He’s been down but never out

(From second right) Land and Survey Department director Datuk Bohan Shahlo, Tractors Malaysia manager Dann Duffy, Lau, Taib (then Minister of Communications and Works), and Resident of Fourth Division Datuk Arni Lampam at the earth breaking of the Merbau Estate project.

DATUK Dr Lau Siu Wai is said to be Sarawak’s first private housing developer as well as an avid promoter of education development in Miri.

He was born in 1931 in Chaozhou province, China, to an aristocratic family. When the Japanese invaded China in 1937, all schools in his province were closed, depriving him of the opportunity to an early education.

In 1941, he studied Chinese classical literature at a private tutorial school before travelling to Hong Kong to study English at St Joseph’s College in 1947.

A self-made person with a passion for writing, Lau came to Miri on July 2, 1953, to work with Sarawak Shell Oilfield Limited, at the same time, doing self-study at night. He passed the Cambridge Higher School Certificate Exam in 1957.

He graduated with a PhD degree in Project Management from Inter-American University, New York. The convocation was held at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia on Dec 4, 2010.

He also received an honorary professorship (English award) from Hanshang Normal University in Chaozhou, China.

Lau worked for the company for 11 years before being laid off. In 1964, he started the Miri Secondary School, a private English school for dropouts.

He went to great lengths to help students who withdrew without completing their course – at the expense of his career. In 1969, he gave 800 students a remission of school fees. The shareholders did not approve of the move and it cost Lau his job.

In 1975, he completed building 500 houses at Piasau Garden but due to the oil crisis two years earlier, the cost of construction materials more than doubled, leaving his company in debt.

In 1980, he developed Hilltop Garden but the project suffered losses because some of the houses could not be sold.

Subsequently, he left Miri for Australia and started a restaurant there but it closed down after two years due to time management problems.

In 1987, he moved to Thailand to operate a sheep skin tannery but returned to Miri two years later after disagreeing with the business dealings of some shareholders.

Up till that point, his business ventures had been dogged by bad luck. He fell three times – but he also got up three times.

In 1990, at the age of 60, his luck changed and he started bouncing back. To date, among his successful projects are the Bintang Jaya Commercial Centre, Bintang Plaza Shopping Complex (1995), and Desa Senadin mixed development (1996).

He also worked with Curtin University of Technology, Western Australia to start a campus in Miri in 1998 and, subsequently, Tenby International School, Miri, in 2012.

Lau published his autobiography titled ‘Entrepreneurship Beyond Death – I Did It My Way’ in 2014 and it’s a key source of information for putting together this two-part article.

thesundaypost met up with Lau recently for an interview and found the automath entrepreneur very approachable – and with so much to share.

Taib gives a talk to Miri Secondary School students in 1966. With him is Lau.

You have come a long way being at the forefront of Miri’s development, starting from the ground up, but as a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Living in Hong Kong as a 15-year-old, I remember while walking to school from my house, I saw people constructing buildings and offices and was very impressed by it all, especially the engineers. I then told myself “wouldn’t it be nice if I were like them”.

There and then, I made up my mind to be in the construction field but I never expected to do what I have done today.

 

Initially, what was your vision for Miri and how long did it take to make the breakthrough?

I first came to Miri on July 2, 1953, and saw it was very undeveloped. At that time, I was recruited by Shell as a typist-cum-stenographer.

The population of Miri back then was less than 20,000 and I told myself, “I am going to make this place a city”, because coming from Hong Kong with all the tall buildings, I could see a glaring lack of infrastructural development in Miri at the time – not even a concrete house but only atap houses.

So I was thinking this was the place where housing would be most urgently needed, especially after the Second World War, when most of the homes had been destroyed.

Mind you, in 1953, the room rental was $150 (town area), while the pay was only $90 per month. So one family had to squeeze into one room and this is not the type of life people should go through because Miri has so much land that could be opened up for housing development. Later, I discovered that most of the land was under Shell concession area.

