Category Archives: Captains & Legends

An in-depth personality profile of the elites and leaders across various industries from all over the world

A Noble Profession

Prof Dato’ Dr Ikram Shah bin Ismail

Director of Universiti Malaya Medical Centre

‘Let the doctor do the worrying for your health,’ some may say. But there are times when the human body gives up on you without any forewarning, and this is when you do a fair share of the worrying as well. EZ seeks out Professor Dato’ Dr Ikram Shah bin Ismail, Director of Universiti Malaya Medical Centre, who provides his insight on what makes medicine the occupation of the compassionate and Malaysian conundrums with quality doctors.

1985 marked the induction of Professor Dato’ Dr Ikram Shah bin Ismail into the faculty of Universiti Malaya, Malaysia’s oldest and most prestigious university, where he first started out as a lecturer. Over the following decades, he was one of the men who built the foundations of Universiti Malaya Medical Centre (UMMC). At the time that he was promoted to the directorship of the Centre, the Director of UMMC also held the seat of the Dean of the Faculty of Medical Sciences at Universiti Malaya. ‘Three years ago the Board of Directors decided to split (the designations) so they had to appoint another person as the dean. Because I’ve been the Director before this and as the hospital became a bigger entity, they needed somebody with experience so the Vice-Chancellor at the time asked and I stayed on as the Director,’ said Dr Ikram.

But Dr Ikram did not embrace the medical profession by design. His heart lay with mathematics long before a career in medicine crossed his mind. ‘I’m very mathematically-oriented. Computer science has always been my childhood dream,’ Dr Ikram relished. An opportunity presented itself, but with an unlikely outcome. ‘I was given a scholarship by MARA to do my matriculation in Brisbane, Australia. When I was there, I did rather well in my senior exam, and my seniors told me that it’d be such a shame if I didn’t do medicine because of my good results. So I called my parents and they approved.’

That decision altered his life path forever. He completed a six-year programme in East Queensland, and during this time, medicine gradually grew to occupy a space in his heart. ‘The love of medicine begins because when you start seeing patients, you feel like you’re doing something. By the time I was in my fifth year, our final year, I realised that this is what I want to do because this is where I feel I can do most good to humanity – to help people who are suffering from illness,’ said Dr Ikram. ‘My aim in life has always been to help the sick. In my younger days as a doctor, and now as hospital administrator, I try to improve hospital conditions and environment so that our doctors can do a better job in healthcare.’

Ikram editI realised that this is what I want to do because this is where I feel I can do most good to humanity
– to help people who are suffering from illness…

As he worked his way into the medical profession, Dr Ikram had his fair share of distressing experiences. He described his first job as a medical officer at Hospital Kuala Lumpur (HKL), illustrating just one of the many the struggles he has faced. ‘I was posted to HKL and they put me in a third-class ward. At that time the third-class ward was really like a hospital in a third-world country; it was horrible and I had nightmares about that period. I spent about three months there and my consultant at that time felt that I probably learned enough medicine or suffered enough, so she took me in and asked me to look after the first-class ward patients and second-class,’ he related with a chuckle.

However, that wasn’t the end of it. Later during his training, he endured a medical officer’s nightmare. ‘I was sitting for my exam at night, but the night before I was asked to go on call and I had to work through the night and next day, and I had to go to my exam feeling very sleepy after being on call for 24 hours,’ he explained. However, being the doctor that he is, the lack of sleep and fatigue didn’t stop him from acing the examination.

Being the son of schoolteachers, the professional veteran in Universiti Malaya and UMMC reveals that, contrary to popular belief, teaching and practicing medicine do go hand-in-hand. ‘All doctors should teach,’ Dr Ikram asserted. ‘As a medical doctor, we’re also lecturers. A doctor is supposed to learn to do things and then once we learn how to do things, then we teach. So teaching is part and parcel of being a doctor.’

‘When you teach other people, you are actually strengthening your own knowledge, because to be able to teach you must know your subject very well. If you want to teach students, you just have to keep up with the latest in medicine. So if you teach, you actually become a better doctor,’ reasoned Dr Ikram. He added that research plays a similar role to teaching in improving medical skills. ‘When I was doing my PhD, it trained me to be an even better doctor because by doing research, you learn how to solve problems. You have a particular research problem, you learn the approach to use, scientific approach to solve a problem. You know the approach on how to solve that problem. So it is very useful for a doctor to be able to do research, even up to the PhD level.’

With a foreign education, it is puzzling why Dr Ikram chose to come back to Malaysia when there are greener pastures in fully-developed countries, such as Australia and the United Kingdom that he has been to. But he stands firm on this decision with several valid reasons. ‘I never looked to it. I rather like the environment here,’ he answered. ‘Here, we have everybody. All the specialists are here, so if you have any problems or need any advice, everybody’s here. And they’re the best in the country, so that’s why I like it here. I always tell people, if you go to see the doctor in a private hospital, you’re seeing our students. If you come here, you will see the mahaguru (great teacher). If you want the best, you come to UMMC,’ he said.

Recent international rankings of education institutions, however, have raised the ire of Malaysians who question the performance of Malaysian tertiary education providers. This provides fodder for the public perception that, perhaps, current Malaysian education standards are declining when compared to the previous generation. ‘In those days, everything is done by reputation. If they’re famous, people think that they’re good, but they may not. Maybe those lecturers that were considered to be good in the past – if they were to practice now – may not reach up to the standards that we expect them to do now. So it’s a perception. I don’t think that the standards are coming down, but of course we are always trying to improve,’ explained Dr Ikram.

There are even instances where Malaysian education standards actually exceed the quality of certain foreign education institutions around the world, which debunks another myth amongst common perceptions that foreign education makes a better-trained graduate. ‘It depends on where you come from,’ Dr Ikram reasoned, adding some countries, like UK and Australia, have reputable medical schools. ‘(If it’s from countries like) UK, Australia then you know that the schools are good. ‘But if you come from, say, some of these universities in Russia, Crimea, these are the ones where their students may not be as good as the local universities.’

UMMC puts its money where its mouth is in light of these international education rankings, for they are the testament to the quality of Universiti Malaya’s graduates. That standard continues to outstrip that of most other institutions in the country. ‘We are the top university and also the oldest. There are medical schools in UKM (National University of Malaysia) and USM (Science University of Malaysia), and these are also very good medical schools. But there are some of the newer ones, which are not as good,’ said Dr Ikram. ‘When it comes to choosing doctors I would prefer doctors who are graduating from this university.’

Regions of Art

pascal Odille-®Vivian van BlerkPascal Odille

Artistic Director, Middle East & North Africa, Singapore Art Fair

The latest addition to the art extravaganzas in Southeast Asia is the Singapore Art Fair. Set to enthral the public for the very first time, Singapore Art Fair is an off-shoot of the Beirut Art Fair which is in its fifth year. To chart the progression of the Fair and its novel concept of ME.NA.SA, and what it hopes to accomplish, Yasmin Bathamanathan interviews Singapore Art Fair’s Artist Director of Middle East & North Africa, Pascal Odille.

It is no denying that Singapore is fast becoming the centre of art and culture of Southeast Asia. In fact, the island-country has always enjoyed a central location for trade and economics that stretches back to the days of the spice trade. When it was announced that Singapore would be home to yet another world-class art event, the news was not met without some amount of scepticism from the art world. However, what sets Singapore Art Fair (SAF) apart from the rest is its concept of ME.NA.SA.

