At 55, while many would have been planning to retire or to slow down, Mr Chong Lit Cheong took on a new challenge and made a job switch. The man who had mostly worked in the civil service took up an offer to return to the private sector. Today, he is the Chief Executive Officer of Regional Investments, CapitaLand Limited.
“Whenever I am given a job opportunity, I often find it hard to say no because I know that they think I can make a difference. So, in considering a new job, I always ask myself: what can I contribute to it?” revealed Mr Chong at a recent In Conversation with CEOs, a series of talks organised by CapitaLand for the employees to get to know and learn from the people behind the Group’s leadership.
Certainly the Mombusho scholar (a Japanese Government Scholarship programme) with a grasp of Japanese and Italian has much to contribute. After all, having either studied or worked in Japan, China, Taiwan, France, Italy, the United States, and Singapore, Mr Chong has a wealth of international experiences to draw from.
One of the things Mr Chong brought with him to his new job was a strong independent streak honed from years of being away from home. This makes him the kind of man unafraid to conquer new frontiers. The Raffles Institution alumnus’ first taste of independence was during his National Service where he became an officer.
“I really grew up quickly in the army,” said Mr Chong. “Often, when I hire a guy, I will ask him about his National Service experience (to gauge his character).”
Then, he went to the University of Tokyo on a scholarship to earn his electronic engineering degree because Japan was one of only a few countries offering the scholarship course in the 1970s. He had to spend a year mastering the language. “After six months, I started dreaming in Japanese,” Mr Chong, who wrote his thesis in Japanese, joked.
It was in Japan that he first learnt to ski.
“In those days, you could only find skis made in Japan because they considered the snow in Japan different from those in Europe,” he laughed.
Mr Chong became such an avid skier that he almost missed his university graduation in 1980. He had gone skiing with friends the night before and had woken up late.
“I had no time to change so in my graduation pictures, I am in my ski clothes,” Mr Chong shared with a chuckle.
After graduating, he went to work at the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) where he got his first taste of dealing with foreigners. As an electronic engineer, he was sent to purchase equipment from a company in Houston.
“That was also the first time I encountered corruption and bribery. At our first meeting with the people in the US, they told us that some time ago, some Indonesians had come and they had given them US$1 million each.”
“We were quick to tell them that that was not how Singaporeans worked and that was the end of discussion about money.”
At his next job with Schlumberger, a French company doing oil exploration, Mr Chong learnt to develop his leadership and independence skills. He worked on oil rigs in China, Taiwan and Italy, and had to lead people from different nationalities and cultures, under very tight schedules, and often with short notices.
At his next job with the Economic Development Board (EDB), Mr Chong was put in charge of the optics industry.
“It was one of the smallest industries with only about 20 small to mid size companies. EDB is very clear in its objectives. I learnt the importance of focus. You don’t need many objectives. But you need to be clear about them,” said Mr Chong.
This is something he has applied to CapitaLand’s commercial business, bringing a renewed focus on not just managing office buildings but developing new ones.
He also learnt to be customer-oriented when he was sent to work in Suzhou for two years.
“At EDB, investors are our customers. We learnt to serve our customers. We also learnt from our customers and their needs, and improved our product and services as we went along. This is how I approached my job. Every job I take, I try to know who my customer is. Every job has a customer, even if it is an internal one. Once you know your customer, you can be very innovative,” said Mr Chong who initiated bilingual minutes while in Suzhou and insisted that presentations to foreign investors be conducted in a language convenient to them.
This customer-centric approach has led him to promote Universal Design in CapitaLand’s office developments.
Legacy Left Behind
Beyond learning and contributing to every job he takes, Mr Chong also believes in leaving a legacy wherever he goes. At EDB, he and his team were one of the first to look abroad to recruit foreign talent when they looked to Silicon Valley to help Hewlett Packard Singapore find people for their research and development branch. That initiative has since evolved into Contact Singapore today.
At National Science and Technology Board (NSTB) where he was the Managing Director for three years, he and his team married entrepreneurship and technology to create the concept of technopreneurship. They also mooted the idea of a new science park which is today One North in Buona Vista.
“I believe you have to be innovative in every job. You need to work as a team and guide your colleagues in achieving their own goals. And you need to be professional: you fight for your cause but at the end of the day, the company comes first, not your individual perspective,” said Mr Chong.
“Learn at every job, contribute and leave a legacy.”
Wise words from one who has been around the world and learnt from his wealth of experiences.