Saturday 4 August 2012

Liew Mun Leong: Anti-elite chieftain from the proletariat

CapitaLand chief executive Liew Mun Leong may have announced plans to leave in June next year, but he has not checked out yet. He tells Susan Long his future plans include doing a PhD and setting up the next "CapitaLand" in health, education or the arts.
The Straits Times, 3 Aug 2012

HE IS not "retiring". He is not "stepping down". He is not "calling it a day". Even in saying goodbye, Mr Liew Mun Leong insists on a different terminology and doing it differently.

"I'm stepping off from CapitaLand. I'm not retiring from work. I'm just changing scene, like an actor, next scene," declares the 66-year-old stoutly.

Unlike most chief executives, who announce their departure during their notice period, he did it a full year ahead of time. June 27 next year will be his last day at the property giant.

It will cap 17 eventful years at its helm, starting with his 1996 appointment as president of Pidemco Land, which merged with DBS Land in 2000 to form CapitaLand.

His tenure as one of Singapore's longest-serving corporate chieftains was extended twice after he hit the retirement age of 62. He was resolute that he did not want to stay longer, as it will "shorten the runway" of his next career, along with his successor's.

He plans to keep working till, say, 80, giving him about 13 years to create his next career and build "the next CapitaLand", likely in the education, health or arts sector. "I'm a little ambitious, I want to do more," says the man who runs 5km and pumps iron daily.

Forget lavish farewell parties and lengthy eulogies. "I don't believe in grandstanding. I will do my farewell as a town hall lecture to the staff," says the chief executive who regularly trains senior management and writes e-mail messages to his staff that will be compiled into his third book soon.

He notes that some chief executives fear that in disclosing their departure early, they will "lose their power aura or that people will treat them like a lame duck". He asserts: "I'm no lame duck. It's the confidence level."

He makes it clear that he is far from done yet. "People ask me: Is it business as usual?" he relates, adding that he hates that phrase. "It's not, I'm still using the room. I've not checked out yet."

He says he has been pushing for progress on major deals that he inked, such as the upcoming $4.3 billion landmark mixed development Raffles City Chongqing, a mall in Suzhou Industrial Park which will be East China's largest, and over 7,200 affordable mass-market homes in China and Vietnam.

"I want all these to take off before I leave so that I feel satisfied that whatever initiative I have started, there is real momentum," he confides. He is also ramping up his brainchild, CapitaLand's in-house training institute Climb in Sentosa. He hopes to make it as "sought after" as Swiss business school IMD, whose predecessor was started by consumer giant Nestle in 1957, but has since become a world-renowned management institute.

Defying cliches

WHAT shaped his thinking on retirement is what happened to his late father Liew Luen Pong, a lathe machinist, whom he pressured to retire at age 67. Eager and able to provide for him, Mr Liew and his brother persuaded their father's superior to forcibly retire him. A few years after, their father became senile, went into decline and died. It was, in retrospect, a "most unfilial" thing to do, he concludes.

"The moment you stop thinking or being interested in stuff, you fall off the cliff."

He thinks it is time to retire popular notions of retirement as the reward for a lifelong slog or shutting down after a certain chronicle age. "Why do people want to retire when they have gained so much human capital? I'm not going to waste my experience," he vows.

Going forward, he is brimming with plans to milk the 22 years he spent in the public service as chief executive of two statutory boards, and 21 years in the private sector leading 10 listed companies.

When he was named head of Singapore's then largest engineering and construction company L&M Investments in 1992, and later Pidemco Land and Singapore Technologies Properties in 1996, he remembers naysayers wondering if a bureaucrat could cut it as a businessman.

"I proved that it can be done, and it's a matter of survival instincts and adaptability. I compare myself to a salmon, being able to swim in both river and sea water and still survive," he says.

Post-CapitaLand, he plans to ruminate and write about the authority, hierarchy, corporate culture, leadership requirements and staff motivation in the private and public sectors. "In the private sector, you have the very clear goal of chasing profit, whereas in the government sector, it's the ambitious social goal of looking after the people… My purpose is to identify basic differences and similarities on both sides, which are as similar as they are dissimilar."

But he won't become yet another adjunct professor in management. He plans to try to evolve his writings into an academic thesis for a PhD, which he believes will be useful reading for state-owned enterprises. And he won't do the cliche of going on to sit on 10 boards either, like other retired corporate chieftains. Not for him the venture capitalist or angel investor route either.

His next phase is strictly "NIE", which stands not for National Institute of Education or newly industrialised economy, but "not in employment". "At this stage when you have financial independence, why do you want to sit on 10 boards? Frankly, I don't need the glamour, visibility or fees," he says.

