AN anecdote dating back to one of Tan Sri Syed Mokhtar Albukhary's early forays in business offers a revealing insight into what drives Malaysia's leading bumiputra corporate titan.
In 1971, Syed Mokhtar, who was then 20 years old and had dropped out of school because his parents were too poor to pay for his education, suddenly found success and was raking in tidy profits as a meat trader.
The impressionable young man got carried away. He developed a taste for the night life in Kuala Lumpur and bought a fuel-injected Volvo which he used for weekend joy rides to Penang and Thailand.
But things ground to a halt when Syed Mokhtar could not pay his car loan instalments, and he had an epiphany.
“I think it has to do with keinsafan or realisation of where you come from, and where you are going,” he says in his recently released biography,Syed Mokhtar Albukhary: A Biography.
“It was a difficult and painful period for both me and my family. But I found myself through the realisation of my religious values and family support,” he adds, describing the period as his “lost days”.
From a Malay perspective, the values that would anchor his life and business from that point onwards form a major theme of the book.
Granted, the biography mainly tells one side of Syed Mokhtar's story, namely his. But it does come across as an earnest attempt by the reclusive tycoon to explain his motivation amid long-standing gossip and criticism over his extensive business holdings.
The book is timely, with the Malay entrepreneurial community who have benefited from the New Economic Policy (NEP) increasingly under the spotlight.
There is anger towards the irresponsible among them who betray the interests of the bumiputra typified by fat cats who win contracts due to their connections and who then sell out for quick profits, at the expense of other more qualified Malays.
Syed Mokhtar's biography argues his case as someone who stands apart due to his core values.
Written by Premilla Mohanlall and published by pVm Communications Sdn Bhd, the book charts his rise from his humble beginnings and draws from interviews with Syed Mokhtar as well as his family, friends and peers.
Providing a rare glimpse into the life story of a little-known but much talked about personality, the book has already sold 20,000 copies and is going into a second printing of another 20,000 copies. A Bahasa Malaysia version will be available tomorrow.
The son of a cattle-trader, Syed Mokhtar was born in 1951 into the close-knit Bukhary family whose forebears assimilated into the Malay community after migrating from Central Asia.
Villagers in the ethnically-mixed Kampung Hutan Keriang in Alor Setar, Kedah, where he grew up, helped each other in times of need regardless of race or religion, teaching him the importance of helping the needy.
A grounding in traditional Islamic and Malay values such as humility and integrity is attributed to his mother Sharifah Rokiah Syed Mohamed Rahmat, who serves as Syed Mokhtar's moral compass.
A six-year stint in Johor Baru, where he lived during his childhood with an uncle, left Syed Mokhtar with an admiration for the modern and progressive outlook of the Johor Malays.
Sense of responsibility
The values help to explain the person he is today, and one particular belief is often cited as guiding most of his business decisions a sense of responsibility.
“When I started my lorry business, I was a young man with little money. I could afford to buy only two lorries, but was issued four permits under the bumiputra quota.
“Immediately, Chinese towkays offered to buy the two extra licences. I refused. I did not want to be a broker,” says Syed Mokhtar. He is blunt about his dislike of those who abused the NEP.
“Many Malays are to blame, and so are many Chinese. Instead of retaining what was allocated to them as bumiputras, they cashed out, or became brokers.”
During the 1990s Initial Public Offering (IPO) boom, many took up the then mandatory bumiputra equity requirement for listings only to sell at the first sign of profit, while he stubbornly insisted on holding on.
The book gives many examples of where he received NEP aid, such as licences and loans, which helped to develop his transportation, rice trading, property development and shipping businesses in the 1970s and 1980s.
But Syed Mokhtar argues that it was no walk in the park for genuine Malay businessmen despite the leg up. All had to work hard to break into the new fields such as rice trading that the Government wanted them to enter.
Former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, with whom Syed Mokhtar developed a mentee-mentor relationship, explained why the fellow Kedahan impressed him.
“As Malays, we want Malays to catch up with other Malaysians. Syed Mokhtar feels he should not sell things he acquired as a bumiputra. He does not believe in cashing out. That is something I appreciate.
“He is one of the New Economic Policy's success stories that include people such as (Tan Sri) Mustapha Kamal of Emkay, (Tan Sri) Shamusddin Kadir of Sapura, (Tan Sri) Azman Hashim of Ambank and a few others,” said Dr Mahathir.
Despite his many successes, Syed Mokhtar admits that he is sometimes hurt by Malay elites who looked down on him especially during his early years in business due to his disadvantaged background.
“Yes, I am a simple trader from Alor Setar who did not complete his Form Five education. Yes, I cannot draft a proper letter. I don't go to the theatre or spend my leisure on yachting holidays.
“However, I draw confidence from my faith in Allah the Almighty who has given me the dignity and the mental, spiritual and emotional strength to deal with all kinds of situations, all kinds of people.”
A father of seven, Syed Mokhtar is married to Puan Sri Sharifah Zarah Albukhary, daughter of Tan Sri Syed Kechik Syed Mohamed Albukhary, a famous lawyer who served as the special adviser to the Sabah Chief Minister and who later went on to set up his own investment conglomerate.
Family, apart from religion, is to Syed Mokhtar the source of the most important values that determine success.
Explaining what drives his extensive philanthropic work, including his Albukhary Foundation which provides aid such as scholarships and healthcare for the poor and disadvantaged, Syed Mokhtar goes back to a lesson learnt from his mother.
It is the motivation that has also driven the billionaire to fund numerous humanitarian projects worldwide including the establishment of an AIDS hospital in Uganda and aid to rebuild the lives of Afghan refugees, Pakistani earthquake survivors and Indonesian tsunami victims.
“My mother taught us nothing is yours until you have given it away with all your heart in the hope it will make someone's life easier,” said Syed Mokhtar.
The reminder is apt, summing up the bigger responsibility that the Malay entrepreneurial community hold as caretakers of wealth which ultimately belongs to the bumiputra and the nation.
By RAZAK AHMAD