This story was first published on May 13, 2012, in The Sunday Times.
SINGAPORE - When he was in Primary 5, Chong Kee Hiong scored the highest marks for mathematics and Chinese.
But his teacher at the now defunct Kim Keat Primary School told him he had won one prize too many and gave the maths award to another pupil who had finished half a mark behind.
“I didn’t argue with the teacher but I was very upset,” recalls the chief executive of serviced residences operator The Ascott. “The fact that I still remember it with such clarity shows that I am still disturbed by it.”
The episode goes against the ideals of fair play and meritocracy which he holds dear. After all, he says, Singapore’s meritocratic system made it possible for the son of a poor shoe seller to make good and become head honcho of the world’s largest owner-operator of serviced apartments.
A HERO'S PATH
The heroes will always prevail although they have to undergo a lot of hardships first.
Mr Chong Kee Hiong, on how sword-fighting novels moulded his mindset as a child
VALUE OF RESPECT
Respect is important because when people lose respect for you, they can do a lot to undermine you.
Mr Chong, on the art of managing people
He was the youngest of 11 children, and the family got by on the meagre earnings of his late father, who ran a small footwear stall in the Bendemeer market.
Home was a Housing Board rental flat in Toa Payoh.
“There were just two bedrooms. All the boys slept in one room; all the girls and my paternal grandma slept in the other. My parents slept in the living room,” he recalls.
He ended up in the living room too, and the sofa was his bed for several years until his teens.
Life was not easy and money was often tight. The children had to help out at their father’s stall on weekends, and their mother sometimes had to borrow from her parents to help tide over tough times.
“Being the youngest, I probably had it better than my siblings. But to save money, I packed food from home to school,” he recalls.
Mr Chong, 46, reckons he was aware of his poverty from a young age and probably nursed a subconscious desire to improve his lot in life from the time he was in primary school.
He remembers that when he was in Primary 1, he was called up, along with a couple of other small, skinny pupils, to stand in front of the class.
“The teacher asked us what milk we drank. I don’t think she was out to embarrass us, she just wanted to know why we were small,” he recalls.
“But it wasn’t a nice feeling to be singled out, and made to feel deprived.”
Fortunately, he is stoic. It’s a quality he thinks he developed from voraciously devouring Chinese sword-fighting novels by some of the genre’s most loved writers, such as Jin Yong, Gu Long and Liang Yusheng, as a child.
“In these novels, the heroes will always prevail although they have to undergo a lot of hardships first,” he says with hearty laugh.
“Also, in many of the stories, skilful pugilists and old masters would impart their skills only if the heroes showed great perseverance and sincerity, so I told myself I needed to have those qualities too.”
He is a self-starter in more ways than one.
Blessed with the smarts, he never gave his parents any angst over his schoolwork. In fact, his education was practically self-financed.
“I collected a bit of money from clan associations in the form of bursaries in primary school. I would pass all of it to my mother,” he recalls.
Mr Chong, who attended Raffles Institution and Raffles Junior College, received three scholarship offers when he got into the National University of Singapore.
Although he initially wanted to study engineering, he settled on accountancy and accepted a scholarship – which paid $5,000 a year – from auditing giant KPMG.
“It was the mid-1980s and there was a recession. An engineering course would have taken four years instead of three and engineering graduates were also finding it difficult to get a job then,” recalls Mr Chong.
“I needed to earn money fast; I wanted to be more financially independent for myself and family.”
He gave tuition to help finance his university studies, and is the only graduate in his family.
Right after graduating in 1990, he started work as a graduate assistant with KPMG. Besides providing a good grounding in business processes and management, the job also honed his emotional intelligence as he audited the likes of clients like Citibank.
“No client likes auditors and you have to have certain skill sets to let them know you’re not out to ‘sabo’ them,” he says, using the colloquial term for sabotage.
He stayed for four years, during which he was promoted to senior supervisor, before joining one of Singapore’s best-known architectural firms RSP as finance manager. He went on to become its financial controller.
He stayed at RSP for two years. By then, married to Monica, a colleague from KPMG, he told himself that his resume would look more impressive if he had overseas exposure.
The opportunity came when he joined Tuan Sing Holdings, which has businesses in, among others, property development and hotels.
He was sent to Shanghai in 1997 to oversee finance and administration, and was among the first wave of Singaporean expatriates based in the Chinese city.