Though working for Shell, I still tried to develop Miri and we succeeded in getting eight acres to build Gilbert Estate. The Public Works Department (JKR) was asked to undertake the project since I had no money to develop the estate but I did the original planning. It took me more than half a century to make the breakthrough and achieve what I have so far.

My first vision was to sort out the housing shortage problem in Miri and I got the encouragement and inspiration from our Head of State Tun Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud.

My second vision is to see all the races in Sarawak living in peace and harmony. This has to start from young. The only way to do this is to get people to live as neighbours, growing up together and becoming good friends.

Site of Hilltop Garden before it was developed.

What were the biggest hurdles to building your business and how did you overcome them?

Number one is capital, and second is a good working relationship with the relevant authorities. The second is harder.

People say I cannot start business because I have no capital but that has never been the case for me as I always find ways to make things work. With no money, no staff, I did it on my own.

One time, I went see Tractors Malaysia manager Dann Duffy and borrowed a tractor from him for an earth-breaking ceremony. Also, my company was able to use the tractor for the first month of work.

We should never think negatively. There are always ways to overcome difficulties, provided in doing so, we are not harming anyone.

We should always analyse a problem from all angles and tackle it accordingly. If you are facing obstacles from the sides, there is still the top and the bottom. In other words, do not give up.

 

What’s the most important decision you made that contributed to your success?

I developed Hilltop Garden when no one wanted to because of the condition of the site. I also did not have the capital after settling all the accounts from developing Piasau Garden.

Before I started developing Hilltop Garden, I undertook a very challenging project – preparing one land-drilling location for Sarawak Shell Berhad at Pasir D area (halfway between Kuala Baram and Marudi).

I was made an offer to withdraw from the project as my tender was the lowest. I rejected the offer – that was the best decision I made because the drilling job helped me make some money with which to complete the Hilltop Garden project.

Actually during that time, I did two projects simultaneously to help me get back up again.

The old Miri Secondary School.

You started Miri Secondary School. Was it worthwhile?

In 1963, the government imposed a policy to allow 30 per cent of Primary 6 pupils with excellent results to enter secondary schools, while the other 70 per cent had to drop out although they passed.

I realised then a 12-year-old boy or girl wondering around, not schooling, would be a loss to not only themselves but also their families and the country.

At that time, Sarawak just helped form Malaysia, and a policy was passed whereby the British would hold ‘a watching brief’ over the state government in the intervening period.

I was still working with Shell at the time and I took the opportunity to see the director of education in Kuching to ask why 70 per cent of primary school pupils had to leave school despite passing their exams.

The answer I got was, “The government does not have enough money to build more secondary schools to accommodate these students.”

To me, that was not an acceptable answer. But I could not make them change the policy. Then I asked the director of education again, “If members of the public and some tycoons are willing to come up with money to open a private secondary school, would you object?”

The director said, “It depends on who the applicants are. If they are genuine people and have no criminal records, their application should be able to receive favourable consideration.”

So in 1964, I teamed up with nine shareholders to start the school, each contributing RM5,000. After borrowing RM50,000 from the bank, the school was established with 230 students and eight classrooms, which later increased to over 1,600 students and 32 classrooms.

The land was procured from Shell on condition that I would reroute some pipelines that ran diagonally across the land. I managed to obtain abandoned but otherwise usable pipes and got the job done quite cheaply. I become the second principal of the school with a monthly salary of RM600.

Between 1964 and 1969, about 800 poor students were allowed to pay the school fees at a discount or remission each year, depending on their parents’ financial situation.

In December 1969, I was relieved of my post as the other shareholders were not happy when they found out about the remission of fees. I begged them to retain me for another three years so that I could see these students finish their studies but to no avail.

What was the price of personal pride? Nothing! I did it without shame. I believe everybody should have the opportunity for education as long as they have the desire to learn.

Staff and guests in front of Miri Secondary School when it was completed in 1965.

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