For the uninitiated, ME.NA.SA. stands for Middle East, North Africa, Asia and Southeast Asia, and with that, SAF is positioning itself as a ‘platform for cultural and artistic exchange with the aim of widening interests and to explore the artistic development of the ME.NA.SA region through strategic curatorship and programmes, and selection of exciting representations of art from this region.’

Pascal Odille, who is also the artistic director of Beirut Art Fair (BAF), said that SAF’s desire is ‘to bring together all players of the art market of the ME.NA.SA regions, including the press, collectors, novices, public or private museums, auction houses and curators.’

‘Without these people coming together, there will never be true visibility of ME.NA.SA artists. A contemporary art fair is a meeting place for participants to gather to share common interests and ideas on how best to raise the profile of art in that particular market. This helps to create strong connections.’

Having worked with SAF Founder and Fair Director, Laure d’Hauteville on several projects over the past 15 years before joining BAF, Odille was interested in joining forces with d’Hauteville once again, this time in Singapore. ‘When we decided to embark on the adventure of SAF, we saw it as a continuation of the spirit of BAF. Therefore, it was natural that I took on the role of Artistic Director, Middle East & North Africa of SAF to achieve our goal of showcasing ME.NA.SA art in Singapore,’ said Odille.

Just as branching off to SAF from BAF was natural to Odille, one could say that the ME.NA.SA. connection in terms of art is also organic. The ties between the Middle East, North Africa and Asia started with the Silk Road, and there is shared history between these regions. ‘Archaeological excavations carried out by the Russians in the early 20th Century in Eastern Turkestan led to the discovery of Christian objects of worship that were brought ​​by Syrian merchants dating from the 8th Century. The first exchanges that took place between the traders were forged through artworks. As such, there is a common history.’


Without these people coming together, there will never be true visibility of ME.NA.SA artists. – Pascal Odille, Fair Director of Middle East & North Africa, SAF


‘Closer to our time, modern history, particularly that of decolonisation, seems to affect all of ME.NA.SA – for SA, in particular, this would be the period from early 1960s to early 1970s. All these countries have a common cultural and artistic past,’ Odille expounded on the history behind the ME.NA.SA concept.

Art and art history have always been subjects that fascinated Odille, interests that only deepened as he grew in age. ‘I discovered my love for art at a very young age. I started with a high school diploma focusing on literature with a specialisation in philosophy and art history,’ said Odille, who has taught at the Paris campuses of American institutions such as Center for University Programmes Abroad, Parson’s School of Design and University of Delaware.

‘While finishing my studies, I took a number of internships in institutions and galleries. It was after my stint as assistant of Claire Burrus (of the now-defunct Galerie Claire Burrus) in Paris that I decided to only work in contemporary art. It was at that time that I opened Gallery Pascal Odille in Paris, and applied to be an expert at C.N.E.S (National Chamber of Specialised Experts).’

‘After three years of study and supplementary internships under the direction of Armelle Baron, a specialist in Nordic painting, I finally obtained my title as an expert,’ explained Odille. He credits Baron for cultivating his ‘profound interest in art and determination to further artistic research.’

As the Artistic Director of ME.NA.SA., Odille does not only have the task of selecting the artworks that best represent the region, but also to foster an understanding among the galleries and artists on their presence in Singapore. ‘The potential for expression through art is fabulous. It is time that the ME.NA.SA regions are given the opportunity to showcase itself on the international artistic stage and for us to work together on this visibility.’ As for how he selects the artists and artworks, he employs a set selection criteria: ‘the intrinsic quality of the work and the relevance of the subject.’

For most in the SA side of ME.NA.SA., there might be a preconceived notion that the regions of Middle East and North Africa are one, and in that, their  art too are similar. In one part, this perception is not all that wrong. ‘The differences between the ME and NA are not found in their artistic practices. These regions have always used similar media such as video, installation and photography,’ commented Odille. The close proximity between the countries in the two regions and ties that date all the way back to the biblical days are sure to be reflected in art produced in these two regions.

In present day, the ME.NA. region is wrought with internal conflicts, and political unrest. Then there is the on-going Arab Spring, which in the course of four years has seen demonstrations, protests, riots, and civil wars. How the artists react to the turmoil is reflected in the art that they create.

On this note, Odille said, ‘What is also crucial is the question of identity and how it is part of contemporary society. Thirty years of civil war in Lebanon have inevitably pushed young Lebanese artists to try to understand how they got to where they are today. Therefore, I understand their quest to work on themes such as the memories of these painful moments.’

Moreover, the notion of identity in Algeria has always been very evident; the different political and social events that the country has suffered, along with a painful decolonisation, has given Algerian artists a compelling reason to tackle such themes. These themes are eventually reflected in their work,’ said Odille, drawing parallels between the North African nation of Algeria and the Middle Eastern nation of Lebanon.

This quest for identity and its expression is also found in the art of SA, a common thread in much of the contemporary art world. ‘I find the artists share the same reflection when it comes to the notion of identity. The social problems as well as the political involvement of certain artists, regardless of where they come from, are themes that are clearly illustrated in their work. They are the witnesses of their time, whether they are from ME, NA or SA, and so their reflections are similar,’ said Odille on the contemporary art of ME.NA.SA.

As SAF would be the official inaugural point of convergence for Middle Eastern and North African art in Southeast Asia, collectors who are not as familiar with the art of ME.NA. have a lot to look forward to. Like purchasing art from any other regions or periods, Odille said that collectors should ‘buy with their eyes and not with their ears’.

Personally, he finds the contemporary artworks from those two regions fascinating. ‘I am truly touched by the sensibility, intelligence and diversity displayed in them,’ said Odille, ‘From Algeria to Tunis, Lebanon to Egypt, even Iran and Iraq, an important artistic tradition and a strong sense of speaking out prevail throughout these countries.’

‘The significance of the artists from these regions would be of great interest to a number of art enthusiasts and collectors. Therefore, I believe in the importance of taking the time, as an art collector, to talk to gallery owners and asking the relevant questions about the artists they represent.’

Crown-ing Glory

Jim Thompson &  Jimmy Thompson

Founder & Chairman, The Crown Worldwide Group & Managing Director, Crown Worldwide Group Sdn. Bhd.

After 50 years in business, Crown Worldwide has handled everything from alligators to the King of Tonga’s throne and even the priceless ‘Mona Lisa’ painting at the Louvre. With 250 offices in 50 countries and a global turnover of USD850 million, EZ speaks to the father-and-son team about their success story so far.

‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’ – so the old bard, (Shakespeare) believed but others are convinced there are advantages in sticking with a good name, be it recognition or influence. Perhaps that would account for three generations of James ‘Jim’ Thompson in this family of self-made men.  ‘In the Irish tradition, usually the name stays in the family – not directly one to another, but usually grandfather to grandchild. But for some reason my father gave me the same name he had, and I gave it to my son,’ laughs Jim Thompson.

‘My father was an amazing man,’ Jim, remembers. ‘He came from nothing – poverty, and made a success of his life. I felt that having done what he did and giving me the opportunity to get an education, I should build on that.’

Crown Worldwide was founded in 1965 when a young Jim Thompson who was residing in Japan recognised the need for a reputable international moving service. With only USD1,000 to his name, Jim established Transport Services International in Yokohama. Even here, the significance of a ‘good name’ would become apparent.

