By Zhang Suhua
Perhaps because he was born in the Year of the Ox, Tan Kai Hee, Secretary General of the Malaysia-China Friendship Association, often compares himself to an ox, persistent and determined. Although he is nearly 80 years old, he works for 10 hours per day on promoting Malaysia-China friendship.
Hai-O Group: Starting from Zero
Tan was born in Kluang, Malaysia, in 1937, though his ancestral hometown lies in southern China’s Fujian Province. During his early years, he took on a wide variety of jobs to earn money, working as a rubber collector, a street vendor and a bicycle repairman. Despite suffering from poverty and hardship, he never felt pessimistic about his future.
In 1974, a kind of “China craze” was rising in Malaysia as the two countries had established formal diplomatic relations. Goods produced in China became popular. Inspired by this, Tan decided to start his own business. In 1975, with help from his friends and family, he managed to raise 168,000 ringgits to establish Hai-O, which he saw as a distributive center for Chinese-made goods. He also regarded providing high quality products with Chinese characteristics as a key part of his business model.
“Our fast growth today is a result of the trust we have gained from consumers,” Tan said.
As trade between China and Malaysia boomed in recent years, Hai-O has seen rapid growth. With an equity base of more than 250 million ringgits (US$62 million) and tens of thousands of employees, it has become Malaysia’s largest provider of medicines, medicated tonics, tea and beauty products from China. Its success has been widely recognized across the Asia-Pacific region, and has even been featured in Forbes magazine.
Donating Fortune to Charity
Looking back at the history of Hai-O, Tan said he would like to see his company’s profits benefit the local population. Since 1979, he has donated a portion of annual earnings to charity and educational institutions in Malaysia.
In 1991, when China was suffering from flooding, Hai-O donated 200,000 ringgits to help relocate victims. Later, during the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake and the 2013 Ya’an Earthquake, Tan also donated money and much-needed goods to victims in China.
In 2014, Tan declared that upon his death, all his personal wealth, including his stocks, properties and deposits, would be donated to a special fund for charity, which would allow himself to do continuous charity even after his death.
“I hope that I am able to set an example for people to devote themselves to charity and help more charitable institutions and organizations,” Tan asserted. He said he believes philanthropy is an important part of being a good citizen, and that people should leave behind money to be contributed to charity.
“I believe in the saying that it’s a pity for a person who has died to have a huge amount of money left in the bank,” Tan added. “People should have smart ideas on how to use their money. Earning profits are not easy for a company, but in my opinion, if profits are earned, it’s important to show appreciation to the people in society who helped you get to where you are.”
Promoting Malaysia-China Friendship
Tan is not only a successful businessman, but also a builder of friendship bridge between China and Malaysia. In addition to managing Hai-O, he holds important positions at the Malaysia-China Friendship Association and the Malaysia-China Chamber of Commerce.
In 1992, Usman Awang, a prominent Malaysian poet, called for the establishment of the Malaysia-China Friendship Association. Tan devoted himself to the establishment of the Association. By the end of 1992, Tan was selected as the organization’s Secretary General. In 2003, under the joint efforts made by the MalaysiaChina Friendship Association and the Malaysian Language and Education Council, a collection of poems, An Ode to Malaysia-China Friendship, was published.
Along with booming economic ties, Malaysian consumers’ demands for Chinese goods soared. In 2003, Hai-O established the Malaysia-China Mall, covering a prime commercial area of 120,000 square meters in Kuala Lumpur. Although many doubted this ambitious move at the beginning, Tan saw positive prospects for the mall, confident that trade ties between China and Malaysia would develop. Just one year after its launch, the rental rate of shops in the mall reached 85 percent, affirming Tan’s confidence in the project.
“As a Malaysian, I devote myself to my nation,” Tan said. “But as an ethnic Chinese, I try my best to promote the development of Malaysia-China friendship. I have worked hard to pursue my dreams. Now, in the second half of my life, I will pay more attention to the development of bilateral, commercial ties as well as friendship.”
Tan speaks highly of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
“The Belt and Road is an initiative of great historic significance,” Tan said. “It will provide connections to link all the world’s countries.”
Tan added that as the initiative develops further, the countries benefiting from it will be able to better understand and cooperate with one another, which will benefit the entire world. Tan also said he has a personal role to play.
“For me personally, I will always do everything I can to strengthen the friendship between the two countries,” he asserted.