Straight from the Heart
Group Chief Corporate Officer, CapitaLand Limited, Mr Tan Seng Chai, regales with stories of humility, curiosity and learning from missed opportunities
Issue: Feb 2014
Group Chief Corporate Officer, CapitaLand Limited, Mr Tan Seng Chai, proved to be a consummate story-teller as he held the audience captive with interesting stories of his life journey
It promised to be an In Conversation with CEOs session full of heartfelt sharing and heart-warming stories. Introduced in 2012, the series is an opportunity for CapitaLand’s various CEOs to share their wealth of experience, life’s lessons and philosophies with staff in an informal setting. The latest talk by Group Chief Corporate Officer, CapitaLand Limited, Mr Tan Seng Chai, definitely delivered on his promise to "tell you stories about me you have never heard before".
A Heart of Humility
“Humility is something that resonates with me,” Mr Tan began.
Citing one of the five paradoxes of leadership in Asia - to develop greatness, practise humility - he shared that humility was something he has had to learn throughout his life.
Mr Tan says his modest past has kept him humble over the years
His humble beginnings in a small village in Muar, Malaysia, as the son of a fish dealer and homemaker was something he had already revealed in an earlier interview with Inside. At this In Conversation with CEOs, he shared even more deeply from the heart.
“From the age of 11, I worked during every school holiday to supplement the family income. However, I never thought of life as tough. In fact, I found work fun,” said Mr Tan of his jobs that ran the gamut from a chicken farm assistant to wooden crate maker, palm oil factory operator, kitchen help at the town’s sole air-conditioned Chinese restaurant, tutor, door-to-door salesman selling steamer plates and even coffin maker.
Mr Tan (standing 1st row, 2nd from left) on his first study trip to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia while in primary school
Instead of being bitter about his situation, Mr Tan found meaning in every job, no matter how trying or tiring thanks to a heart of humility.
“At the palm oil factory, I worked the night shift. No one wanted to work nights so they paid more. I learnt the importance of team work because we would help each other. If anyone accidentally fell asleep, we would cover his duties,” he said.
As a helper in a Chinese restaurant, Mr Tan picked up culinary skills restaurant-style and would cook for his family whenever his mother was busy. It also became a valuable life skill when he eventually came to Singapore to study with only 800 ringgit in his pocket, as he would cook for himself too, to save money.
Highs and Heartaches of Life
Sporty and musical - (From left to right) Mr Tan (running 1st from left) at his Secondary school’s 100-metre final on Sports Day and playing the harmonica at a Chinese Society event (extreme right)
Mr Tan was quick to assure that what his childhood lacked in material comfort, it more than made out for in adventures on the wild side.
“I used to love fighting spiders. It was my favourite hobby,” he recalled with a glint in his eye.
To the amusement of the participants, Mr Tan then gave detailed tips on how to catch spiders. “The best place to find them is between two leaves stuck together. How do you identify them? Well, if you see two white dots, it’s a male; all black, it’s a female. Lastly, how do you coax the best performance out of spiders? You introduce a female spider!” he revealed to chuckles around the room.
“Till today, I still get very excited about catching spiders,” said Mr Tan who has tried to impart his passion to his children with limited success.
There were also heartaches, though. A National University of Singapore (NUS) alumnus with an Honours Degree in Civil and Structural Engineering, and a Master of Science in Industrial and Systems Engineering, Mr Tan almost could not study Engineering.
“My parents had no money to send me abroad. So I applied to every university in Malaysia. However, none of them offered me an Engineering course,” said Mr Tan.
In the end, NUS offered him the course he had set his heart on. Even so, Mr Tan never got to practice Civil Engineering, a discipline he has always found fascinating.
“By the time I graduated, it was the Electronics industry that was booming. No one wanted to hire a Civil Engineer. I scoured through every job listing. Every job interview was like a class reunion because all my classmates turned up vying for the same job,” said Mr Tan.
A Heart of a Learner
On Graduation Day at the National University of Singapore where Mr Tan studied Civil Engineering
Humility was what helped him to accept his lot in life. His learner’s heart was what made him seek out knowledge and draw from experiences. In school, Mr Tan was involved in almost everything. He was his school’s top sprinter both in primary and secondary school, represented his district in badminton, played soccer, was the president of the Chinese Society and was also involved in the Woodworking Club.
Because of a change in Malaysia’s education policy, he had to study all subjects in Malay in secondary school. That was how he became conversant in Mandarin, English and Malay.
“Later in my first job as a production supervisor with 20 operators working for me, Malay became very useful in helping me to connect with the Malay workers who were all much older than me,” said Mr Tan.
Mr Tan (standing 1st from left) worked as a production supervisor right after graduation, with 20 operators under his supervision
A Heart of Compassion
A willingness to learn in every situation may have helped Mr Tan but it was his compassion for people that made him want to improve things for them.
“To excel at a task, harness relationships,” he said, quoting another of the five paradoxes of leadership in Asia.
It was Mr Tan's unique ability to connect with people that opened the door for him to later move into Human Resource.
“I had wanted to be a trainer in Human Resource because even as a Process Engineer, I was doing a lot of training. I like to teach because when you teach, you learn and connect with people. However, they only had an opening for a Compensation and Benefits Manager,” said Mr Tan of yet another missed opportunity.
Being in Human Resource taught him to manage people with heart.
(Standing 2nd from left) Mr Tan with CapitaLand staff at the CapitaLand Immersion Programme, is one who believes that trust is an important criterion for a good leader
“If you trust people, you will be trusted. If you can achieve this, you will be a good leader,” he said.
“I learnt how to deliver bad news not with logic but with empathy. When I had to let someone go and he knelt before me to beg for his job, I knelt with him.”
It says a lot about Mr Tan’s concern for people when he said that, after all this time, what sets his heart racing and keeps him excited about his job is seeing those he has nurtured grow in their careers.
Because of his compassion for people, Mr Tan recently helped in gathering some 80 ex-students from his primary school in Malaysia for a reunion with their teachers. He later joined 6 others to start a RM$50,000 fund for the needy pupils there.
Recently, Mr Tan co-organised a gathering at his primary school, some 40 years after graduation, where he met up with the school’s principal, teachers and his former classmates
“The fund is to help those who have shown improvement. The top students will naturally find a way to get scholarships. But this fund is to encourage those who may not be top but have worked hard to improve.”
In a life of humility, learning and giving, Mr Tan has had all his heart’s desires fulfilled. When asked if he had any hopes or heart’s desires left unfulfilled, he smiled and spoke from the heart, “my life’s journey has been a fulfilling one.”