‘People used to forget that name; they couldn’t get it right. So when we opened in Hong Kong for a second operation, we wanted to name it something different, something we could associate with a symbol,’ explains Jim. ‘Crown emerged as a nice name of quality, royalty and all that. It became very popular in Hong Kong so we kept the name for all our operations.’

By 1975, Crown Pacific would expand into Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and other Asia Pacific regions, becoming the leading relocation company in Asia. The expansion was accompanied by a new name to reflect the company’s global presence; this time the name was to remain Crown Worldwide Group with Crown Relocations being one of its primary division. The other divisions include Crown Fine Art, Crown Logistics, Crown Records Management, Crown Wine Cellars and Crown World Mobility.

According to Jim, the phenomenal success of the company was not something he anticipated or expected. ‘People often ask about Asia and I can’t honestly say it was a vision. It was a startup like any startup company. There’s always this effort to just survive for the first few years. And then as you get going, you say, ‘maybe we can do this well,’ and we just kept expanding and that’s been successful.’ Timing also lent a helping hand as world globalisation was accelerating and Crown and its divisions were there to serve the mobile and logistic requirements.

‘That was our constant effort, to convince people that we are the best. We’ve always been fanatical about quality and I think that has paid off because people use our services and tell their friends about it. We developed over fifty years and became the only global company in our business,’ continues Jim.

Crown was only 10 years old when they opened here in Malaysia, four decades ago, but it has seen rapid growth, brand distinction and even acquired a sense of exclusivity. ‘We like people to think of us as high quality, top of the market. Most people in the industry require three quotations. So long as they call us even if they think we are expensive, they find that we are not. We’re quite competitive with the other good companies in town,’ explains Jim. ‘When they see that our quote is reasonable we stand a good chance of getting business.’

Though they may share the same name, the father and son team did not always share the same career ambitions. ‘I always hoped that my children would be in the company someday, I think most fathers would, but I think that, he knew when he graduated from university that if he wouldn’t join Crown, he would have to go and get his own job, which he did, in China.’

A request by one of the operating managers to assist with a project in China led to Jimmy joining the company officially and staying with Crown for 15 years. ‘My first thought was I needed to pay my rent,’ he chuckles. ‘Second thought was, well, I’ll get the project done and then I’ll look for something else. But I guess, I’m just that good and here I am!’

Having married and resided in China for almost 18 years, the opportunity to relocate to Malaysia was too good to miss. ‘It was a time of change for me and an opportunity came up in the organisation as well. I was very pleased to come to a place with cleaner air, a new environment and very friendly people.’Of course, there were some domestic arrangements to consider as well. ‘To be honest, my wife said this was the only place she would move to if she left China,’ he grins.

Nevertheless, the move would prove to be mutually beneficial for both, man and company. ‘I speak Chinese and I also have certain skills in different sectors of the business, that other employees don’t have in Malaysia − particularly on the logistics side of the business, which can be used to really build up the development of the business in Malaysia.’

Jim Thompson3‘Crown emerged as a nice name of quality, royalty and all that. It became very popular in Hong Kong so we kept the name for all our operations.’

– Jim Thompson

As for managing the operations of over 5,000 employees and contractors worldwide, it may not be an easy feat but the Thompsons have taken it well in their stride. ‘We have to really motivate them, centralize them with compensation, whether through salary or recognition for their good services,’ says Jim. ‘Frankly I think we have one of the best teams, certainly in our industry.’

Respect is a key ingredient in the management style at Crown. ‘I started the company and I’m still here, but it’s all these people who built the business for me. I really think about that all the time. Whether they’re driving a truck or cleaning the offices or someone in a management position, I try to respect these great men and I think this has sort of filtered down to our team.’

Working for his father’s company does not seem to affect Jimmy in any way. ‘Well, Crown is a pretty big company and there are different layers of management. We do work closely together sometimes but mostly with the management team within Crown.’

Jim agrees, ‘I think the important thing is that Jimmy doesn’t work directly for me. He’s my son so we talk a lot, but his boss is actually the head of the Asia Pacific region. I think that’s good because he’ll be mentored by that guy, who’s also quite experienced.’

But there is no denying Junior’s admiration for the man who built the company. ‘I always look at my dad, who has a very positive attitude. Even though times may be tough, he’s always got a positive outlook. He’s been in the business for so many years, that all the experience that I or anyone else can give is just a story.’

As for what the future holds for these enterprising men and their business, there is talk of a book and quite possibly a museum. ‘I’m hopeful that Crown as a company will be able to build an art collection as well. Many businesses do that and I thank this opportunity because in Asia, art is coming up so much, it’s fantastic. We’re in a position to buy pieces from time to time and build a Malaysian art collection,’ muses Jim, who is himself an art collector. ‘I love art, so I hope that my collection will be passed on and hopefully grow in the future.’

The passage of time has been a reflective time for this charismatic man who has achieved so much through hard work, determination and mutual respect. And it’s a life story he wishes to preserve for the next generation. ‘I realised when I saw a lot of people in the office today, that not one of them was 40 years old. So they weren’t here when the company started in Malaysia. And they and the ones coming after should know what Crown was in the beginning. I want it written down accurately, with old pictures … I want to tell my own story as well, about what it’s been like.’

A Belle and Her Dreams

It is a story right out of a fairy tale; a girl dreams of making it big, chases her dreams and builds a fantasyland that makes other girls’ dreams come true! In a journey of self-realisation and exploration, one Penang-lass makes it to the big league with her large dreams and bold ideas. For this issue of EZ, we talked to Anne Lee, the bridal industry maverick and fairy godmother to a host of brides and brides-to-be.

When Malaysian king of badminton and world champion Datuk Lee Chong Wei decided to tie the knot with his sweetheart, former Malaysian badminton singles player, Datin Wong Mew Choo, only the best would do for the special occasion. He and his now-wife turned to Anovia Bridal, more specifically Anne to capture and immortalise the couple’s love.

To Anne, this celebrity wedding was the most outstanding one that she has been involved in and goes down as one of her most memorable projects. ‘There are a lot of celebrity weddings, but there’s only one Datuk Lee Chong Wei, and I’m proud to have had the opportunity and ability to handle his wedding,’ said Anne when met at her latest bridal boutique, Obsidian in Penang.

‘He is one of the world’s top badminton players and he makes Malaysia proud. He even asked to visit Anovia and have a look at the chapel. That made me feel very proud because before that, he already had his wedding photos taken at Sepang. He was training there, and therefore he couldn’t come to my place in Penang. But at the very last minute, Datuk Lee suddenly said that he wanted to come to Penang. ‘I want to go to Penang to take photos, your shop is very nice,’ he said.’

‘There are a lot of celebrity weddings, but there’s only one Datuk Lee Chong Wei, and I’m proud to have the opportunity and ability to handle his wedding.’

– Anne Lee, Managing Director of Anovia Bridal and Obsidian Production Studio

Long before Anne’s Anovia Bridal captured the attention of Malaysia’s golden boy, the bridal house was already generating positive buzz not only within Malaysia, but also overseas. Housed in a sprawling heritage mansion with an immaculate garden adorned with angelic sculptures, Anovia Bridal has a celestial wedding chapel built on its grounds where love-struck couples can pledge their love and seal their marriage.