He will still chair the Changi Airport Group, to help drive its expansion phase, and help some government-linked companies as well as some private companies internationalise and groom talent.

But mainly, he plans to grow his own business in either the arts, education or health, something "practical, profitable, socially useful and completely new so it will satisfy my intellectual curiosity". One area the grandfather of four is keen to explore is preschool education. He is up in arms over the plight of St James' Church Kindergarten, which may shut down because the non-profit school cannot afford to bid at market rates to stay at its Harding Road premises.

"Why is the Singapore Land Authority trying to monetise this land?" he asks.

Pointing to a recent Lien Foundation study on preschool education that ranked Singapore's preschool sector 29th out of 45 countries, and highlighted its lack of affordability and quality, he says: "If you want to maximise potential of the young, zero to five years old is the most important development stage; we should put in more effort and invest in the masses at that time. The workforce of the 21st century depends on the state of preschool education."

Like a lotus

HE IS considering setting up a consultancy, LML Institute, which is not his initials, but stands for Lotus Management and Leadership Institute. "The lotus is a very interesting plant that grows from the mud to bloom into a nice flower," says the man who has garnered a clutch of CEO Of The Year and human resource awards, adding he intends to apply himself to helping others blossom.

"I came from nowhere. I'm not a princeling, I'm not a wealthy chap, I'm not a scholar. I'm really a run-of-the-mill graduate. So how do you make people like me bloom?

"I didn't go to Raffles Institution (RI) or Anglo-Chinese School. I come from a gangster-infested school called Queenstown Technical Secondary. I went to the University of Singapore, not Oxbridge or the Ivy League, but I think I've been fairly successful, despite not being a scholar. You got to beat them to it, that's all."

Nothing gets his goat more than "presumptuous" people asking: "Which year were you at RI?" He comes "from the proletariat", is "anti-elite" and proud of it.

He grew up in a one-room rental, often sleeping in the corridor outside the flat he shared with his father, the sole breadwinner who took home $100 a month, housewife mother, grandmother and three siblings. He attended the now-defunct May North Primary, doodled a lot and yearned to be a journalist. But his father decided he should be an engineer, a job that would allow him "to sit under the fan". He graduated in civil engineering - the least popular engineering course at the University of Singapore - with a pass degree.

But once he started work developing military camps for Mindef and leading the construction of Changi Airport, he distinguished himself as a turnaround agent. He took advice from the late Cabinet minister and corporate overhauler Lim Kim San, who told him to courageously do three big things upon entering an organisation, and "do them fast and make it work".

Mr Liew, who still believes "a fast decision is better than a right decision", went on to shake up the sleepy Singapore Institute of Standards and Industrial Research, sack 17 people at L&M within weeks, reshuffle Pidemco Land's management deck and make CapitaLand one of Asia's largest real estate companies with a presence in over 110 cities and over 12,000 staff.

Many scoffed at his strategy to take real estate - a very local business - overseas, but today, about 60 per cent of CapitaLand's operating profit of $1.05 billion comes from ventures abroad.

Another milestone was being the first to introduce real estate investment trusts (Reits) to the local market in 2001. There are now 24 listed Reits in Singapore, with a total market cap of $43.3 billion, which have been accepted as a form of alternative investment.

Real estate companies also largely borrowed money from banks, but he resorted to the capital market, going into bonds and fund management. "We are the second-largest real estate fund managers in Asia today, with six Reits and 15 private equity funds and assets under management totalling $36 billion."

He remains most proud of the CapitaLand Hope Foundation that he founded in 2005, and intends to remain active in it. Up to 0.5 per cent of the company's net annual profit goes to helping underprivileged children here and abroad with their education, health and housing needs.

But the legacy he hopes to leave behind is his own example: "That one can do well with whatever present resources one has... If you don't have a silver spoon background, don't despair. If you don't have glorious academic qualifications, don't lose confidence. It doesn't mean you can't do well. I've never looked back," he says with a defiant cock of his chin.

He is squarely faced forward, with several lifetimes worth of plans drawn up.


"There are two opposing theories about how to retire in an organisation. One theory is to get the hell out for the new man to start afresh. The second theory is to stay behind to maintain the momentum and culture. Which theory is right? My analysis is it depends on the company, nature of the business, whether it requires continuity or a clean deck, and the personalities involved. If the outgoing CEO becomes chairman and becomes very interventionist, then it's not good. No, I cannot comment on what is right for CapitaLand."


