From scavenging the garbage of wealthy households for discarded school uniforms, belts and shoes in his hometown of Juru, to waiting beside restaurant trash bins in Houston, Texas at 9pm to save the food for dinner as they were tossed away at the end of the business day, what didn’t break Fng Ah Seng only made him stronger.
Today, Tan Sri Dato’ Paduka Dr Fng Ah Seng, JP, Managing Director of Epic Valley Holdings Sdn. Bhd., one of the largest developing companies in Malaysia, feels that his impoverished childhood was ironically advantageous to him as he easily adapted to the hardships of life and made the best out of every situation.
The 50-something-year-old father of two Fng shared, “My parents divorced when I was nine. My mother held two jobs but that wasn’t enough to feed a family of four. As the only male child, I had to help her tap rubber, in addition to earning a little here and there.
“From young, I knew education was the key to free us from poverty and studied hard despite having to walk 10 kilometres to school daily.
“After Form 6, I applied for placements in universities to pursue civil engineering because to my knowledge civil engineers were well-paid. I was accepted by Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. I didn’t have money but managed to secure a RM3000 loan from an uncle. After buying my air ticket, I practically had nothing left.
“I worked all the odd jobs I could find but Natchitoches is a small city. Seeking better opportunities, I transferred to University of Houston in Texas, where I had a schoolmate, Chuan Yu Ming. In Houston, I ended up staying in an old folks home with a few poor friends.
“One day, we interviewed for a job at the hospital morgue and were hired immediately. The money was good, not from the USD70 for cleaning each corpse, but from tips from bereaved families for our “cosmetology skills”. Our finances improved. Every day we hoped that there would be more bodies to be cleaned for better income. It was bizarre.
“I quit after six months when a friend remarked that I looked like the Living Dead myself.”
Fng graduated with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, and worked in the US legally. After fifteen years there, it was time to return.
He said, “It was 1993. I worked in construction and property development but the sector was badly hit by the 1997 Asian financial crisis. There was only one project in my company. We were offered a separation scheme, which I accepted. Jobless for six months, I decided to join the Singapore Police Force as Inspector.
“Strangely, a week before my departure, I acquired a low-cost housing project in Selama, Perak, with only a ten percent deposit of RM20,000 of borrowed money. That development, Taman Selama Indah, where we constructed medium-cost house specifications but sold at low-cost prices gained us slight profit but we made a reputation as honest developers who accepted buyers even when they were hard of cash.
“Owners began offering their land for joint venture as we were willing to give them more than the 20% standard market share. However, the turning point was when we decided to develop Malay Reserve Land, something that no developer in his right mind would touch.
“Somehow, one month after obtaining approval to develop the Malay Reserve Land, the then Minister of Finance Tun Daim Zainuddin, in a bid to stimulate the country’s economy, made a policy change whereby civil servants were qualified for a housing loan after only one year as permanent staff, instead of three. Moreover, the loan amount tripled to RM300,000. We sold out a few hundred houses within two months despite the selling price being doubled.
“The lesson from this was that opportunity is only ready for those who are well-prepared.”
And the rest, as they say, is history. These days, the semi-retired Fng, besides ticking items off his bucket list, spends his time conducting motivational and leadership talks, particularly to youths and young entrepreneurs. His years of hard knock life in the United States had stood him in good stead, where upon his return, he brought with him the spirit to do his best, and the value of doing what is right.
Through Yayasan Muhibah Tan Sri Fng Ah Seng, Fng, the Chairman, is able to give back to society, donating RM3 to RM5 million a year, mainly to educational and medical causes.
Believing that a rich man should die poor, Fng said, “Financial donation is only one of three aspects of charity. Through talks, I’m able to share my rags to riches experience. Hopefully, attendees would be able to learn and improve themselves.
“Still, there are eight attributes that one should cultivate in order to be successful. Be sincere, honest, kind, helpful, courteous, intelligent, credible and respectful. These will make a person likeable. With passion, hard work, knowledge, and a very clear objective, one could easily achieve some level of success. The really lucky ones would meet their mentor and sponsor, but this again boils down to being a likable person in the first place.
“I’ve learnt that in life, one has to adopt a non-conflict attitude and be willing to allow people to take some advantage of you. Sometimes, to lose is to win. Be appreciative and never forget those who have helped us before. Reward them.”
Holding a PhD in leadership management and fresh from his successful anaconda-sighting expedition in the Amazon, Fng sure knows what he’s talking about. Ultimately, it’s up to the individual and his desire to excel. As Fng said, “Not everyone is trainable. Perhaps, some self-reflection is required, then?”
Note: An edited version of this article [From Rags to Riches] was published on 4th July, 2015, in the now-defunct The Malay Mail.
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