As Group Chief Corporate Officer of CapitaLand Limited, and Executive Director of CapitaLand Hope Foundation (CHF, CapitaLand’s philanthropic arm), Mr Tan Seng Chai has graced charity events both in Singapore and overseas.
But each time he meets the underprivileged children that CapitaLand Hope Foundation supports, Mr Tan feels a sense of connection. “When I meet these children in Singapore, Malaysia, and China, I can identify with the hardship they go through especially when they don’t have the proper food to eat or when they don't have simple things like schoolbags. In primary school I only had a metal pencil case with one pencil, one eraser, one sharpener and one ruler. That’s all I had,” he revealed.
Growing up in a small kampung (village) in Muar, Malaysia, in the 60s was hard. His father worked as a fish dealer. His mother was a housewife but she needed to supplement the income by rearing pigs and chickens in the back of their house.
Mr Tan started working at the age of 11. His first year-end school holiday job was in a farm. “We had to feed the chickens and crocodiles and collect chicken eggs. The towkay (boss) would ask me to calculate and label the eggs according to the time they hatch, place them in the appropriate trays and push them into the incubators. After they hatched we had to vaccinate them quickly and grade them according to their sizes. I was paid RM4.90 a day,” Mr Tan recalled proudly.
“But the most exciting part was feeding dead chickens to the crocodiles at the back of the farm. I got to do that twice a week!” he added.
When he was in secondary school, he progressed to working night shift in a palm oil mill as it paid him RM11 a night.
“But my most satisfying holiday work was when I worked as a salesman,” he led on. Mr Tan found a job as a door-to-door salesman after the O levels, selling steamer plates. “It was hard work. To enter into people’s homes, you need a strategy. I would tell them that I was doing a survey on rice-cookers and it brought down their defences immediately. I could sell 30-40 steamer plates a day, earning RM800-1000 a month to help me buy books for my pre-university,” he related.
Hard as his childhood and growing up years may be, Mr Tan is thankful for those moments. “I think these experiences have helped to build me up to be responsible and to be able to take hardship. In the course of this, I have also learnt to engage with people and that has formed a foundation for leadership development later on,” he added.
Building for Children, Building for Tomorrow
As CapitaLand’s Group Chief Corporate Officer, Mr Tan is keenly aware of what it truly means by ‘Building People to Build for People’. “Our credo explains our belief in the long-term commitment to the community. And that continues from the previous leadership under Mr Liew Mun Leong to the new leadership under Mr Lim Ming Yan,” he said.
The Group’s long-term commitment to the community begins with building up its own CapitaLand community. With many initiatives in place such as Family Day, Eat With Your Family Day, vouchers for staff during Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day, CapitaLand is a company that not only embraces its staff, but also their family as well.
“Getting to know the family beyond just the staff is a very important part of the company. This is because behind every employee is a family that, in varying degrees, plays a big part, in the employee’s work in CapitaLand. So in every possible way we can reach out to the family, we will do it. This is so that the families can associate themselves with CapitaLand and our employees can see that CapitaLand cares for them,” Mr Tan shared.
Besides focusing on the building up of staff, guarding stakeholders’ interests and delivering excellent products and services to customers, CapitaLand also actively contributes to the building of the social and economic health in the communities it operates in. While there are many that need help, CapitaLand has chosen to concentrate on helping children.
“This is especially so for children who have come from very poor families. We want to break the poverty cycle in their lives. We want to help to equip them with the right education, provide them with the necessary welfare such as healthcare and shelter so that they can have a more conducive learning environment to grow. If that foundation is done well, they would have a greater opportunity to do better in the later stages of their lives,” Mr Tan explained patiently.
CHF’s programmes have ranged from building Hope Schools, providing therapy for kids with disabilities to even providing long term education support for underprivileged children. However, the types of projects the Group chooses to embark to help underprivileged children are by no means random or ad-hoc.
“For instance, when we build Hope Schools in China, we select communities close to where our businesses can contribute and where we can leverage on our involvement in building the school. When we work with the government of these cities to build for the poorer communities around them, we are showing our commitment and in a way, we are building our relationship with them so that we can gain more support for our business there.”
To date, CapitaLand has built 24 Hope Schools – with 23 of them in China and one in Vietnam. In December 2012, CapitaLand donated RMB 1 million (S$200,000) to a rehabilitation programme called CapitaLand Therapy for Children Project, to support disabled children from underprivileged families in China.
Mr Tan was there to officiate the event and met some of these children fighting for a chance to get well.
“I met a 13-year-old girl born with a crooked spine. We were told that given time and good therapy she could recover. I asked her what she would like to do when she recovers. She said she’d like to get back to school. It once again endorsed why we were doing all we can to help her,” Mr Tan shared.
Two months after Mr Tan spoke to the girl, he received a report that she could sit upright, stand with some support and a recent update said that she could even walk. “When I saw her photo, I was very touched that she is now able to go back to school. And I am sure the staff volunteers who helped her throughout her therapy by reading to her, ferrying her back and forth from the therapy centre are just as encouraged,” beamed Mr Tan.
Imparting Values to Kids
Mr Tan can truly appreciate what it means to see a child well. After all, he is a father to three children: 20-year-old Kenneth who is serving National Service; 18 year-old Rachel who is studying fine arts in Lasalle College of The Arts; and 10 year-old Grace, who plays the violin.
Mr Tan acknowledged that many kids, like his, are privileged to have parents who can support and inculcate various interests in them at an early age compared to the kids that CapitaLand is supporting. Hence he hopes that by sharing what CapitaLand has been doing to help these kids, he can impart life’s valuable lessons to them.
“These stories serve as conversation and educational opportunities for me to impart values like caring for people, being responsible to the community and starting with your own family,” he shared candidly.
The doting father also makes it a point to drive out to the wet market to buy breakfast for the family every weekend. They will sit and talk for hours, sharing jokes and, of course, enjoying daddy’s stories. “My little one, in particular, doesn't mind me repeating my stories,” he chimed.
Indeed, childhood shapes us. For Mr Tan, his childhood, in many ways, has helped to shape him to who he is today. It has helped him in his capacity to connect with the employees and their needs; it has also helped him to identify with the many underprivileged children who still face the hard-knocks in life. And it is in this identity and capacity that Mr Tan is determined to carry on the good work, together with his team, to build the people within CapitaLand and provide CapitaLand’s little charges the support they need in their challenging circumstances and the fighting chance to grow up and live well.