rights Commission, Chairman of the UN Human Rights Commission, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy to the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG). He currently chairs the Eminent Persons Group tasked to draft the ASEAN Charter, leads the Malaysian-China Business Council and the World Islamic Economic Forum Foundation. He is a renowned speaker, irrepressibly at home and indefatigably on international platforms where he is in demand just about everywhere. He addressed the British Malaysia Society in London in the House of Lords in early March. He qualifies, albeit unofficially, as our foremost Ambassador-at-Large championing Malaysia.

Let’s talk about his origins. He was the youngest of 10 children, orphaned during the war. And very much to the point, he is anak Johore, the most politically conscious State. This is of particular significance. It was the crucible of UMNO founded there in 1946 by Dato Onn Jaafar. Tun Musa feels he “has always been a politician”. He lived down the road from Datuk Onn and grew up in the presence of history.

Dato Onn fathered not only a Party, but our foremost political dynasty – in former Prime Minister Tun Hussein Onn and the present Youth Leader Hishamuddin. No less than four of the present Cabinet hail from there – Hishamuddin (Education), Syed Hamid Albar (Foreign Affairs – another dynastic case), Dr. Chua Soi Lek (Health) and Azalina Othman Said (Youth and Sports) and no one questions this as hogging more than their share. The present incumbents come from a long line of political anak-anak Johore – including one of our five Prime Ministers, two Deputy Prime Ministers, near misses both of them to be PM, one of the early women Ministers, Tan Sri Fatimah and Tan Sri Kadir, Minister of Law and Attorney General. Nor has it wanted for “characters” - like the colourful and aggressive Syed Jaafar Albar “the Lion of UMNO” who headed UMNO “youth” at 60, and our present day maverick Shahrir Samad. Tun Musa is the political doyen of the State.

The private sector roll call includes Tan Sri Taib Andak, Royal Professor Ungku Aziz, Puan Sri Sharifa Azah Aziz, Bank Negara Governor Tan Sri Dr Zeti Akhtar Aziz, Professor Syed Hussein Al-Attas, Tan Sri Arshad Ayub, Tan Sri Robert Kuok, Tan Sri Vincent Tan and others I’ve no doubt missed. It must be something in the water.

Johore is once again in the spotlight in Parliament for the shenanigans surrounding the Back Benchers club. Given its proximity to Singapore it inevitably features in the hottest controversy of all – if for nothing else but that the much-debated bridge would have started here – with implications for Pelepas, the fastest growing port in the region. On the economic front, we were given the dazzling prospects of a Disneyland (now also contested) and a new university. And in the jungle the search goes on for Big Foot (The writer pleads “not me” – I take size 4 shoes).

But there is one large footprint we are much more concerned with – the imprint on affairs made by Tun Musa. Educated at the prestigious Johore English College, then the University of Malaya where he read philosophy and history, he was one of the class of ’57 – the Merdeka generation. A student leader, it goes without saying. But also an international one surprisingly early. He spent 2 years in The Hague, elected to represent the Asian region in the International Student Secretariat in Holland. The future crisis manager got an early manager taste of political upheavals during this time. He was in Cuba when the Cuban Student Revolution overthrew Batista and installed Castro (1959). He was in Korea for the student uprising against Syngma Rhee and in Algeria to witness the Independence struggle against the French. On return he had a brief brush with business in, our Scottish readers will be glad to know Jardine Mathieson, but his political learning were not to be denied especially when insistently encouraged by Tun Sardon. A political activist, he soon got into trouble – went into exile at the same time Mahathir Mohamed was expelled from UMNO. He used this time to good purpose  acquiring an M.A. in International Relations at the University of Sussex.

He and Dr. Mahathir accomplished the rare feat of a comeback – reinstated as “Young Turks” soon to be labelled “Ultras” and before you knew it, they came to power as the famous “2 M’s” breaking the mould of the former exclusive aristocratic elite. The epitome of Lat’s “Kampung Boy” – theirs was a view from the bottom. They become synonymous with radical pragmatic reform with their slogan “Cekap, Bersih dan Amanah”. “Prompt, Clean and Trustworthy”. He has dedicated his Tunship to the loyal coterie - the “cba” set he calls them, who never wavered in their support for these guiding principles.