The idea for Anovia Bridal came at a time when Anne had decided to take a break from the bridal industry, which she was involved in for almost two decades as a wedding gown designer, a sales person, a bridal house supervisor and then as a bridal house manager. Knowing the ins-and-outs of the industry and having worked with top bridal houses in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Penang had prepared her to build and run her own business in the bridal industry.

Invited by her friend to view a property, which used to house the famous Penang establishment, Bagan Bar, Anne was reluctant at first. This would however change the moment she entered the mansion. ‘When I reached Bagan, I don’t know why but I immediately felt a connection to the place. I could visualize so many changes to the place; this is where I could have my reception, and there would be the gown department, and I kept talking and talking about my ideas,’ recalled Anne, saying that it was almost akin to a ‘love at first sight’ with the mansion.

That deliberate maneuver by her friend was successful in reigniting within Anne the passion for the bridal industry. ‘From then on, my dream started once more. I wanted this, I wanted that, I wanted a chapel; I didn’t want this tree… I talked a lot with the designers to create and realize my own dream bridal house. When I first entered this area, the premises were derelict and unkempt. It was like a jungle, with trees here and there. But it had such a big compound that I could make a dream wedding house of my own,’ she said.

Any visitors to Anovia would feel like they are entering a surreal world, one that is magical and serene. The concept of this bridal house is very clear and tactical, and it is all credited to Anne’s vision. ‘Last time, my dreams and ideas were restricted by my superiors. But now that I had a place of my own, I could let my creativity run loose. I could have what I wanted at Anovia, like the statue, decorations, everything which was from my heart. I created a feeling that was welcoming, and with every step you take in Anovia, a story unfolds in your mind. We can feel it inside, in ourselves. That’s what I visualized, that every step is a moment of its own with a different scenery and perspective playing out in the mind of every visitor,’ explained Anne on her concept.

Having established Anovia Bridal in 2011 and receiving rave reviews and accolades for her celestial bridal concept, Anne has unveiled another exciting concept this year. Obsidian, which is right next door to Anovia Bridal, is like the hip, younger sister complete with its exposed brick walls, obsidian black ceilings and glam wedding gowns.

‘Obsidian’s concept is completely different from Anovia’s. It is urban, contemporary and bold – a different way to present a wedding. It appeals more to the young generation. Another thing is I think that in the whole of Malaysia, you’ve never seen a bridal house with a black or grey ceiling. It’s a very strong colour, and it’s such a bold concept that I had to spend a few months mulling it over,’ said Anne.

Introducing such a novel concept to an already saturated industry could be daunting, something that was certainly not lost on Anne. She had to ensure that the concept was not just a superficial one that was contemporary in its aesthetics but one that was daring to create new trends within the bridal industry. ‘One of the main products we offer here in Obsidian is short film productions. Out of the whole of Malaysia, this is the only bridal house with its own screening theatre. We create short bridal videos, and hold previews as well as screenings for the customers to present the finished product to their family and friends,’ said Anne.

‘In my opinion, photos capture memories without sound and movement. Many years after the photos are taken, they still evoke nostalgia but we can only make simple statements while looking at them. However, videos and short films are different. We create short bridal films because a marriage doesn’t concern just two people; it involves the joining of two families and their worlds. Only a short film can capture the worlds of the bride and the groom. So, one day, when the customer watches the short film of their wedding, he or she can listen to the voices of loved ones and relive the moment.’

Another key aspect of Obsidian’s short film concept is its technical and creative crew, which Anne assures are all professionals – both from the bridal industry and international film industry. ‘When a customer signs up for the short film package with us, we create a story for them. We prepare a script, a director, art director, producer … basically everything for the customer. Obsidian has invested in an overseas movie crew, and so we have a team of specialists whose expertise lies in making short-film movies,’ she said, ‘You can make a short film with your girlfriend, or a short movie with your friends. That means this service is not restricted to just newlyweds or engaged couples. This is Obsidian’s new challenge for the market. This is our new plan for the millennium.’

With Anne realizing her own dreams and ideas, what she has done is give this generation a channel to make their own dreams come true and to capture it for all eternity.

When East Meets West

In 2011, a new art event took place that would, over the next four years, change the position of Singapore within the Asia Pacific art industry. The very first edition Art Stage Singapore was held at Marina Bay Sands and each year since, the event has attracted worldwide attention. At the 2014 edition of the art fair, the team from EZ had the privilege to sit down for a chat with the man behind Art Stage Singapore, Lorenzo Rudolf. We discussed how the art fair has grown and its relation to the Southeast Asian and global art market in general.

Lorenzo Rudolf is a prominent figure in the art world. Long before he headed east and brought a much needed breath of fresh air and vigor to the Southeast Asian art world, Rudolf was at the helm of the world’s most recognised and lauded art fair for the modern and contemporary – Art Basel. From 1991 to 2000, he led Art Basel as its director.

This Bern, Switzerland native has always been surrounded by art, not surprisingly. ‘It started all in the house of my parents who were art lovers and culture lovers. I grew up in a place at the time which was probably one of the most interesting moments in the history of contemporary art,’ said Rudolf during the interview on the last day of Art Stage Singapore 2014.

‘Exactly at this time the Kunsthalle Bern was directed by a guy who was at his time considered crazy but he was the one who really opened the doors for contemporary art as the conceptual thing with his very famous exhibition, When Attitudes Become Form. I was once standing in front of his museum in Bern and saw this museum was packed; it was the first time I crossed a packed building,’ he said. The ‘crazy’ curator was none other than the controversial Harald Szeemann, said to be the most important curator of the post-World War II period.

‘So I was probably also lucky to grow up at the right time, at the right place. In that context I made my career start as an artist myself and then realizing that there were better artists than me, and coming to the point, maybe I can bring together my professional background with my passion to organize events – that’s the way how we’re doing it, and I became director of Art Basel, and from there, step by step it continued,’ he said.

After his long tenure with Art Basel, Rudolf traveled around the world setting up various other fairs, namely the Frankfurt Book Fair and the International Fine Arts Exposition in Palm Beach. In 2007, he headed to China to launch the ShContemporary art fair in Shanghai. ‘The first country in Asia which really became important in the international arts was China, and that had a lot to do also with Swiss, maybe. The first big gallery in China, it was a Swiss who opened it and is still today the biggest gallery,’ explained Rudolf on the Swiss-China art connection. Incidentally, it was also the great Harald Szeemann who would be instrumental in bringing Chinese art to the international art world.

However, Rudolf’s fascination with Asian art had started long before his move to the East with the first piece of art work from Asia that he had collected during his time at Art Basel. ‘The first few pieces I bought were in the early 90s, which were brought over to Europe through these people,’ he said. It would seem coincidental that the bridging of Southeast Asian art and the global art world would be paved by yet another Swiss.

As he became involved with Asian art during his stint at SH Contemporary, Rudolf’s interest for it deepened. It was his first big show in Asia and China at that time was experiencing a huge boom, quite rightly an exciting time of growth for the art world. Inspired by the buzz around him, Rudolf felt the urge to do something in Asia, particularly Southeast Asia. ‘I fell more and more in love with this region because I think Southeast Asia has incredible creativity, and it’s not only a creativity which is trying to fulfill certain Western criteria of contemporary art, but has its own character and identity,’ he said. And that was how the seed for Art Stage Singapore was planted.