"No need to be overzealous about going to top schools. I didn't go to Raffles Institution or Anglo-Chinese School. I didn't go to an elitist university. I didn't win a scholarship. I didn't have a glorious education. So what? That doesn't stop you from doing well."


"Stick to our core values of integrity and fairness. Stay close to the troops.

Be courageous to do what is right."


"Successful Singaporeans don't listen enough. If God gave you two ears and one mouth, use it proportionately. It worries me when clever people don't do that... We have had political stability for so long that we've started to take it for granted. If you ask me, all this talk about human rights and liberal democracy is idealistic."

*  I always hire people who are better than me, says Changi Airport Group chairman Liew Mun Leong
Without good staff, Changi Airport Group chairman says he wouldn't have come so far
By Wong Kim Hoh, Senior Writer, The Sunday Times, 3 Feb 2019

In 2007, Mr Liew Mun Leong - then chief executive of CapitaLand - received a staggering $20.52 million bonus for helping the property developer achieve a record profit of $2.76 billion that year.

He is a wealthy man, but wealth, he says, means nothing to him.

"I've settled my life, my children's lives and I've also looked at the future and there's nothing I need that I cannot afford," says the 72-year-old who has three children and seven grandchildren.

Now the chairman of the Changi Airport Group (CAG), he says he is contented with his home (a landed property in Chancery Lane) and his car (a BMW 7 series). He no longer buys expensive timepieces and now wears an Apple watch.

In fact, his private banker has told him he can live comfortably from the interest on his wealth.

"But I don't want to work on my money. I want to work on my grey matter and if possible, grow it," he says with a chuckle.

It explains why he still holds not one, but several jobs. Besides CAG, which spearheads airport development, he is chairman of Surbana Jurong, a consultancy in urban and infrastructure development.

He sits on several boards and is also provost's chair and professor (practice) on pro bono service at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School, Faculty of Engineering and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

"Since stepping down from CapitaLand in 2013, I've been even busier. But I enjoy it," he says. "When you're dying on your bed, you'll ask yourself: 'Are you satisfied, is it worth it, have you done enough, have you lived a full life?'

"I have a full life, but I still want to continue," he declares.

One of the rare few to have made a mark in both spheres, Mr Liew spent 22 years in government service and has clocked 26 years in the private sector.

The fifth of six children, his beginnings were humble.

His father was a fitter, and his mother, a housewife. "Two of my older brothers died from food poisoning during the war," he says.

His parents changed his middle name from Kok to Mun so that the Grim Reaper would not come for him. "To break the curse, I also had to address my father as 'Ah Sook' and my mother as 'Ah Dai'," he says, using the Cantonese words for "uncle" and "elder".

His home, growing up, was a pre-war terraced house in Jalan Besar shared with five other families.

"Each family had only one room and there were seven of us: my parents, my three siblings and me, and an adoptive uncle."

Mr Liew slept in a collapsible canvas bed under a dim light in the corridor. "It was quite comfortable, but it had bed bugs. Every Sunday, I had to pour boiling water on the bed joints to kill them," he says.

Because of his success in the corporate world, people often assume, much to his irritation, that he attended well-known schools like Anglo-Chinese or Raffles Institution.

"I didn't. I went to gangster-infested schools," says the former student of May North Primary and Queenstown Technical Secondary.

In 1959, he had to retake his Primary School Leaving Examination because of an exam leak. He failed.

That earned him a major thrashing from his mother, who made him kneel under the table next to the altar of Tua Pek Gong, a deity worshipped in many Taoist households.

The punishment was harsh because the failure meant Mr Liew could not continue his education in a secondary school.

Nobody knew what to do until a fellow classmate - who also failed the exam - suggested that they go back to May North and ask to be re-admitted.

"So we repeated our Primary 6. I was top boy that year; he was second. The incident made me develop a fear of failure. I never failed again in school after that."

His decision to study engineering - he was from the then University of Singapore's first batch of civil engineering graduates - was influenced by his father, who worked under an engineer he idolised.

"He said: 'If you can't become an engineer, at least get a job under a fan'," he says, explaining that his father wanted him to have a white-collar job.

He was the first among his classmates to land a job at the National Iron and Steel Mills when he graduated in 1970. But barely half a year later, he was called up for national service. It changed his life.

He was recruited into Mindef, where he met the likes of the late Dr Goh Keng Swee, former deputy prime minister and one of Singapore's founding fathers.

Mindef's first civil engineer, he was tasked with developing and building military camps and infrastructure. It was a big job, one which awakened his latent leadership instincts.

