The Philosophical Leader

CapitaRetail China Trust Management Limited CEO Mr Wee Hui Kan waxes lyrical about lessons learnt from China, skiing and living life to the fullest.

Issue: Jun 2009

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12 years in China, Mr Wee Hui Kan shares that humility and an open mind are key to doing business with the Chinese.

Mr Wee Hui Kan is not a man contented to settle in the back seat. Instead he takes to the wheel in the journey of life. Graduating with a Bachelor of Engineering from the Nanyang Technological Institute, passion drew him to pursue a Master's Degree in Business Administration. Science's loss became business's gain.

In the last nine years, he has risen steadily from General Manager of Business Development at CapitaLand China Holdings Pte Ltd, to Managing Director for CapitaLand Financial (Beijing) Limited and CapitaLand China Property Fund Management Private Limited.

Now he holds three concurrent positions, including CEO of CapitaRetail China Trust Management Limited.

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Wee sharing his real estate experience in China with the NTU China Mayors’ Class at the CapitaLand showroom.
For the last 12 years he has lived in first Shanghai and now, Beijing. Before it was popular to go to China, Wee said yes to the overseas posting there. The family agreed that it would be an experience to live in another city.

During the first few years, his friends had difficulty understanding why he moved to China. Yet for Wee, the choice was easier, not without thanks to a supportive wife, who went from being a career woman to a homemaker.

It's more than just Mastering the Language

The Wees did not expect to stay as long as he did. His daughter spent her primary school days at a local Beijing school, which Wee said has helped him understand more about the local mentality.

Arriving in China, fluent in Mandarin, Wee soon learnt that knowing the language did not mean he would understand the people. Instead it was from reading the local newspapers, magazines, watching local television and having local friends that he began to see the Chinese perspective better. It has also helped debunk the misconceptions about the Chinese that many Singaporeans may have.

"We think too lowly of them," he says. "We think that they are backward, but they are not. They have done a lot of things that we can't.

"They can send people to outer space, can we? The pace at which they are doing things is much faster than the rate at which the US was doing at their time."

Wee engaging visitors from the NTU China Mayors’ Class at the CapitaLand showroom
Wee engaging visitors from the NTU China Mayors’ Class at the CapitaLand showroom
Taking into consideration the differences between the two cultures, Wee chose to be humble and keep an open mind, and advises those who want to go do business in China to do the same. During his time there, Wee has seen how the mentality of the Chinese has changed.

"In the last 15 years, they have gone from a generation where making money is not held in very high esteem to now, where quite a lot of people want to make money."

As for the next 15 years, Wee remained optimistic about China.

"I think that they are still in a stage that I call the rapid development stage. You will still expect high single-digit or sometimes even double-digit growth for the next 20 years, because there are more than 800 million people in China, a rural population still waiting for their chance to make a better life, or to be the middle class.

"What you see, in the coastal area, is just three or four hundred million people. There is a bigger group who haven't got their chance. Even if China moves very fast, they will still need 10 or 20 years."

Wee considers CapitaLand's commitment in China as a long-term one. In Singapore, the company owns and manages 18 shopping malls and extrapolating that onto the Chinese market, "potentially it is a very big market, even if we have a very small proportion of it."

Adopting the Right Perspective in Life

Looking back at his move to China, Wee says he is happy about his decision to go.

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Wee, with his family, enjoys skiing as it challenges him to act in ways that are counterintuitive.
"Warren Buffet said that in life you only make a dozen decisions. If you make it right, you will have a different life. If I didn't go to China 12 years ago, I would be a completely different person."

"Always look forward," Wee adds, "and don't spend time regretting."

He refuses to complain about the harsh living conditions in Beijing and chooses instead to focus on the good, one of which was the opportunity to start skiing. Faced with little leisure activities in winter, he took up the sport and gained yet more insights into life from it.

"The most difficult part about skiing is the right thing to do is always counterintuitive," he says. " A very simple fundamental in skiing is the steeper the slope, the more you lean forward, but that is against your instinct. You will want to lean backwards. The more you lean backward, the more you will slip."

"I enjoy that because it is forcing you to act in a way that is not intuitive and is against your instinct."

Wee subscribes to the view that in life, if a person wants to be successful, he must not take the conventional path, and he most certainly has not. Even when it comes to managing people, he believes in sharing knowledge to gain more insight from those around him. He also values honesty from co-workers, even if it means he has to endure being proven wrong publicly.

"It is far better to use every brain that you can find than to just use your own because you don't have enough time to think of all the issues in detail."

Wee says he has derived much satisfaction from all the different areas of work that he has done at a senior level in CapitaLand. He credits this to having stayed in one company, instead of job-hopping.

"The empirical evidence tells you that the one who changes a lot doesn't get very far, so why follow that path? If you want to experience doing work in different areas, you get a much better chance in an organisation that knows you well as compared to trying a totally new company."

His aim in life now is to enjoy every minute of it, and in the process, contribute to those around him, so that everybody benefits from that interaction. His parting words of advice?

Instead of thinking about income, grow your net worth instead.

"Know what we earn and what we have, and have the modest objective of every year growing it by a bit."

When it comes to investing, he says, "Invest in what you know because there will be ups and downs. If you have some understanding of the thing you invest in, you tend to make reasonable decisions.

"You don't need to do a lot of investment. All of them who have made it very far in life in terms of net worth, there are a few decisions that carried them that far."

"The rest - whether they did them or not - doesn't make much difference."

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