‘That’s also the reason why I decided to come to Singapore and do this show here. The show, which is a platform for the entire Southeast Asia, brings (the countries) together and in exchange, at the same time, opening a window to the West,’ he said about the concept behind Art Stage Singapore. 2014 marked the fourth edition of Rudolf’s grand visionary plan of a world-class art fair based in this oft-overlooked part of the world, and the mark Art Stage Singapore has made on the overall art market of this region is not just highly visible, but also profound.

‘I think today we are at a situation where we have a momentum all over the world for Southeast Asia. There was never a curiosity and interest in Southeast Asian art as today; that has surely to do also with the phenomenon here. I’m glad we can help Southeast Asia to go out, to become a part of this global art world, to integrate Southeast Asia in this global context. That’s why, at the end, I’m happy that we can contribute,’ he said.

‘I think today we are at a situation where we have a momentum all over the world for Southeast Asia. There was never a curiosity and interest in Southeast Asian art as today …’

Southeast Asia is comprised of diverse art scenes; each of the nations in the region has their own distinct art scenes that have their own unique microcosms. To bring them together as how Rudolf has done with the Southeast Asia Platform at the 2014 edition of Art Stage Singapore is quite a novel concept, to say the least. The discourse between the different member countries makes for a rather fascinating study. ‘I think what is important in the Southeast Asian context is when its different countries and art scenes begin to interact with each other – not only the Indonesians among the Indonesians, Malaysians with Malaysians, Thais amongst Thais. I think it is important to have this exchange,’ Rudolf explained.

‘Contemporary art is a global language; it is an expression which has to be understood everywhere. A good art piece done by a Malaysian artist is understood in New York as well as in Jakarta. A good art piece done by an Italian artist is understood in Singapore as well as in Tokyo. That’s what you have to create here. I think for that, this place here is ideal, because Southeast Asia is quite a big region. There are a lot of interesting artists, but not a lot of infrastructure. Here we have the infrastructure. Here we can build up the bridge to the West, to the world, to everybody,’ he said, making a point for the suitability of Singapore as a hub for the region, ‘And that at the end is what we do.’

This year, to coincide with Art Stage Singapore, the Singapore Art Week was held with numerous art-related events strewn all across the island nation. There were also a number of auctions held, capitalizing on the congregation of the movers-and-shakers of the art world in Singapore for the week. When asked his take on the cluttering of so many art events at the same time, Rudolf commented, ‘Every medal has two sides, I think. On the one side, it’s good to have a lot of things around and not only one event because it attracts a lot of people. On the other side, it’s clear the more you have things around that people spend money on, the more it spreads left and right.’

‘Contemporary art is a global language; it is an expression which has to be understood everywhere. A good art piece done by a Malaysian artist is understood in New York as well as in Jakarta.’

However, seeing that collectors are a discerning bunch in general, and some might be collecting art for the sake of investment, the presence of many art auctions and sales also mean that they have a wider selection to choose from. ‘They concentrate their purchases where they really want, where they find the best,’ said Rudolf, adding that this translates to the different players in the art scene trying to do their best to outdo the other. ‘The more you have around, you always have to try to be the best and then you can be sure people come here to sell and buy.’

‘It’s proof that Southeast Asia and Singapore is moving, it’s developing. If that was not the case also, nothing would happen. So in other words, all in all, I think it’s great but it has to be (coordinated) a bit. Only then can we have a round and sound result as something without any concept behind it would help nobody’, he said on the activities surrounding Art Stage Singapore 2014, ‘If really a lot of events are complementing each other to create something new, great! It’s fine.’ Seeing the success of Art Stage Singapore 2014 and the various art-related activities that Rudolf’s brainchild has inspired, it all bodes good news for the development of the Southeast Asian art world.

A MATTER OF PRECISION

Over 30 years ago in the idyllic Penang town of Air Itam, a Chinese physician who loved to tinker with his toolbox came up with a brilliant idea. With a passion for mechanical inventions and a fascination with machinery, the late Dato’ Teh Ah Ba did the unconventional; he opened a workshop, Eng Hardware Electrical, behind his clinic in 1974. The workshop produced jigs and fixtures. Today, that workshop has grown to become of Malaysia’s leading homegrown producer of precision tooling for the semiconductor industry – the ENGTEK Group.

A journey that is as remarkable as it is inspiring; the evolution of Eng Hardware Electrical to ENGTEK Group is one of calculated precision. The late 1980’s saw the company opening a 40,000 sq ft plant in the Bayan Lepas Industrial Zone and venturing into actuator production for the hard disk drive industry. It was also during this time that ENGTEK’s investment holding company, Eng Teknologi Holdings Bhd (ETHB), was set up.

In 1993, ETHB debuted on the Bursa Malaysia Second Board. Since then, ENGTEK has set spread its reach to outside of Malaysia, setting up plants in the Philippines and Thailand, as well as forging strategic alliances with Singapore’s Altum Precision, making it the Group’s first regional acquisition. ENGTEK celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2004 and is today the leading manufacturer and supplier of electrical components in South East Asia.

Despite its rapid expansion, ENGTEK has remained a family business, run by the core members of the late Dato’ Teh’s family. At the helm of the group is Dato’ Teh Yong Khoon (YK Teh), the late Dato’ Teh’s son, who is the CEO of ENGTEK. In an interview with EZ, YK Teh said that he growing up under his father’s tutelage prepared him to lead the company in the direction that his father would have been proud of. ‘I would say that I have enjoyed the life growing up with him. I really respect him in many, many ways and he brought me up as a good technical man. It also gave me a lot of opportunity to learn together from him,’ said YK Teh.

YK Teh’s proclivity towards the engineering and mechanical field was clearly one that was in part cultivated from young and the other matched by an interest that was sparked by being exposed to his father’s business. ‘I have always been very involved in the technical aspect of the business, rather than corporate planning or anything else – it is the technical part like research into process improvement and research in new product development to fulfill the customer’s needs. It always triggers me, you know, like a really huge hobby, trying to perfect or improve a product,’ he said.

ENGTEK, which was transferred to the Main Board of Bursa Malaysia Securities Berhad in 1999, recently underwent the process of privatization. The move to privatize, said YK Teh, is one of the best decisions the Group has made thus far. ‘Having it listed, I guess we had the ego of trying to expand, and then going into listed status 20 years ago which is in 1993. We did a good job, I must say, for the last 20 years. We did not have any funds or sourcing from the listed market, so in actual fact we’ve been putting in quite of a lot of dividends public after the listing process.’

‘At the same time, the last thing that we do see here is that we are in an industry that needs a huge transformation. We do believe that we need a change and the change could be dangerous or risky for our shareholders. So we see which change is best and do it ourselves. If it’s going to be positive, we can have the company listed again in the future. If it’s negative, then we’ll shoulder all the risk. Now, will this be better for the family? I must say that it will definitely be better for the family because we are all committed for this change that we want. So long-term wise, I think it is still very good for us to go in and to take the company private, which has already been one year. We are setting the footprint on going forward into other industries which are still focused in precision engineering,’ said YK Teh.

ENGTEK’s success in not only growing to become a multinational but also to withstand the downturn in Penang’s electronic sector and thrive is remarkable. Some may even say that Penang’s electronic industry is a sunset industry. To this, YK Teh said, ‘Well if you take Penang as a sunset industry for electronic sectors, I won’t say that it is 100 percent true statement. If you look at it in terms of labour cost or the ‘Made in China’ or the greater China side of it or if you talk about Thailand, Malaysia has still been one of the best in terms of engineering and the talent supply versus others, although we cannot be like same as China, because of the huge gap between our and their labour force.’

