Asian Beacon, Feb-Mar 2010
Starhill Gallery in Kuala Lumpur prides itself as the centre of luxury retailing-home to prestigious (and pricey) brands such as Louis Vuitton, Valentino, Jaeger La-Coultre, Armani and Van Cleef & Arpels, just to name a few.
So it may surprise you, as you browse through the exclusive offerings in this posh mall, to come across a Christian bookstore. Glad Sounds Bookstore opened its 12th outlet on the Explore
Floor of Starhill Gallery last December, selling its books, Bibles, CDs and DVDs on very prime real estate.
This sounds unusual because we're so used to Christian bookstores tucked away in obscure comers of shopping centres. Such was the experience of one Malaysian businessman, who decided to do something about that.
"When I want to go to a bookshop in Singapore, I go to Suntec City," says Tan Sri Francis Yeoh.
"The Christian bookshop there is very popular. But it's next to a toilet, and it always puzzles me
how the Christians are always relegated to spaces right at the wrong ends-the smelly ends. Can't they afford a prime space in any shopping centre?"
He lamented the price of progress. When, several years ago, a church had to move from Wall Street, the newspaper headlines screamed, "Even God cannot afford Wall Street."
This burdened Yeoh, 56, so much that he earmarked valuable retail space in his shopping mall for the express purpose of opening a Christian bookstore and searched for the right people to run it. After two months of meetings and prayer, Starhill Gallery welcomed Glad Sounds as its newest tenant.
"It's truly a miracle in God's wonderful plan," Yeoh tells Asian Beacon in an exclusive interview.
"This is a mighty big event. Glad Sounds is now in Starhill with all the Louis Vuittons of this earth. And why not?"
The Morning Star and Calvary's Hill
Why not? Well, one might ask, "Why would something as seemingly trivial as a Christian bookstore be high on the priority list for a tycoon who heads a RM33 billion business empire?" It doesn't make much business sense, but then again, Tan Sri Francis Yeoh is not your typical businessman.
Besides his tremendous corporate success and passion for arts, culture and the finer things in life, the other much-touted fact about Yeoh- one that probably sets him apart-is his unapologetic, unwavering faith in God.
It's hard not to find him mentioning God when he is being interviewed, be it by The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal. Recently, Yeoh unabashedly declared in The Star, "Without my Lord, I am nothing!" and "My personal goal is always to walk in the footsteps of God."
Yeoh is renowned for his contrarian investment approach, embarking on buying sprees while others are shying away. In the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis, he swooped down on
98 acres of Bukit Bintang prime real estate, including Starhill, Lot 10 and JW Marriott, for a song, and transformed it into a luxury and lifestyle destination.
Unknown to many, Yeoh had dedicated the entire stretch to God when he took stewardship of those properties a decade ago. "People often forget the meaning behind Starhill," he says. "Jesus is the Morning Star, and the hill is the Hill of Calvary."
Thus, it seems very apt for a Christian bookstore, promoting God's word, to be sited in Starhill Gallery. Yeoh had also allocated space on the same floor for Shalom Cafe, which complements the bookstore and allows book lovers to lounge in.
Yeoh, an avid reader, opines that many Christians are not well read and that reading is a way of loving the Lord with our mind. He is frustrated that the devil seems to know more Scripture than most Christians. Through Glad Sounds' literature ministry, believers can arm themselves with the sword, God's Word.
"God's love is not quacky," says Yeoh, who recommends books by CS Lewis and Lee Strobel.
The latter wrote The Case for a Creator. ďA well-read Christian would be able to intelligently defend the truth. It's a big mistake for Christians to cop-out!"
The Turning Point
The YTL Group bears the initials of Yeoh's father, Tan Sri Yeoh Tiong Lay, who had set up a small construction company in 1955. Big brother Yeoh and his six siblings grew up at construction sites and started supervising projects in their teenage years.
The family business was badly hit during the 1970s oil crisis. Yeoh, then 16, wanted to drop out of school to help his father but the offer was declined.
Much burdened, Yeoh wandered around Kuala Lumpur and stumbled into the Kuala Lumpur Baptist Church, located along Cangkat Bukit Bintang.
"On that Friday, I vowed that I would dedicate my life to the God who could help me, whichever that was," says Yeoh. The pastor, to whom he had poured out his woes, comforted him by telling him that his problem would be gone by Monday. "True enough, my problem miraculously vanished on Monday! I believe Jesus directed me towards Him and found me worthy to be His servant."
Yeoh went on to study engineering in the UK and returned to take the helm of the company at age 24, growing it into the conglomerate it is today.
Jesus Will Pay the Bill
The YTL Group grabbed international attention in 2002 when it beat a consortium of major contenders in the bid for the UK utility company, Wessex Water.
To celebrate the company's first major foray into the international energy industry, Yeoh decided to throw a free concert in 2003 in Bath, England. He invited his good friend Luciano Pavarotti to sing. The tenor's only available date was August 7; unfortunately, August was also the wettest month, and there were concerns that the open-air concert would be a wash-out. Yeoh, however, believed that the Lord would not rain on His own parade; he decided to up the ante by getting Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras to team up as "The Three Tenors" at a cost of 1 million pounds per singer.
The Yeoh 'Cabinet', comprising Yeoh's father and siblings, baulked at the expense and the need for three tenors. Finally, Yeoh said, "Don't worry, Jesus will pay the bill."
As it turned out, August 2003 was the hottest and driest month in Bath's history!
The concert was a success. On top of that, the heat drove residents to use extra water, and
Wessex's profits shot up by 3 million pounds-the exact cost of the concert! "My faith was proven right. Jesus did pay the bill," Yeoh recounts.
From Royalty to Fishermen
Yeoh, who has rubbed shoulders with prime ministers, royalty and other high-profile VIPs, doesn't hesitate to share his faith with them. "Jesus Christ is the coolest God; we need to articulate God's love to everyone!" he says. He doesn't delve into theology as he believes the key to reach hard hearts is to share God's love. "Melt the stone with God's love."
Yeoh recalls his burden, many years ago, for the fishermen in Pangkor Island. His staff had shared the Good News with them but with little success.
Subsequently, God told Yeoh to speak to them directly. In obedience, he befriended the fishermen, speaking in his own Hokkien dialect; soon they were won over by his love for them. "There were also wonderful testimonies from Ah Longs and gangsters," Yeoh adds.
"The Methodist Church in Pangkor started 20 years ago with only 5 "persons" Ė the pastor and his wife, God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit," Yeoh quips. "But today, it has a 300-strong congregation. God's business is to multiply!"
Having fulfilled his desire to open a Christian bookstore, what other plans does Yeoh have up his sleeves?" I don't want to talk about my future plans," says Yeoh. "I'm just a 'midwife'."
Well, it'll definitely be interesting to see what more God can do through such a willing instrument.
Glad Sounds Bookstore and Shalom Cafe are located at Lot F25 6- F42, Explore Floor, Starhill Gallery, 181 Jalan Bukit Bintang, 55100 Kuala Lumpur.