At 7pm today, friends and family of the much revered Tan Sri Yeoh Tiong Lay will pay their final respects, before he is laid to rest. He passed on peacefully at 88, leaving behind the legacy of his namesake, the YTL Corporation, for son Francis Yeoh to carry on.
The late Yeoh Tiong Lay is survived by his immediate family, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
In life, Yeoh Tiong Lay was never a reclusive billionaire, having been named by Forbes as the 7th Richest Man in Malaysia this year. While a post-retirement Yeoh Tiong Lay saw him refusing media requests for interviews, he was still a mainstay in social functions and business-related events.
In light of his recent passing, we thought that it would be apt to look back on the life of Yeoh Tiong Lay, the son of an immigrant who managed to make a Fortune 500 name for himself here in Malaysia.
1. Yeoh Tiong Lay’s formal education ended in high school, but that never held him back.
Our pasts may not necessarily determine our future and Yeoh Tiong Lay’s story is the epitome of this.
His formal education ended at Hin Hua High School—where he eventually served as the chairman prior to his passing. It was also there that he met his wife Tan Kai Yong. The school is said to be one of the best-known independent high schools in Selangor. But more about that later.
Editor’s Note: In an earlier edition, the name of Puan Sri Datin Seri Tan Kai Yong was spelt wrongly. We’ve updated the sentence with the correct spelling. We apologise for any confusion.
In a post by YTL, it is said that his entrepreneurial drive can be attributed to the migrant mentality of his late father, who came to Malaysia in 1920 from the Fujian province in China.
Yeoh Tiong Lay was the third son out of eight. He was registered as a Class ‘E’ Public Works Department contractor who helped his father run their transport and construction business.
He climbed up the ranks quickly, eventually registering what would become the building blocks of the YTL group of companies—Syarikat Pembenaan Yeoh Tiong Lay.
He was still an Honorary Fellow of Chartered Institute of Building in the UK, the Faculty of Building, also in the UK, and also at the Australian Institute of Building and Singapore Institute of Engineering Technicians.
In Malaysia, he was awarded the Honorary Doctorates by Heriot-Watt University, and the Universiti Malaysia Sabah in Business Administration.
2. Yeoh Tiong Lay always had a passion for education.
“My father and grandfather had been denied any tertiary schooling, so they were determined the next generation would be armed with a good education.”
– Francis Yeoh
Despite, or perhaps because his formal education ended in high school, Yeoh Tiong Lay was always a keen investor in education. He insisted on sending his son Francis Yeoh—now spearheading the entire YTL Group operations—to school in Britain despite a deteriorating economy at the time. As mentioned, he was also chairman of his old alma mater at Hin Hua High School.
More notable however, are his contributions to education under the YTL Foundation, formed in 1997.
Its vision? “To take education to the future by providing avenues for teachers, students and schools to embrace the future of learning.”
The early days of the foundation mostly saw the awards of scholarships and book prizes to students, and the families attached. But over the years it has grown to do much more, inclusive of:
- A £7 million donation to King’s College London in 2013 to set up a research-based centre for politics, philosophy and law. The department was renamed in his honour. The gift helped create three new academic posts, and granted 16 students a shot at the Yeoh Tiong Lay LLM scholarships, worth £30,000 each, with preference for Malaysian students.
- He donated RM5 million for the construction fund of Wisma Hua Zong, and after a fund shortage, gave another RM1.5 million to benefit the Federation of Chinese Associations Malaysia. He was the biggest donor for the group. Yeoh Tiong Lay believed that the Wisma is a symbol of unity for the Malaysian Chinese community, and its launch would serve as an important landmark for the community here.
- £10,000 was donated to St John’s Hospital, a leading charitable organisation was distributed to several charitable projects across the day.
3. His work ethic and character is often spoken about by his business contemporaries.
“He’s very smart. Look at the size of his company. It speaks for itself.”
– Datuk TC Low, Managing Director of Ho Hup Construction Company.