Penang, he said, has continued to support a sizable electronic industry with some of the businesses growing bigger and some graduating from manufacturing low-cost products to developing high value products. There are electronic manufacturing services companies in Penang that manufacture components for diverse high-tech fields such as aerospace, compute  ‘They’re getting products that are much higher value, products that need a lot more talent as compared to before, and I think that you can see that there are a lot more engineers that are involved at this particular point. So, about the electronics industry actually being a sunset industry and going away, I don’t believe so,’ commented YK Teh.

For ENGTEK to have weathered the storm and expand its business beyond the borders of Malaysia, the level of commitment from the leadership of the company to the unity of the management had been strong. This must have been particularly tricky seeing that YK Teh was dealing with family members, which can be stressful. There is even a saying in this part of the world that family businesses normally cannot survive past the second or third generation, and in response to this, he shared, ‘I think it is mainly dependent on the support from other family members and their involvements, be it in terms of conflicts or not, whether are they really supportive. So if the family is supportive, then I would say that it is not hard to run the company at all.’

With ENGTEK, he said the company does hire professionals to fill certain posts seeing that the Teh family is not big enough to fill all the seats within the company. This practice, he said, is prevalent in many other Chinese family businesses in this region. ‘I don’t think they will go with the tradition where every member of the family has to come to work in the company, or the son or whomever has to be at the helmship of the CEO, or the No. 1 post,’ he added.

Being entrusted with the responsibility of continuing his father’s legacy, we asked YK Teh if being in such a position was hard. ‘No, not hard at all,’ he answered, adding that his family is very supportive of one another and him. Besides the support system provided by his family, YK Teh said that having a right balance in life and time management was key to stability. ‘You have to have the time; you got to have your own time to do activities other than work. To me, time is how you decide, how you allocate. So if you just work, I would say, even if you work 24 hours, seven days a week, it will still be the same as when you work 8-to-5, go home, enjoy life and then come back. In fact, you will be even more effective when you take a break. Activities with family and activities by yourself, I believe, there always needs to be a balance in terms of life and not work alone.’

But then again, being a CEO of a thriving group such as ENGTEK is bound to have a toll, which YK Teh agreed. ‘You are still at the higher end in terms of stress as compared to others,’ he said, ‘But that doesn’t mean that you can totally de-stress.’ De-stressing, for YK Teh involves personal time and time with family and friends. An avid golfer, he enjoys playing golf with his golfing buddies. As for family time, he is just like every other Malaysian who loves food. ‘Going on trips with my family, it’s always a good thing to do for family bonding. One of the things to like to do together is eat. Sometimes we take trips, ‘makan’ trips,’ he said, with a twinkle in his eyes.

Heels to Hills

EZ goes up the tranquil hills of Balik Pulau in Penang in search of one heritage gem – the Balik Pulau Lodge. A traditional Hakka settlement that is more than 200 years old, today it is a vibrant relaxation spot thanks to one enterprising and history-loving Maggie Fong.

Like the migration stories of many cultures, the story of the Hakka people in Malaysia follows in the same vein. Well before the reign of the British Empire in the Malay Peninsula, the first Hakkas to set foot on this soil arrived during the earlier part of the 18th century. It is said that they first set foot not in the East Coast of the Malay Peninsula, but on the shores of what is known to us today as Balik Pulau, on the island of Penang.

Later on, as the demand for workers in the tin mines grew, the British brought in labourers from the southern provinces of China, many of them being Hakkas. These early Hakka migrants not only brought their language – Hakka – to this new land, but also their own culture, traditions, cuisine and way of living. This wave of migrants made their wealth in tin mining, with the most famous Hakka in Malaysian history rising to prominence and developing Kuala Lumpur as Malaya’s economic and mining centre. Yes, the legendary Chinese Capitan Yap Ah Loy was a Hakka.

Today, almost a quarter of the Malaysian Chinese population is Hakka. Even in Penang, which is better known for its Hokkien community, it is home to a sizeable Hakka community. However, through the centuries, Hakkas have slowly lost their language and the culture is not as visible as the Chinese community at large has adopted Mandarin as their language. But there is an exception to the rule: among the many Hakkas living in Malaysia, is one feisty lady who has taken a bold step in the preservation of a part of the Malaysian Hakka story.

Maggie Fong, a proud Hakka, runs the Balik Pulau Lodge – a Hakka-themed homestay. Setting the Lodge apart from other ‘themed’ homestays and hotels, this place is actually a Hakka settlement that was built by migrants who came to cultivate the hillside of Balik Pulau hundreds of years ago. Right in the middle of the Lodge is what Fong calls the Hakka Big House, around which most of the activities of the homestay are centred.

Built on a rocky slope, the Hakka Big House is a testament to the resilience of the early settlers. As one enters the perimeters of the Lodge and go up the driveway, they will be met by huge boulders lined against the steep cliffs, a barricade of sorts. Not a barricade of the outside forces, but a barricade to contain the hilly slope and to prevent erosion. These acted as terraces for farming, and on which today remains a fruit orchard that produces tropical fruits in the plentiful.

‘The centuries old stone walls with 200 years of history are evidences of the Hakka ancestors who travelled here, leaving their motherland behind. They are also a reminder of how the early Hakka settlers had a hardworking and resilient spirit. Balik Pulau was undeveloped in that period and the valley was too steep, without much flat land for farming and growing crops. They worked together very hard to develop the place, and finally after years of hard work, the Hakka hill farming land was developed,’ quipped Fong.

Fong who grew up in Johor in a typical Hakka home loves to relate stories of her childhood – the stories of her people and the way they live. ‘Hakka people are very hardworking, their food is different and their home is different from the homes of other Chinese communities,’ she said, adding that the typical Hakka home is built on stilts. ‘The first generation of Hakkas lived on the hills, so, to prevent from animals entering their homes, they built their homes a few feet above the ground. So if someone knocks on their door, they could look down to see if it was their friend or enemies.’

‘After 20 years of staying in Penang, I wanted to find a place that I could do up like my kampong in Johor. So I started looking for a piece of land to build a Hakka house like the one in my hometown.’ It was in Balik Pulau that Fong found her piece of heaven. ‘I thought I can have it for my private use, and on Saturdays and Sundays, I could invite my friends to come and eat durian, to have a barbecue, to hold functions and home parties. So I bought the house and the land,’ said Fong of the 12-acre land on which the Hakka Big House stands.

She had purchased the land and the house some years ago, but it was only towards the end of October 2012 that Fong got the idea of opening the place for public. This is how the Lodge came to be established. The inspiration came to her when she went on a safari trip in Africa. Seeing the African tents and how everyone was one with nature sparked the idea to bring this concept to start the Lodge at her Hakka Big House.

‘I just wanted to retain the place’s history, to keep its heritage and to have a green place. I wanted to have a Hakka lodge on the hill, to serve Hakka food and to serve durian,’ said Fong. The Hakka Big House can house up to 30 guests. Next to it is a camp site that is fitted with 10 African-style tents and 20 mobile tents, six mosquito net hammocks, and a field camouflage yurt.

‘We have 12 acres of orchards with durian trees and cardamom trees and 40 local tropical fruits in the Hakka traditional old house. Visitors get to enjoy the cool mountain climate, the air is fresh and surrounded by greeneries, spectacular mountains and sea view,’ she said. And the Hakka Big House, it is the very same house that was lived in by the settlers, giving the visitors more than just a unique experience but also to see a slice of local history.