“The expatriate life was quite good in those days... For instance, you paid a bit more but you could get doctors to come and see you, not the other way round,” he says with a laugh.
But there were also challenges, such as business practices being not quite endorsed in Singapore. Corporate governance, for example, was given short shrift by many companies.
Tuan Sing, he says, was one of the few companies which paid full taxes then.
“A lot of people asked, ‘Why do that?’ and told us how we could get around it. We said no, and we made sure we stuck to it.
“I said it might work to our disadvantage in the short run but, in the long run, our reputation would be good.
“People came to respect us for that. We are a listed company, we didn’t want it to be a problem. Respect is important because when people lose respect for you, they can do a lot to undermine you.”
He says China changed as it went from strength to strength as an economic powerhouse.
“Things are much better now. The country’s more open and it treats everyone much fairer now,” he says.
After his Shanghai sojourn, he had a brief stint as a senior vice-president in an IT company before entering the hospitality industry in 2001.
He joined Raffles Holdings as chief financial officer when it was in the midst of acquiring Swissotel for 410 million Swiss francs.
He moved over to The Ascott – a subsidiary of real estate giant CapitaLand – as deputy chief executive officer three years later.
He played a key role in the successful listing of subsidiary Ascott Reit, the world’s first Pan-Asian serviced residence real estate investment trust, in 2006.
The unit invests primarily in real estate and real estate-related assets which are income-producing and used mainly as serviced residences or rental housing properties.
“The Reit market was fairly new then; even the serviced-residence asset class was relatively unknown,” he says.
Mr Chong charted Ascott Reit’s business, investment and operational strategies until he became Ascott’s head honcho this year. Its asset size has tripled since its listing to $2.81 billion with 65 properties in 24 cities.
Ms Lee Sze Yeng, a KPMG partner, has known Mr Chong since 1991 when he was her senior at the accounting firm.
“I’ve seen him moving into different jobs and doing well in each. It’s to do with his character. He enjoys challenges and is not contented with doing the same thing.”
She adds: “People see accountants as square but he has very sharp business sense and a very commercial perspective on things.”
Meritocracy, says Mr Chong, is his key guiding principle as a corporate leader.
“I believe we should be objective and fair by rewarding people based on the results they achieve. When people see that they are rewarded based on a fair system, they will be naturally motivated to do their best.”
Life has turned out well for the affable man.
He and his family live in a semi-detached house in Bishan, he drives a Mercedes convertible and has made some prudent investments.
He throws out a Chinese adage when asked if he has had any disappointments in life: “Zi yu yang er qin bu zai”. It expresses a son’s regret at not being able to look after his parents in their old age.
“I’m now in a position to look after my father but he is no longer around,” he says. His father died in 1985 while he was in national service.
But he says he will do his best for his mother, who is 85 years old and lives with him.
Success, however, has not made him forget his roots.
Last November, he took his wife, two of their four sons and one of his brothers to visit his father’s village in Meixian, in Guangdong province.
His father was the second of five children, the only son, and never returned to his ancestral village after coming to Singapore as a young man in the 1940s, although his widowed mother joined him here later.
For Mr Chong, the trip to his father’s village proved to be an emotional experience.
“There I saw the house that he shared with five other families. I was told that he walked six hours from his village to the pier to take the ship to Singapore and that was the last they saw of him,” he says.
He met everyone in the village, hosted a lunch for 80 people, and visited his grandfather’s grave.
He also met his only surviving aunt, the youngest of his father’s four sisters, who is now in her 80s.
“The moment I saw her, I knew she was my aunt. She looked like my father and her mannerisms were like my grandma’s. She would hold my hands while talking to me.
“It was amazing, and not at all awkward,” he says.
He intends to revisit soon and to take with him his other children and siblings.
Having experienced a childhood where many things were beyond his means, he says he is tempted to give his four sons – aged between six and 14 – more than what they need.
But he and his wife decided it is more important to instil in them the right values, the drive to do well and to work for what they want.
Not too long ago, his wife told him that their second son had been going to the school bookshop, looking longingly at some of the items which he could not afford with his pocket money.
“We give him just enough pocket money for food during recess,” he says. “So when I heard it, I felt a pinch of sadness.
“But I had to remind myself that there is a bigger lesson that my boy will have to learn and understand eventually.”
And that is, if you work hard, have the desire to do well and grab opportunities given to you, you will do well.
That, he says, is the beauty of meritocracy.