There were many accolades for Yeoh Tiong Lay’s life and his work in the company. Tan Sri Lee San Choon, the chairman of Sunrise Berhad described him “as an entrepreneur and businessman, Tan Sri Yeoh is very focused in what he does”.
Ho Say Keng, YTL group’s Company Secretary, said of him, “Tan Sri as an advocate of hard work, perseverance and integrity, not just for his family, but for those around him. He treated his employees as his extended family and is recognised for his love, humility and compassion. We could not have asked for a more gracious and supportive Chairman.”
He “is a very experienced builder; he has definitely done a lot for the industry. During his three terms as a president of Master Builders, he has brought up the image of the association in the international arena,” said Goh Chye Koon, the deputy president of the Master Builders Association Malaysia, where he is the honorary president.
About his personality, he was often described as a good friend, as well as a humble man.
“My first impression of him is that he is a very humble gentleman. As I’ve had the pleasure of knowing him over the years, my first impression of him has not only been affirmed but reinforced by the knowledge that he is also a person who possesses the qualities of an outstanding entrepreneur and a sincere friend.”
– Tan Sri Lee Shin Cheng, executive chairman of IOI group.
Francis Yeoh himself said that “My father, who is in his seventies, comes in to work every morning. We work hard. We are hands-on. Success has to be earned, the hard way.”
“Tan Sri greatly supports the association. Even though he’s very successful, with his children taking over his company, he is not proud. He’s very humble and low profile.”
– Ong Ho Kiat, chairman of the Selangor Kim Mooi Association
4. Yeoh Tiong Lay led not only his company, but was also a prominent figure in the Malaysian and regional construction industry.
In fact, he was even the president at the International Federation of Asian and Western Pacific Contractors Association, and has even been named a lifetime member. On top of that, he was also the senior vice-president of the World Contractors’ body.
He was also the co-founder and first chairman of the Asean Constructors’ Federation and vice-president of the Malaysian-Japanese Economic Association.
The Master Builders Association of Malaysia appointed him as an honorary life president in 1988, and finally, appointed as the YTL Corp Board of Directors in 1984, and Executive Chairman in 1985.
5. He is a recipient of Award Of The Rising Sun.
The late Yeoh Tiong Lay received a prestigious Order of the Rising Sun award by the Emperor of Japan for “his outstanding contribution” towards the economic cooperation and friendship between Japan and Malaysia.”This was partly, awarded thanks to his work as the Vice President of the Malaysia-Japan Economic Association.
In fact, the YTL Corp has a secondary listing on the Tokyo Stock Exchange since 1996, holding the honour as the first non-Japanese Asian company to list on the exchange.
6. You knew YTL was a family business, but this is how family-orientated it actually is.
The family still makes the strategy of the organisation and provides the entrepreneurship, according to Francis Yeoh. In fact, the family has been hard at work to expand the business so that the 27 members of the next generation have a place in the company.
In fact, Francis himself was thrown into the deep end the moment he returned from the UK in 1978. Describing it as a departure from the normal Chinese practice (holding on until a ripe old age), Francis said:
“He shoved the reins to me immediately on graduation. I was thrown into the deep end in the belief that I should be allowed to make my mistakes early, when they would not be so costly. And so I was given the freedom to indulge an entrepreneurial bent from young.”
However, this was all a far cry from nepotism by the patriarch. And according to Francis, the company doesn’t give you a spot simply because your family. He was quoted by the Wall Street Journal in 2009 saying:
“I had to set a very high bar for members of our family. I insisted on an honours degree in engineering or similar degrees related to our industry. I didn’t want any molly-coddled sibling coming in. I didn’t want nepotism, cronyism and all that stuff.”
Now that YTL Corp is listed as one of the largest companies on the main Market of Bursa Malaysia Securities Berhad, we can imagine that he will be sorely missed by those close to him.
We would like to express our condolences to all of those affected by his passing, and hope that this little tribute pays a small homage to the man of vision Tan Sri Yeoh Tiong Lay was.
Image Credit: Big Orange Media