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From a sick boy at the back of a jalopy to a trailblazing property legend, Dato’ Alan Tong’s journey to the top proves perseverance and trust can take you places. "There was a man who came to Malaysia with barely anything in his pockets at the age of 16. He took on any job he could find and, due to hard work and frugality, he managed to save up and build his own empire. He was my biggest inspiration,” reminisces Dato’ Alan Tong Kok Mau, Group Chairman of Bukit Kiara Properties (BKP).

CONDOMINIUM PIONEER

From a sick boy at the back of a jalopy to a trailblazing property legend, Dato’ Alan Tong’s journey to the top proves perseverance and trust can take you places.

“There was a man who came to Malaysia with barely anything in his pockets at the age of 16. He took on any job he could find and, due to hard work and frugality, he managed to save up and build his own empire. He was my biggest inspiration,” reminisces Dato’ Alan Tong Kok Mau, Group Chairman of Bukit Kiara Properties (BKP).

atThe man was his late father, Tong Ngoh, and the story of how he brought their family out of hardships set an indelible impression on his son. He was an emigrant from the Fujian district who embarked on a long journey by boat to Malaysia to rebuild his life during a time of economic depression in China. Despite his inability to speak the local dialects, the man became a taxi driver and obtained a licence to carry passengers on a second class route from Kuala Lumpur to Kuala Selangor.

With the help of a contractor friend, he soon moved on to something more innovative to maximise profit; they stripped off the back portion of an old lorry, installed some benches and converted the pieced-together shell into a bus. It wasn’t a luxurious ride but it quickly gained popularity among the locals.

That eventually led to him actually owning his own bus company. Soon enough, he was frequently making trips to Kuala Lumpur for business dealings with his sub-contractor as he ventured into bigger stuff. “I would sit at the back of his very old jalopy on the drive to town and I would get motion sickness to the point of throwing up every single time and yet everytime he asked me to tag along, I answered with a ‘yes’. I would join them for lunch and listen in as they discuss business,” he adds.

“The funny thing is that neither of them spoke the same dialect, so it was as if I was listening to a chicken and a duck talking because the contractor only spoke in Cantonese while my father only spoke in Hokkien. You’ll hear a mix of broken Bahasa Malaysia mixed with their respective dialects. How they eventually understand each other and came away without

misunderstanding, I don’t know. But I later on realised that it all boils down to trust.”

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Tong’s father had very little education, but through hard work and perseverance, he managed to put two of his children through university. Tong confesses that when he was asked what he wanted to pursue after secondary school, he picked architecture without even knowing what the job entailed. With the support of his family, Tong pursued a Bachelor Degree in Architecture at the University of Sydney. Upon enrolment, he discovered to his horror that the course requires quite an artistic flair, something Tong wasn’t particularly good at.

Despite all that, he pulled through and thus his journey from a small time architect to an award-winning developer and becoming the first Malaysian elected as the president of FIABCI International began. On a lovely Wednesday morning, we caught up with the property titan himself for a quick chat.

APR: Your decision to start your own firm eventually brought you recognition as an upscale trendsetting property developer. What spurred that risky decision?

AT: Technically, I did not decide to start my own firm. When I was done with university, I started looking around to gain some experience and managed to land myself in a small architecture firm. I learnt all I needed to learn there before making the decision to return to Malaysia. My goal was to join the best architecture firm in Kuala Lumpur just as I wanted to do in Sydney but after a few unsuccessful, disappointing tries, I decided to be more aggressive in my approach.

Armed with a bunch of drawings, I walked into DBKL (KL City Council) without making prior appointment and requested for an interview. The head architect then, the late Eric Taylor was very amused by my audacity. He granted me an interview all the while smiling bemusedly but at the end of the session, he said, “I’m sorry Mr Tong, I just don’t have the budget for another architect. But thank you for dropping by”. I went home crushed, but four days later, to my surprise he offered me a job as a temporary assistant architect. I took up the job with a starting salary of RM628 per month and six months later,

he signed me up for a 3-year contract. At the end of my stint, I found myself out of employment again. It was then that it hit me, what are the chances of my landing a job if I go through the whole process again? And that was when I made the decision to start my own architectural firm — ArkitekBarat.