‘You know, we Penangites, when it come to holidays, there is nowhere to go, only shopping. I wanted a place where they can go to relax, where they can experience the fruit farm. So in October of 2012, I decided to open it to the public. After a few months of preparation, we opened to public in December 2012,’ she explained. The Lodge has been attracting numerous visitors and has been featured in many travel sites.

In the vein of her other business ventures, this one is also a resounding success. Fong, a journalism graduate who briefly flirted with the world of reporting, has always had a passion for business. ‘A business person can attain financial freedom. Even when I was a little girl, I had always wanted to be a businessman. I don’t want to be a worker – a worker has a fixed salary but not fixed expenses. But a business person has fixed expenses but not fixed income, you could have more income in one month if you wanted it,’ said Fong.

Fong is best known for the flyer distribution empire she founded with her late-husband. Flyer King was, and still is, the largest professional flyer distributor in Malaysia. While still managing the flyer distribution business  – Fong is the CEO of Flyer King – and running a stellar tourist and heritage attraction, Fong finds the time to seek adventures around the world as she backpacks to exciting locales off the beaten track. After all, the lady has kicked her heels for the hills.

Making the Fire Work

EZ has a chat with Asia’s most recognised firework maverick, Joe Ghazzal, who has orchestrated some of Malaysia’s most iconic fireworks events.

Up in the sky, breaking the treacle dark expanse, bursts of colours shoot from the ground, loud and shrill in their accent only to break out into a thunderous explosion of magical proportions. Such is the beauty of the firework, a human invention that combines the science of pyrotechnic with the aesthetics of art.

Fireworks, like many other endeavours of human expression, have over the centuries taken on various forms to produce what is known as the three cornerstone effects fireworks – the sound, the light, and most importantly, the effects.  So sophisticated are the fireworks of today that they can burn with flames and sparks of a wide range of colours and in spectacular effects with distinct sounds.

Though it may trace its roots back to 7th Century China where they were invented, fireworks have become a form of entertainment of its own.   Mind you, we are not talking about run-of-the-mill consumer fireworks that can be purchased by the public during major festival seasons but professional grade fireworks used in world class events; fireworks that have become a symbol of grandeur and prestige. These are fireworks that stretch the possibilities of pyrotechnics while continually seeking to perfect its art and science.

One such fireworks event, which also happens to be the largest international fireworks competition, is the Danang International Fireworks Competition (DIFC). Held annually in Danang, Vietnam, DIFC surprisingly has a Malaysian connection which began at its conception through the Malaysian and Hong Kong based Global2000 International Ltd. At the helm of Global2000 is the enigmatic Joe Ghazzal – a leading figure in the entertainment and events industry.

‘We were invited by the Vietnamese Government to produce the Danang International Fireworks Competition in Vietnam in 2008; we have been producing and choreographing (the competition) since then,’ said Joe. ‘DIFC is a complete success and it attracts a million visitors to watch the event over two nights.’

Prior to being invited to produce DIFC, Joe’s Global2000 was already making waves in the region for its spectacular fireworks shows and also for organizing world class events. In 2007, Global2000 organised, produced and managed Malaysia International Fireworks Competition (MIFC), which was the first ever international fireworks competition staged in Malaysia. ‘MIFC was the key and major event for Visit Malaysia Year 2007 and 50th Merdeka celebrations,’ explained Joe. ‘MIFC was hosted and supported by Ministry of Tourism in 2007 and 2008 for Visit Malaysia Year and it was a huge success that attracted 3.5 million people to Putrajaya.’

Joe’s involvement in the fireworks industry happened quite naturally. Having been involved in the entertainment industry since his university days, Joe has seen it all and conquered it all, that is, until he went full force in producing world class fireworks competitions and events. He started deejaying in Singapore during his university days and would then go on to recruiting and supplying DJs, records and equipment to new clubs, first in Singapore and then expanding up to Kuala Lumpur. ‘Whilst I was in the clubbing scene, I got into producing special events for product and brand launches in these clubs. Then I moved on and opened an event management company in 1994,’ said Joe on his venturing into event management.

‘I have done over 100 events for Petronas; I did the Launch for the Mercedes cars, produced and launched (events for) Astro, Measat, KLSE new building, KL Tower, Putrajaya, Cyberjaya, Sepang’s F1 circuit, Formula 1 opening ceremony, F1 Gala dinner and produced and managed the official Millennium celebrations at KLCC Petronas,’ said Joe. ‘I wanted to create a legacy for the new Millennium, so I produced a mega party at the Subang Terminal One, which was called ‘Zero’ – One World One Party.’ The airport, according to Joe, was a symbolic choice – it signified the departure of the old and arrival of the new Millennium. ‘It was the biggest party ever held in Malaysia that attracted more than 100,000 revellers!’

This is where the fireworks connection comes in. According to Joe, all his past major outdoor events capped off with a bang with a fireworks display. ‘As the finale was important to the event, I personally choreographed the fireworks so that the fireworks display would sync with the actual events.’

The lure of such fireworks displays is undoubtable. Elaborate fireworks displays are fascinating and quite magical. As Joe elaborated, it is ‘the creative side that is the wonder of fireworks. It is a combination of curiosity and emotion that lead us to watch these shows of explosive art. The one reason everyone continues to be fascinated with fireworks is that they remain incomprehensible. They are a chain of reactions that begins with a spark on the ground and ends in flashes of light several hundred meters in the air.’ This adds to the magical allure of the firework, which he said makes us ‘appreciate fireworks much in the same way as we do art – well-choreographed fireworks displays take us on a magical journey!’

While it may seem enchanting to the spectator, a lot of work by a large team of experts goes in to producing a wow-worthy fireworks event. ‘A major event like DIFC, requires writers, content producers, lighting designers, sound engineers, technical and safety specialists and event production team and logistics planners. To produce (the event), it takes months of planning; a team of good skilled and talented men and technical crew – which Team Global has – months of communications with clients and the selected participants,’ said Joe. On the technical front, stringent quality standards and procedures need to be adhered to.

For Global2000, which is capable to provide A to Z services for large scale international fireworks events, the gamut of its involvement in events such as DIFC and MIFC is indeed vast. ‘We implement the scheduling and format of the competitions and we also manage the press conferences, radio and television programs; receptions and other public events prior to the events,’ he said.

‘In some cases, we supply all supporting hardware and technical equipment; Mortars, Racks and firing system that is required for the fireworks competition as well as produce and manage all logistics,’ he added. ‘It’s a lot of work and many man-hours because we provide a complete turn-key production from start to end.’

The Malaysian-born-Singapore-educated Joe professed a deep passion and fascination for fireworks that goes beyond just a professional interest. ‘Fireworks have always fascinated me since I was a kid. It’s the sound of the massive explosions followed by a barrage of bright colours that makes me happy! I think it has to do with the many patterns of the fireworks because they are all different and unpredictable, just like life, and they explode in various directions and it just looks amazing above the night skies. People just love the explosions in the sky and love bright giant glowing paintings in the sky. The sky is a large canvas and fireworks allow me to paint the sky with my art.’

The sky is a large canvas and fireworks allow me to paint the sky with my art.

