Small Change

Lessons in true grit from a comeback kid aged 79

Where there's a will, age does not stand in the way - that's what Ng Joo Soon has shown

In recent years, at the many reunions I attend over the Chinese New Year festive season, I sometimes detect a stench of despair and fear marring the joyousness of the occasion which never quite goes away.

What causes the stench? Those in my age group, in their 40s and 50s, are supposed to be at the peak of their careers.

Yet I find that in such gatherings, as many as half of those present may have stopped working already. Some of them have made enough money and they stop working because they desire a slower pace of life. But there are others whose careers are suddenly cut short because their jobs have been made redundant.

Among the rest, there are some who are perpetually worried that if they should lose their job for whatever reason, they may find it difficult to get a similarly high-paying job again.

I can understand their apprehension. At the age of 55, it is going to be tough to persuade employers to take them in, even if they are willing to take a big pay cut, or even retrain extensively to suit the new job's requirements.


Mr Ng with his wife, Madam Tan Siu Keng. Years back, Mr Ng’s business in chemicals spanned much of Asia, but it ran into difficulties during the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis. Now, Mr Ng is starting afresh at 79, hiring new staff and making plans to build a new factory. PHOTO: COURTESY OF TAN SIU KENG

Not only that. In our status- conscious society, a job also defines a person's identity. When he loses his job, he not only loses his income but a part of his identity as well.

Thus, I can empathise with the loss of esteem some people must feel upon becoming real estate agents or taxi drivers, after a high-flying career in banking or the corporate sector.

And once they are down in the dumps, they get the sinking feeling they will never be able to crawl out of the abyss.

Amid all these doubts and uncertainties, I have discovered an extraordinary comeback made by one of my old contacts, businessman Ng Joo Soon - a shining example to those coping with loss of self-esteem and despair, of how perseverance can overcome adversity against even overwhelming odds.

What is even more remarkable is that Mr Ng accomplished his comeback when he was nearly 80 - an age when most people would be found focusing on matters such as their medical conditions.

I had not heard from him for years as he had kept a low profile after he was beset by difficulties in his business. But when I was back in the office on the first working day of the Year of the Fire Rooster, I got a call from him. "Eng Yeow, I am back," he said in Hokkien over the phone.

Time flies. I first got to know Mr Ng 24 years ago when I was cutting my teeth as a young reporter. He was then an energetic 55-year-old, very much in control of his destiny, as he had built up a huge trading and industrial business in chemicals spanning much of Asia.


Mr Ng in 1993 in Kunshan, China. He was looking to expand his business there then. PHOTO: COURTESY OF NG JOO SOON

At that time, the usual retirement age was 55, and most people at that age would be withdrawing cash from their Central Provident Fund (CPF) and making plans for their retirement years after that.

That was not Mr Ng's cup of tea, however, and he kept himself busy, scouting for business opportunities, especially in China which was then opening up in a big way to foreign companies.

Not that there was anything wrong with that. He was, after all, running his own business and it seemed appropriate that he should put his heart and soul into it. I remember once taking a train with him from Shanghai to Nanjing and listening to him talk non-stop about his business exploits for two hours. "No wonder the man is so successful. He is a great salesman," I thought then.

His was a classic rags-to-riches story, starting out as a penniless paint-shop assistant after moving here from his hometown Muar in Johor before striking out on his own.

Now, you may ask, what is the relevance of this successful businessman's story to the baby boomers and Gen-Xers whose livelihoods may be threatened by job losses?

Not much if his run of successes had continued. But they didn't - far from it, in fact - and it was the manner in which he picked himself up after suffering a major series of setbacks that makes his story an interesting one.

When I relate Mr Ng's tribulations and extraordinary comeback in his old age to my friends, they shrug it off and say that he is the exception to the rule. But I believe otherwise. Mr Ng offers new meaning to the saying that "where there is a will, there is a way".

His story also epitomises perhaps an eternal truth that so long as we don't give in to despair, even when faced with what may be an impossible situation, there will always be light at the end of the long and dark tunnel.

For a few years after I got to know him, his business, which included chemicals trading and making steel drums, had gone from strength to strength, registering an annual turnover of $500 million. One of his firms, Dovechem Terminals, got listed on the Singapore Exchange's mainboard in 1996.

But his business ran into difficulties during the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis and he had to mortgage his house to keep it afloat.

Worse, his brothers and nephews, whom he had invited to join him in the business, banded together to oust him from the company that he had founded.

He also lost the listed firm which he had taken public. An executive director, Ms Marie Heng, whom he had originally hired to work in the group, made a successful offer to take it private in 2004.

During all those tough years, he did not make any attempt to contact me. I guess he must have been too proud to let others know the pain he must have been undergoing.

At a recent Chinese New Year dinner which he and his wife hosted for me and two other old friends, he recounted those difficult times. "Life was a small office in Textile Centre," he said. It was a big climbdown for a man who used to control a listed firm worth almost $200 million.

For a man then well into his 70s, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to make a comeback at such a late stage in life.

That would have been a pity. He had everything going for him, and he could have made it into the same league as the paint tycoon Goh Cheng Liang if Lady Luck had not dealt him such a grievous blow.

Except that Mr Ng was not willing to allow his life to finish in such ignominy and he was not prepared to take defeat lying down. It was not as though he had not contended with other impossible situations before.

As a paint assistant in his youth, he had to deal with a heartless boss who made him sleep along the shop corridor - each time it rained, he would get drenched. And when he started his steel drum-making operation, his competitors tried very hard to drive him out of business by putting pressure on their clients not to give him any orders.

Mr Ng took his relatives to court in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Through his perseverance, he eventually got back some assets as well as the rights to use the names "Dovechem" and "Thiam Joo" that were associated with the company when he started it in 1960.

He then started afresh with his business. Now nearly 80 years of age, he is hiring new staff. The economy may be slowing down, but he is planning to build a new factory.

When I relate Mr Ng's tribulations and extraordinary comeback in his old age to my friends, they shrug it off and say that he is the exception to the rule. But I believe otherwise. Mr Ng offers new meaning to the saying that "where there is a will, there is a way".

His story also epitomises perhaps an eternal truth that so long as we don't give in to despair, even when faced with what may be an impossible situation, there will always be light at the end of the long and dark tunnel.

To me, Mr Ng shows true grit.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 19, 2017, with the headline 'Lessons in true grit from a comeback kid aged 79'. Print Edition | Subscribe