April 21, 2009
Building up others in time of need
Businessman has pledged $500,000 so far to fund CDC help schemes
By Radha Basu
MR KOH Tiam Teck's transport and trading business took nasty hits in 1976 and 1998.
The oil crisis of the mid-1970s took his fledgling family firm to the brink of bankruptcy. Two decades later, as the Asian financial crisis took its toll, his business shrank by 30 per cent.
Both times, he pulled through by working 12-hour days and foraging for fresh opportunities when existing ones failed.
Now, faced with Singapore's worst recession, the 52-year-old's multimillion- dollar empire, Koh Kock Leong Enterprise, is on firmer ground than before. Headquartered at a 62,000 sq ft compound in Tuas, the private limited company, which does not want to reveal turnover figures, employs 450 people.
But the son of a truck driver and construction worker is far from oblivious to the effects of the recession. He knows first- hand how tough times can push the poor deeper into poverty.
To help victims of the recession, he has committed $280,000 to the South West Community Development Council (CDC) so far this year, making him the CDC's top benefactor.
His latest cheque of $100,000 came early this month, prompted by grim reports of how the recession could linger as long as six years.
From early last year until the end of this year, he has pledged to donate a total of nearly $500,000 to all five CDCs, the bulk of it going to the south-west district, where his Tuas office is located.
Sitting behind a rosewood desk in a small windowless office, Mr Koh lets on in a mixture of Mandarin and English that he chose to give to the CDC as the Government would match every dollar donated, making his 'money stretch'.
'I liked the dollar-for-dollar idea and the CDCs I think offer the most direct assistance to the poor,' he says.
The CDC will use his money to provide transport and food vouchers to those who have been retrenched, as well as help needy students at the Institute of Technical Education buy uniforms and books.
It estimates that more than 2,150 families will benefit from various schemes funded by Mr Koh this year.
His latest gifts come on top of a $100,000 donation last year, of which about $60,000 was channelled by the CDC towards providing money for meals at school and weekend snack packs to more than 500 children from low-income families.
He was spurred to give even more while attending a weekend event at Jurong where he helped pack the snack packs. Mr Koh was touched by how the beneficiaries said they would share the sachets of Milo, biscuits, cereal and yoghurt bars with their siblings.
'Seeing their joy at such simple food, made me want to do more,' says the father of four children aged between 20 and 30. 'The toughest thing for a child is to grow up hungry.'
He should know.
The second of seven children grew up dirt poor in an attap hut in Bukit Panjang.
The family of nine, which included Mr Koh's paternal grandmother, squeezed into a 240 sq ft hut, about half the size of a Housing Board studio apartment.
His parents earned less than $450 a month and lived from hand to mouth. His mother, who worked long hours as a construction worker, bought vegetables and fish only after she received her daily wage of $4.50 every evening.
On days when she had no work, the family made do with soy sauce and porridge. For snacks, Mr Koh and his siblings foraged for discarded scraps of bread crusts.
Their hut had no electricity or running water. Mr Koh vividly remembers spending mornings chopping wood to make a fire and, in later years, tending to a small vegetable garden, where they grew tapioca and kangkong.
By the time he was 13, he had dropped out of school to help his father, who drove a 'lorry crane'. This was a truck with a crane on board, so that it could be easily ferried to construction sites around the island. On his own, the older Mr Koh did only three trips a day. With his teenage son's help, he managed around five.
After a couple of years, the family had saved enough to put a down payment on a dump truck and registered a company under the older Mr Koh's name.
They used the truck to transport granite from quarries around Bukit Timah to construction sites islandwide. It was gruelling work, with father and son loading the heavy blocks onto their truck with their bare hands.
Fuelled in part by a construction boom in the early 1970s, money began flowing in. Eager to grow his fledgling business, the older Mr Koh took loans and expanded his fleet to 11. But the 1976 recession, caused by fast-rising oil prices, wiped out their modest gains. Ten of the 11 trucks were repossessed by the banks.
As the family business teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, the younger Mr Koh, who had by then completed his national service, began a side business digging sewerage trenches and planting grass on school fields. To keep costs low, he would often dig trenches himself.
'When one business fails, you must look for other opportunities,' says Mr Koh. 'That is the only way to grow.'
By the early 1980s, the Kohs managed to buy back a couple of trucks and restart their trading business supplying granite and sand to construction sites. By then, he had also taken over the reins of the family enterprise, as his father had lung problems and was diagnosed with lung cancer shortly afterwards.
Mr Koh picked up the basics of truck repair and would drive and repair trucks himself to save on costs.
By the 1990s, business was booming again. As Mr Koh started to make millions, he began paying it forward.
Since 1990, the Primary 6 dropout has been sponsoring textbooks for his employees' children. In 2005, moved by the catastrophic losses wreaked by the Asian tsunami, he donated $50,000 to the Red Cross.
When economic clouds darkened the horizon last year, in addition to the $100,000 he gave South West CDC, he gave another $25,000 each to four other CDCs. He says he plans to continue to dig deep into his pockets and give more, if things worsen.
While his wealth has grown over the years - he now lives in a 4,000 sq ft landed home in Kembangan - his habits remain simple.
He shops for clothes only once every three years. And while he owns a BMW 6-series, he frequently takes the MRT to work.
His office is sparsely furnished, save for an ornate Buddhist altar displaying a dazzling array of deities. His rationale: 'Money is not easy to make and you have to save for the bad times.'
He hopes that his hard work and his generosity will serve as an example to his children.
South-west district mayor Amy Khor is struck by Mr Koh's humility, down-to-earth nature and his 'big heart'. 'But what impressed me most is that he is giving to charity without any expectation of reward or recognition.'
In fact, CDC officials had to persuade him to have its meals bursary programme named after him. He was reluctant to be interviewed and photographed by The Straits Times, saying he did not want the publicity for doing something he felt was 'natural and right'.
He finally relented only when told that examples such as his could help inspire others to chip in.
After the interview, Mr Koh takes The Straits Times on a tour of his Tuas facility. As dusk falls, he notices a lorry crane parked in a distant corner of the compound. A foreign worker is perched on top, tying the crane with a metal chain.
Mr Koh's eyes light up as he says: 'That's what I used to do.'
Business started with just one lorry
MR KOH Tiam Teck, 52, is managing director of Koh Kock Leong (KKL) Enterprise, a construction company involved in excavating roads for MRT and power grid projects and supplying building materials such as sand and granite.
The family business was founded in 1973 by Mr Koh's father, the late Koh Kock Leong, who started out driving a single lorry crane to construction sites islandwide.
Mr Koh dropped out of school at 13 to help his father run the fledgling business. It soon diversified into trading, buying, transporting and selling granite and sand. The company was incorporated in 1991 and currently employs 450 people.
A self-made multi-millionaire, Mr Koh declined to reveal how much his company is worth. He also declined to disclose his top customers, but The Straits Times understands that the company is involved in major infrastructure projects like the Circle Line.
A devout Buddhist, Mr Koh is married to housewife Ong Siew Hua, 52. They have four children, aged between 20 and 30. The older three are already working for the family firm, which also employs four other relatives.