To Joe, everything he does seems to come from the heart. Outside his work, he is all about having a wonderful time with his family and friends. While his tastes might veer to the extravagant (a penchant for fast cars, globe-trotting and putting off at golf courses all over the world), Joe is very much grounded and humble. ‘I am a very normal fellow. I have a wonderful family just like the ordinary Malaysian Joe! I have a lovely wife and a beautiful daughter. They mean the world to me. I have a bunch of good friends and I love them too,’ said Joe. As for his work, Joe has only nice words to say, ‘I enjoy the work I do, so, it’s my hobby more than work. I put my heart and soul into my hobby.’

This hobby of his in which he has made the sky as his canvas has proven to be more than just a spectacular form of art; it has helped transform the way tourism is done. Joe and Global2000’s contribution to the region of Danang has not gone unappreciated. ‘We were presented with a special certificate awarded by the Danang Government for significant contribution to socio-economic development, international friendship promotion and humanitarian activities for the city of Danang,’ said Joe.

The God of Quality

EZ caught up with Tumi Holdings, Inc’s Senior Vice President and Managing Director of Asia Pacific, Tom Nelson, when he was in Penang for the official opening of the brand’s first flagship boutique in the luxury lifestyle mall, Gurney Paragon.

In a world where the jet-setting elite are not only growing in numbers but also in sophistication and discernment, the need for excellent travel gear has generated a lucrative industry. With many brands vying for the attention of the well-heeled traveller, there is one brand that has been revolutionising the way people travel.

Taking its name from a Peruvian god, Tumi is a world-renowned brand that began almost 40 years ago, built around the basic philosophy of creating products that make people’s lives easier. The 1980s saw Tumi’s innovation – the soft, super functional, black-on-black ballistic nylon travel bags – captivate the consumers and sow the seeds for an astronomical growth. The last two decades has witnessed Tumi’s conquering of the luxury travel segment and leading the trail with its superior quality luggage, business cases, handbags, small leather goods, executive accessories, electronics, gifts, pens and watches. That the brand holds 25 patents for its design and engineering developments is no coincidence nor is being recognised as the brand with the best products in the travel and business categories.

While in the past, Malaysians could only purchase Tumi products in the brand’s flagship boutiques overseas, the last couple of years have seen a marked increase in the brand’s presence as Tumi sets up its boutiques in Malaysia. With four boutiques in Kuala Lumpur and one in Johor, Valiram Group which exclusively manages and operates Tumi in Malaysia brought the brand to Penang in October 2013. EZ caught up with Tumi Holdings, Inc’s Senior Vice President and Managing Director of Asia Pacific, Tom Nelson, when he was in Penang for the official opening of the brand’s first flagship boutique in the luxury lifestyle mall, Gurney Paragon.

As the SVP and MD of Asia Pacific, Nelson’s job covers a wide region. ‘I am responsible for the Asia Pacific region, which extends from India in the west, down to Australia and New Zealand in the South Pacific, all the way up to Northern Asia, China, Japan and then, actually, up to Hawaii. And so, that sort of is the market in the region of Asia Pacific, and I am responsible for the sales, business development, and marketing of the brand,’ explained Nelson on his role.

Nelson was seen totting a Tumi backpack, which he says has been with him for over a decade. He regards the brand and its products with great respect, something that tells us he would still be a fan of Tumi if he was not working for the company. ‘I have worked for a number of premium, high-end consumer goods brands over the course of my career, and I knew about Tumi well before I was with the company. When I was asked to meet in an interview with the company executive, I was very interested because I deeply respected Tumi,’ confessed Nelson.

‘One of the wonderful qualities about Tumi is that we appeal to clienteles we like to refer to as global citizens and these are discerning consumers who appreciate the Tumi difference and who are successful in their careers; men and women, who have a very fast-paced career who in many cases fly frequently. And so we find that the end users are truly global consumers, not just travelling but living everything. In Malaysia, just like other countries in Asia and around the world we find that Tumi began with the global citizen,’ he said, shining the light on one of the main factors that has made the brand such a success.

‘Tumi is essentially comprised of five founding characteristics and I’ll name them for you. They’re excellence in design, functional superiority, technical innovation, outstanding world-class quality and world-class customer service. Those five founding principles have always been with us within this company and this brand, and I was interested in them. On top of it, throughout my career and life, I have a passion for travel, and a portion of Tumi’s business and heritage is in travelling, so that’s very much something that appealed to me as well.’

It is the travel part of Tumi along with its continual development of good performance products that draw Nelson. Born and raised in West Virginia, US, Nelson professed to having the wanderlust even when he was a young boy. His family, he said, travelled together, often. ‘My mother in particular; she has a deep-seated love of travel, and so she would often get us out on the road,’ he related. ‘We travelled quite a bit and that’s what I think, created a thirst that I have and I still haven’t really satisfied for getting out and being in the world.’

Tumi is essentially comprised of five founding characteristics and I’ll name them for you. They’re excellence in design, functional superiority, technical innovation, outstanding world-class quality and world-class customer service.

With his job taking him around the world, Nelson has spent a wonderful 14 years with the company, which he says is quite hard to believe that it has been that long. ‘I have spent most of my 14 years either travelling to and from the US, but in the last four years I’ve actually been based in Asia, in Hong Kong,’ he answered when asked where he is based. ‘I’ve actually lived in many different places, and the great thing about that is when you live somewhere, you really get to know the city. I thought I knew Hong Kong during all the times I’ve travelled there; you really don’t know the place until you’ve lived there.’

‘But I also like to say I’m based on an airplane,’ he joked, ‘Because I’m so often on an airplane.’ Family, he said, is another reason why he travels so much. ‘I do have a family and I am married, and my family lives in the US while I live in Hong Kong so that’s one of the reasons why I travel around so much. My family shares my love of travelling as well.’

Nelson, who was flying off to a trade show the very next day, said that cities have a sort of effect on him. One of his favourite cities is Munich, Germany. ‘I love that city for its beauty and its architecture, and so I really enjoy cities that are low-hassle, that are visually beautiful, that work well and I think that sort of reflects how I like to conduct my life. My life is complicated, but I really seek to improve it.’

It would not be too far-fetched to postulate that it is with this philosophy in life that Nelson connects most with the company he works for, the brand of which he has chosen to represent. Tumi, at its core, strives to make people’s lives easier, just as how Nelson seeks to improve his complicated life. Tellingly, Nelson attributes the most rewarding aspect of his job to a very tangible experience – seeing people carry Tumi products. ‘It really is the key, the acceptance around the world of the brand and the execution of the Tumi difference. When I’m travelling around and I see other people carrying our brand, it feels very rewarding to me because it shows that we have a product that people appreciate.’

One of the very most exciting aspects of working with Tumi is also getting to work with hardworking people ‘who have such great passion for a good brand, because they recognise the authenticity of the brand’ said Nelson. According to him, Tumi is a very creative organization that is placed on the high end of entrepreneurship, making it an ideal workplace for Nelson.

‘We’re a recent public-listed company and you see the impact of your decisions straightaway. It’s not like you have to go through layers of management to see your decisions get implemented. You can make a decision today and see it implemented tomorrow. Sometimes that’s really the passion and creativity of entrepreneurship.’ Perhaps it is with these intrinsic qualities that Tumi, and its key personnels such as Nelson that have made possible for Tumi to have carved a name – a very respectable one at that – as the premier brand of high quality and luxury travel and business gear.