A highlight of his stint as Home Minister was his handling of the Memaling incident, when religious extremism first surfaced. He became branded as a crisis manager in which a role today he is called on by international bodies like the Commonwealth to troubleshoot around the world – the latest being the Maldives. As he himself quips, he is to-ing and fro-ing between one of the smallest countries in the world and the largest (China). He has not acquired any spurious gravitas in the process – not when at 72, he still looks all of 16 and cannot suppress that boyish grin.

The writer tells a story that bears on his special niche in Malaysian politics. It goes back years. I used to visit the Musa Hitam household to collect my children. There on the verandah would be a gaggle of men – all Malay, all UMNO. It smelt of politicking all the way. One man stood out by virtue of his infectious smile. We smiled at each other across an uncrowded room, without speaking, for years. That man is now our Prime Minister and the smile still distinguishes him. He was first identified and groomed by Musa Hitam, his patron and, we may surmise, still a mentor. When Musa embarked on that bold but ill-starred bid which came to be known as Team B to challenge the Prime Minister – Abdullah joined him out of loyalty. When Tengku Razaleigh and his cohorts left to form S46, Musa and Abdullah stayed behind, committed anak UMNO. Stripped of office, and on the dark side of the moon, it took years of patient determination to be restored to favour – dramatically self evident in Abdullah’s case when the “favour” constituted being chosen by the PM as his Deputy a conspicuous act of forgiveness. And now his patron’s rehabilitation has also become highly visible in today’s news. “Tun” Musa says it all.

One other affiliation is worth mentioning: Tun Musa’s long and close association with the presently controversial Shahrir Samad. The writer has another memorable story (readers by now will be familiar with the fact that she is in her anecdotage). This concerns a clock. We had sold our flat in London to an Arab gentleman called Musa who wanted it “lock, stock and barrel”. But this included some of my most precious or sentimental possessions. We came to a deal on certain exclusions in which an ormolus clock featured. When it came to the crunch, the purchaser refused to relinquish it. One morning, I received an early phone call. The voice said “Musa”. I waded in: “If you do not give me my clock. I’m going to burgle your premises” The voice replied, “I don’t know anything about your clock Paddy. This is Musa Hitam ringing to tell you of Shahrir’s victory as an Independent in Johore Bahru with a majority of 12,000.” This was the first occasion Shahrir had quit the Government but not politics.

Of the present high honour, Tun Musa takes it all with his usual good natured humour. He is “only 72, not old enough to be venerable”. My heartfelt congratulations to this latest and very “young” Tun.

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British High Commissioner HE Bruce Cleghorn presenting Yeoh with the Warrant of appointment to the CBE.

Between Tun Musa and Tan Sri Francis there is a generation gap (20 years). Tan Sri Francis’s formative years were the post-World War II period, a time of greater promise especially to the young idealist. When man landed on the moon it was an exhilarating moment. The way he describes it recalls Wordsworth on the French Revolution:

            “Bliss was it in that Dawn to be alive
            And to be young was very heaven.”

Francis also experienced another historic moment when the Berlin wall came down. He has never quite lost the youthful exuberance from those days.

In its own way, his career too has delivered some heady stuff, despite its origins in the more orthodox context of the archetypal Chinese family business in the migrant tradition. His grandfather Yeoh Cheng Liam came here from Fujian Province in 1920 – one of the "sinkehs” fleeing the hardships of China and the tyranny of the warlords, and seeking their fortune in the Nanyang. Without kith or kin, capital or education, he got a job as clerk in a timber shop in Klang. Within three years he had scraped together enough to start his own timber business. His son, Yeoh Tiong Lay, built it into a construction business to which he gave his initials “YTL”. He remains Chairman to this day.

Francis had the good sense – and more to the point, the good fortune to be the firstborn of the third generation. Primogeniture dictates the No. 1 son succeeds in Chinese business. But this time with one difference - Francis was made MD at the age of 24. The Patron usually holds on to the reins of power to a ripe old age. Francis’s father preferred him to make his mistakes when young so that the losses would not to be so great.

Francis was pre-ordained for business. It was, he says, “in his blood”. And in his upbringing. His earliest memory is of the pounding, the dust, the vibrations and noise of construction sites to which he was taken when other children were visiting theme parks. To this day he is a very hands-on manager – he can tell the amount of sand in cement merely by the feel – a bane to the subcontractors.