APR: What were the challenges you faced starting up your own firm?

AT: Well, to my horror, I made the decision to start up my own firm at the worst possible time. The year was 1964, and it was during the time of the Malaysia- Indonesia Confrontation. The country was experiencing an economic recession and it’s not hard to imagine how tough it was to make a living. I’ve learnt how to live frugally, thanks to my father — I lived on ‘char kuey teow’ and an egg as my lunch for two years.

During that time, I worked on small projects and some simple house renovations, but then something struck me; my late father had left behind four pieces of land that was left wasting away. So, I took one of the parcels, a 3-acre plot in Klang and submitted it to develop terrace houses and that’s how I started my own small developer firm. By 1968, a few developers started coming to me requesting for low cost flats or affordable apartments and following that, I spent four years learning how to manage a property development company by helping other developers and contractors. Then I started thinking to myself, “Why don’t I register as a property development company”?

So, within the same year, I forked out some of my own money and borrowed some cash from my wife and siblings, and developed some of the parcels of land into cash assets — eventually, Sunrise Sdn Bhd was born. For many years, we put our focus into building affordable housing, terrace houses, shop houses, etc.

The company grew to be quite prosperous. Just as things were going great, the tragedy of May 13, 1969 took the country by storm. The political turbulence has led to all of my projects being stalled for a couple of years before everything started picking up again. In 1985, just as I quit my political career and was about to start my condominium project, the Singapore and Malaysia stock market collapsed. I remember there were about 4,000 over projects stalled in the whole of Malaysia and a lot of contractors were out of jobs. But instead of succumbing, we proceeded with the plan and devised a bulletproof marketing plan.

APR: You were the first to introduce the concept of condominium in Malaysia back then, hence, the title ‘Condominium King of Malaysia’. What was the event that inspired you to build the first condominium?

AT: In 1974, I got involved in politics and during that time, I bought a piece of land in Old Klang Road.

When I stepped down as State Assemblyman 12 years later in 1985 and came back to Sunrise, to my disappointment nothing much was done in my absence. That piece of land in Old Klang Road and in Klang was left undeveloped.

During a golfing session with a friend of mine, he planted the idea of building affordable condominiums in my head. With his help, we managed to convince the mayor at that time, who happened to be very far-sighted – he had a vision of elevating Kuala Lumpur to new heights and someday putting the city on the world map. To my surprise, the project was approved and we turned a 10-acre piece of land into something that changed my life completely — the first high-rise condominium in Malaysia, OG Heights, located Off Old Klang Road.

APR: In your opinion, how has this changed the property development landscape?

AT: I’ve always had that feeling that our town planning policy is a little bit too conservative. All my life, I’ve always contradicted the town planner’s perception and ideas. When I told them there’s a congestion in an area, their solution was to spread the development out to solve it. But to me, spreading it out requires more land, which means people will eventually have to continue spreading out further and further away from the city centre. That doesn’t solve the congestion problem because when you live further away, it increases the need to own a vehicle.

And when they commute to the city to work or do business there, the influx of vehicles will create a congestion right in the city. It took a few more years for the authority to realise that land was scarce and that there was high demand to stay near to the

workplace. Only then people started to see the benefits of building upwards. So now even if there is a traffic jam, at least it is confined within two or three kilometres instead of 20 kilometres.

APR: Why didn’t you retire when you had the chance?

AT: I had Sunrise listed in 1996, and following that I received countless of offers to buy up the company. After rejecting an offer for the fourth time, I asked myself, “At the age of 62, when am I going to retire?” Government servants retire at the age of 55 and I’ve overshot by seven years. At the thought, I sold off Sunrise and retired. But after five years of golfing and going on holidays, I started getting tired of it. That’s when I decided that it’s time to start another company and that’s how Bukit Kiara Properties Sdn Bhd came into the picture.

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