From Dr Goh and a few other mentors, he learnt the art of "disregarding the rules and getting things done". "We were trained to make decisions by being empowered. We could call the shots, as long as we were not corrupt and did not do things for our own interest."

He took this philosophy with him when he went to the Public Works Department (PWD) in the mid-1970s, where he was involved in the building of Changi Airport Terminals 1 and 2 from day one.

"I don't circumvent rules; I break ground," he says proudly as he starts telling stories of how he beat bureaucracy to get things done.

When his requests for an electric typewriter and a vehicle to transport his staff to lunch (Changi then was remote and undeveloped) were not approved, he listed their provision as requirements for contractors bidding for tenders.

"We were paying for the contracts and the typewriter and vehicle were not owned by us. The contractors owned them and took them back when they were done," he says with a grin.

In many ways, he says his career has been a case of opportunity and chance. "How many engineers get the opportunity to build airports? They get to build schools, hospitals and shopping malls. But airports?"

After more than two decades in the public sector, including a stint at the Singapore Institute of Standards and Industrial Research, he took up the offer to steer engineering and construction firm L&M Investments.

He shook things up, doubled its share price and then left to become president of Pidemco Land in 1996. Four years later, when CapitaLand was born from a merger between Pidemco Land and DBS Land, he became its head honcho.

Those were turbulent times.

"CapitaLand went through a whole series of crises: the burst of the bubble, 9/11, the Bali bombings, Sars... For five or six years, it was one crisis after another," he says.

"It was tense and frightening. During one meeting with my people, I nearly cried. I said: 'It can't be that our share price has gone below $1. You're all clever people. What's happening?'

"It was a rallying call and we had to pull together and fight. I'm proud of the fact that none of us had real estate in our blood. We were engineers and economists, but we were good thinkers and operators," says Mr Liew.

The company more than pulled through.

For several years after that, net profit for CapitaLand - the first to introduce real estate investment trusts (Reits) to the local market in 2001 - was more than $1 billion.

Working with good people is something he emphasises repeatedly. "My philosophy has always been to hire whoever is better than me. If not, I wouldn't have come so far," he says, adding that he personally picks every member of his management bench.

Good staff and support from shareholders allow him to exercise what is crucial: courageous leadership. He made several bold moves. In 2010, in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, CapitaLand bought seven properties in China for $2.2 billion from Orient Overseas International, controlled by the family of former Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa.

CapitaLand started with a group market cap of $8.9 billion.

"When I stepped down in 2013, it was $44.5 billion," he says. "It means we created $35 billion over 12 years."

Mr Liew also believes in rewarding good staff and stretching a hand to help them if they need it.

"You must ask this question: Why should people follow you? Do you have a future?"

Once, he asked his accountant to do a headcount of the number of staff who had become millionaires on paper because of CapitaLand's share price and options. "Six hundred; I'm very proud of that," he says.

However, over his 12 years at CapitaLand, he has also fired seven chief executives. "I handled them personally, I didn't leave it to my HR. I told them they might have a better future elsewhere. If you are frank and have no malice, I believe nobody will hold a grudge against you."

Leadership and talent development are topics he addresses often in lengthy e-mails he writes on Sundays to staff, a practice he started 20 years ago.

The Straits Times Press recently compiled and published Sunday Em @ ils From A Chairman, comprising nearly 30 of these messages written between 2016 and 2018. The book is the fifth of his Sunday Em @ ils series.

The topics run the gamut from Changi Airport to hawker food to China's Belt and Road Initiative.

Mr Liew, who once harboured journalistic ambitions, says: "With one press of the button, I can send my thoughts and reflections to my staff. Because it's in writing, I can express myself clearly."

He averages about 20 e-mails a year, each of which can take up to five hours to write.

"While some of my staff say thank you, I'm sure not all read them because they can be quite long-winded," says the corporate leader who delivers lectures - pro bono - to entrepreneurs, engineers and other professionals at NUS.

He has also heard at least one staff member in Australia finding it a waste of time.

"But it doesn't stop me. I do it on Sundays and am not using office time. I'm actually amazed I've done it for so long. If my e-mails were a son, he'd be doing his national service now," adds Mr Liew, who is now working on a book about his experience in the private and public sectors.

His proudest achievement remains Changi Airport, which handles more than 65 million passengers annually and has won more than 500 awards.

He built its first runway in 1975, and now, he's beavering away over T5, which is bigger than T1, T2 and T3 combined, and is slated to open around 2030. The terminals, he says, are like his children.

"Every child is delivered on time, brought up well and has brains."

No comments:

Post a Comment