There was one other prerequisite. Having no tertiary education himself, his father insisted all 7 of his children should go to university – made it a condition of being taken into the business – girls included, not always the case in a Chinese set up. Francis did Civil Engineering at Kingston. He describes himself now as a “dinosaur” in the profession but insists that engineering skills is the true prowess of the group. He has parlayed YTL into a huge conglomerate in construction – power, water, hotels, retail – the hospitality business and more, and is in the vanguard of Malaysia’s global players. Contrary as ever he has the positively flouted the myth of the Chinese “curse” that squanders the family fortunes by the third generation.

He was named the prestigious Ernst and Young’s inaugural “Entrepreneur of the Year” (2002). Both Fortune Magazine and Business Week named him among the 25 most powerful in Asia. Rightly so. He does things with passion – is a gung-ho investor but with due diligence, thrift and hard work – the traditional formula of his bloodline. He is beyond bold – can be contrarian – goes against the flow. When others back off, he will be in there. He bought 98 acres of Bukit Bintang that nobody wanted with Starhill, Lot 10, J.W. Marriott thrown in for the modest sum of RM383 million i.e. at a huge discount. Today, Bintang Walk is a mile-long, open-air nightspot created for “the man in the street”.

Pangkor Laut was a leper colony shunned by all. Today people flock there including all the visiting dignitaries like John Major, Casper Weinberger, Steve Forbes, Joan Collins, Nick Faldo and speedy Rubens Barrichello. His other resorts include Tanjong Jara.

The small boy who loved trains has given us the romantic Eastern and Oriental Express and the high-speed rail link that so conveniently transports us at 160 kilometres per hour to KLIA. All to the sound of piped music – what else but Italian opera. It costs half the price of the journey from Paddington to Heathrow and a third that of its Hong Kong counterpart. Francis’s mantra is “World Class products at Third World prices”.

His greatest coup was in snatching Wessex Water from under the nose of the favoured candidate, the Royal Bank of Scotland. Tan Sri Francis has since met Lord David Douglas Home, Chairman of the latter. The two are on good terms. The Brits, however, at first didn’t take to the idea of a foreign invader controlling one of their essential utilities. “Who the ‘ell is YTL”? screamed the headlines. It took one night to put their fears to rest. The scene was Bath on a balmy summer’s eve. A huge proscenium arch had been built against the Regency splendour of Bath’s most famous Crescent. 20,000 people invited free – many of them sitting on the grass in the park – enjoyed the musical extravaganza of the three Italian tenors who have become Francis’s signature – Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the children’s choir of the Bath and Wells Cathedral played a medley of Malaysian and English music. It did the trick. The next morning the self same press trumpeted – “This is the best thing since the Romans came – but we hope YTL will stay longer than the Romans did”.

Bath is one of the rainiest spots in England. The writer was brushed aside in her apprehension about an open-air site – “God writes the script,” was the confident answer. Tan Sri Francis is a very devout Christian. His sprawling mansion on Kenny Hills is named “Genesis”, his children Jacob, Joseph, Joshua, Ruth and Rebecca.

He is also one of life’s enthusiasts, enjoys it to the full. Mixes with the glitterati across all continents. Is in demand on platforms everywhere. Loves art – has his own gallery in Bukit Tunku and in Starhill Gallery. Loves wine – his collection of Mouton Rothschild goes back uninterrupted, every year since 1945. Italian Opera and English Literature are his passions. His private library houses first editions, all of Churchill’s works and the works of C. S. Lewis. It is fair to say he is an Anglophile. He loves islands – God’s handiwork, he calls them. The writer has been privileged to hear Pavarotti singing under the palm tress on a clear tropical night in what the latter christened “Paradise”, with fine wining and fine dining to follow. It was also an ideal venue for the International Peace Conference Tan Sri Francis was quick to organise in the wake of 9/11.

It is refreshing to be able to honour these two Malaysian VIPs - a welcome distraction from a very troubled world. Not that Malaysia is any different from elsewhere. In Britain too the problems mount and like here the speculation grows. Be it Blair or Brown, we shall not be getting off scot-free. Bruce and Sally Cleghorn are heading that way soon. We shall miss them and their very supportive and energetic embracing of British-Malaysia relations. May I also thank them for the personal support they have given me especially in the last year. May I wish them well and hope that retirement will prove a little more peaceful than all the shocks and turns of fortune they have lived through in this last posting, but be in its own way just as fulfilling.

Related article:
Tan Sri Francis Yeoh - Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire









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