Singapore's richest man Goh Cheng Liang: 5 things to know about the reclusive tycoon

SINGAPORE -Chances are, your walls are coated with Nippon paint, but unlike some prominent businessmen in Singapore, Mr Goh Cheng Liang is not quite a household name.

The founder of Nippon Paint South-East Asia Group (Nipsea) has leapfrogged UOB's Wee Cho Yaw, and is now Singapore's richest man with a US$8.2 billion (S$10.8 billion) fortune, Bloomberg reported on Monday.

It is a remarkable rise for a man who once sold fishing nets during World War II.

Here are some key points from his rag-to-riches story:

1. Born in poverty

Mr Goh, born in 1928, spent the first 12 years of his life in a shophouse on River Valley Road, squeezing into a $3-a-month rented room with six others - his parents, three sisters and a brother.

When World War II broke out, his parents sent him to Muar in Malaya. There he helped his brother-in-law sell fishing nets before returning to Singapore in 1943.

2. Fortune from rotten paint

"Mr Goh has a nose for a good deal," Mr Sim Lai Hee, a business partner and friend, once told the Business Times in 1997.

This business acumen was honed over many years.

Upon returning to Singapore, he started a business selling aerated water. It failed, and he went on to work at a hardware store for four-and-a-half years.

In 1949, the British army was auctioning war supplies, and he bought barrels of "rotten paint" from them on the cheap. Armed with a Chinese dictionary on chemicals, he got down to mixing colours and adding solvents and before long, created his own Pigeon Brand paints.

The following year in 1950, the Korean War started, and with imports severely restricted, Mr Goh's paint business boomed.

He was approached to be a distributor for Nippon Paint in 1959, and from the 60s onwards, built up his company to become the largest paintmaker in Asia.

He was also the man behind iconic buildings in Singapore such as Liang Court, which he sold to Pidemco Land in 1999.

His Wuthelam group is now invested in property, electronics, trading among others. His elder son, Hup Jin, 61, runs the business.

3. An old-fashioned manager

In 1991, Mr Goh set up Yenom Holdings to "house" 30-plus old staffers who were displaced by an organisational revamp at Wuthelam Holdings. But it expanded into an array of interests, including property, restaurants, and resorts.

Yenom is "a holding company with a portfolio that consists of companies spanning across industries", according to its website.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Business Times in 1997, Mr Goh said he is better suited to running a private company than a public one.

"My personal philosophy is I never want to go public," he said. "First, I'm not a professional manager. Second, these professional managers who come and join me, I don't know how to handle them, I don't know how to drive them."

4. Collection of luxury vessels

His one indulgence is said to be his luxury yachts and catamarans. His collection included a Feadship yacht named the White Rabbit II, and 61m superyacht the White Rabbit Echo.

"I don't like cinemas, I don't like movies, I don't like songs, I don't like karaoke, I don't like bars. When I was young, I was quite naughty about girls but not so in the last 20 years," he said.

5. Philanthropy

Mr Goh was chosen by Forbes Asia as one of its Heroes of Philanthropy in 2014. His pet cause is medical research. His 20-year-old Goh Foundation gave $50 million to the National Cancer Centre Singapore in March 2014.

Through his foundation, the magnate previously donated $12 million to the centre.

His generosity also extends to his friends.

When a former Japanese business associate developed liver cancer, Mr Goh moved him into his penthouse in River Valley Road, sent him for treatment at a top US hospital, and paid his medical bills.

He also took the man - Mr Masamichi Oka - on a trip to New Zealand in his luxury yacht, and paid for a nurse to look after the ailing man on the boat.

Sources: Business Times, Straits Times, Bloomberg

chuimin@sph.com.sg