The driving force is our Vision 2020 which envisages a fully developed Malaysia within 2 decades of the 21st Century. The fulfilment of this mission relies on certain strategic, enabling industries tasked with creating the physical environment for an advanced society. Engineering and the life technologies were to the forefront this national purpose. The progress towards this today enhances our lives. YTL is playing its rightful role, it is a case of noblesse oblige. Our projects include the two power plants we own and operate, the fast rail link project from KLIA to the city and many other strategic infrastructural developments.
Other infrastructural projects undertaken by the public sector include Putrajaya, the new State capital. It was carved out of the jungle to be Malaysia’s new administrative capital. Built on a green field site from scratch it is Malaysia’s Washington, Brasilia or Canberra. Cyberjaya is the country’s IT city to ensure a paperless Government. Out to sea are the space age structures of the country’s oil and gas endeavour – platforms, drilling rigs, pipelines, offshore hard ware, produced in local fabricating yards. A sophisticated 3 train LNG plant and a trans-peninsular gas transmission pipeline, spanning 1700 kilometre bear testimony to Malaysia’s ability to master the complex disciplines of the international oil business. The country now exports its pipeline technology to Argentina and Australia. Petronas the national oil corporation operates in 34 countries worldwide on the back of the petroleum engineering expertise which made it a global player. Quite early on Petronas were able to demonstrate the desired world-class engineering.
These achievements are based on professionalism and innovation – the creative spirit demanded in the post Industrial era. The other specification for new age engineering was enterprise. For this I’d like to talk about my own company. You need to know where I am coming from – an archetypal Chinese family business which began life as a modest construction company. In the half century since I left Kingston this has been parlayed into a modern conglomerate of 5 listed companies diversifying over property development, hotels, power generation, transport, and latterly here in the UK have gone into the water business. We must be doing something right.
The business turned more and more to the life technologies – the provision of energy and water that sustain life on this earth. We have a preference for regulated utilities – which despite the name are not dull and boring but can be very exciting. We have never relinquished our reliance on engineering. At Wessex Water for instance we retained the professional management because we realised the value of intensive technical know how.
My father who started the business is of migrant stock – those hardy ancestors of ours who fled China seeking their fortune in the Nanyang (South Seas) arrived in an alien land typically penniless and without benefit of kin or education. The business was founded on enterprise. The founder, my father, did not enjoy the luxury himself of tertiary schooling but was determined the next generation would be armed with education. He insisted all his 7 children should go to university. It was a condition of being taken into the family business that you obtained a degree. The other condition was it should be practically and business orientated. Five of us did engineering. The tradition persists. My eldest boy is at Imperial College doing his Masters in Electrical and Electronic Engineering. My eldest daughter has graduated with an Architectural degree from Nottingham University and is doing a second degree in law in London. My other children and nephews and nieces will also be pushed to do relevant degrees in technical subjects to arm the group with further intellectual capital. If this is inadequate, we will outsource as practiced today.
I did Civil Engineering, which is hardly surprising. One of my oldest memories is of the pounding, dust, vibrations, and noise of construction sites where I was taken in the school holidays when other children were visiting theme parks. I was exposed early to the way civil engineering contributed to the functioning of society by providing the infrastructure and the life supporting services.
Then enter Kingston, which gave me a good academic grounding. I was later able to put to use in our own construction business. It helped me become a hands-on manager. I can still detect the amount of sand in concrete or spot sloppy contractor when I see one. Nor have I forgotten my field of study. You can take man out of engineering but you can’t take engineering out of a man. I like to think I conduct my business with the instincts and the disciplined approach drummed into me at university.
Success had nothing to do with a silver spoon although I had the good sense to be the first born so I was made MD at 24. It was no joy ride. But a Chinese family concern is a collective effort. My 6 siblings and I come together every Monday for our Cabinet meeting to discuss policy and strategy. The cabinet includes engineers and experts and professional managers commissioned to implement our road map. This allows us to combine business instincts and whatever entrepreneurial skills we may claim with the practical capabilities needed to implement our entreprenrial ventures. We have been able to grow at a sensational 42% compounded annual growth from 1986 to 2002. We have set new targets of 20% annual compounded growth from 2002 to 2020. So far we have outpaced this target on this increasing larger base.
The advice I would give to the engineer who opts for business is that he must embrace risk but combine it with hard work and thrift. This is the standard formula. The success ethic and the work ethic combined. We are inured to risk. After all if our forebears had been unwilling to take risks we would never have left China in the first place. This is the meaning of enterprise. To be alert to opportunity and seize it. But it must be calculated risk with all due diligence – Viability often rests on innovative financing in the first place then strict financial disciplines and cost consciousness. Your professional training will stand you in good stead here. As will your professional code of conduct. Good honest ethics, integrity are prime requirements of modern business. In a Chinese enterprise we would add the importance of trust in business dealings. Honesty in Chinese business coupled with our Christian faith, enforces a strict code of behaviour within a moral and philerraphical framework at the centre of which is the overarching virtue of trust. Trust to us is as potent as black letter law – the one categorical imperative. The rule of Law in the conventional sense is also strictly enforced in Malaysia. Our new Prime Minister is setting new benchmarks in public and corporate transparency and establishing new levels of trust in building a morally anchored society, which is all so very exciting.
All engineering should be practised with some kind of moral compass. I’d like to end with one important quotation and one story.
The first is from Albert Einstein “It is essential that the student acquires an understanding of and a feeling for values. He must acquire a vivid sense of the beautiful and the morally good. Otherwise he, with spectacular knowledge, more closely resembles a well trained dog, than a harmoniously developed person”.
Engineers if their concrete legacy is any measure do appreciate the aesthetic values. Their professional code of conduct provides the moral framework.
It is also necessary to believe in oneself, to believe in the essential goodness of man and believe it will triumph over the abject poverty of the heart behind many of today’s atrocities. For those whose purpose is the betterment of mankind their effort ultimately will rest on faith. My story takes me to 1870 in Indiana.
The Methodists were holding a conference presided over by the Bishop. A scientist got up (I’ll bet he was an engineer) and predicted that one day men would fly through the air like birds. The Bishop was outraged, condemned the thought as heresy. In the Bible flight is reserved to the angels. The Bishop stormed out and went home to his two small boys. His name was Bishop Wright – his two sons, Orville & Wilbur. The good Bishop did not have faith in the genius of man that later these two little boys were to prove.
It is poignant to note that nowadays we can master the atom and nearly obliterate ourselves. We learn the secrets of life only to develop techniques to destroy the unborn and the aging. We unlock the genetic code and open a Pandora’s box of ethics. We harvest rain forests and create floods, harness internal combustion and melt the icecaps. We link the world on an Internet only to find that the most downloaded items are pornographic. Every advance seems to induce a greater fall. Yet today, most of all, we need another leap of faith.
As a Christian I see God as the Creator of the Universe and we are stewards of his wealth. Engineering draws on the canvas created by God. God writes the script. We are His potential powerful pencils. With His help I believe we will reengineer the world of man and return it to sanity and productive endeavour. World-class engineering standing on a strong moral foundation still has a pivotal role. Thank you for honouring me with your presence and lending your ears. I wish you well and all the choicest blessings from God.
SPEECH BY TAN SRI (DR) FRANCIS YEOH
AT THE KINGSTON GUILDHALL, ENGLAND
13 FEBRUARY 2004