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Beggar, businessman, scholar

Updated On: Jul 10, 2011

SIIA Patron Mr Alan Chan, a former street urchin who started a multi-million-dollar shipping business, tells correspondent Leong Wee Keat all about being a late bloomer.

This interview was featured in TODAY (Singapore) newspaper, 10 July 2011, as part of the St. Regis Perspectives series.

Seated straight-backed in a plush sofa at French restaurant Brasserie Les Saveurs, businessman and investor Alan H J Chan scans the menu with an eagle eye. He decides on a bowl of lobster bisque and says he will order dessert later. The 79-year-old chairman of Petroships Investment professes to have a small appetite, eating three light meals a day and nothing in between. “You see,” Mr Chan begins, “people tend to eat too much. There are so many obese people in the world. It shortens one’s life and makes one clumsy too.”

Never short of a candidly-expressed view on the world, Mr Chan describes his background as “rather chequered”. “I’ve lived under five flags — Chinese by birth, British by immigration, Japanese through military conquest, Malaysian by merger and Singaporean by independence,” he says. He also calls himself a “late developer”. “I built myself up the hard way, really hard way. I didn’t inherit anything and was hard-pressed to make money.”

He was about nine when World War II and the Japanese Occupation of Singapore put an end to his father’s business, and he became a “street urchin”. At 20, he entered the civil service under the British as a radio broadcaster and then a translator. But after seven years, he sensed “a low glass ceiling” and left to become a salesman, peddling tin plates and sundry goods. “It was hard work. You’ve got to please your customers, so it’s a lot of begging,” he recalls with a laugh. Mr Chan moved to Hong Kong in search of better prospects and found work as a shipping executive. It was a pivotal moment. After gaining some experience, at the age of 38, he started a tanker shipping company, Petroships, with a 400-tonne ship — tiny by today’s standards, he notes.

“I was not well qualified so I couldn’t take up good jobs. So, my only chance was to go into business,” he said. He felt three things were in his favour — Singapore was witnessing a growth in oil refineries; it was a good port at which to base a shipping company; and shipping profits were exempt from income tax. “If you make a dollar, it goes into your pocket.”


But, barely had his business taken off than Mr Chan set sail, eight years later, on a different course: School. He enrolled in the Harvard Business School’s Advanced Management Program. “It helped me review my past experience and future project prospects,” he says. Between classes and studies, he kept in touch with his fledgling company here by phone. Asked if it was tough going back to school at the age of 46, Mr Chan said: “If you have the wish and the determination, it’s not difficult because you are mentally attuned to it.”

In mid-2007, Mr Chan tacked his sail yet again. Predicting that over-capacity was looming in the shipping industry, he sold his business to Brostrom of Sweden after being at the helm for 37 years. By that time, Petroships was operating a fleet of nine small and intermediate-sized tankers in South-east Asia, and the group had an annual net sales of US$45 million (S$55 million).

“It was a difficult move but a strategic move,” Mr Chan says. “In business, you must let the brain rule the heart and not the other way round.” But asked about the profits he pocketed from the sale, for once, he turns tight-lipped. “Just say tens of millions,” he lets on.
Brostrom was subsequently acquired by Maersk Line.

While he still dabbles in investments — including in China, through the holding company that he has retained — these days what fuels Mr Chan mostly is in the white folder he carries to this lunch. Inside, there is a manuscript for his latest project — a book on diction and grammar — and his first book, Topical Topics, which was published in 2008. In the 232-page book, he expounds on a wide range of subjects covering politics, philosophy, phonetics and euthanasia, in both English and Chinese.

“I would like to introduce myself as a businessman turned scholar,” says Mr Chan, who serves as a patron of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. “I turned into a scholar a few years ago, before that I was a businessman, and before that I was a beggar.”


Asked for his take on Singapore society, Mr Chan mulls over it for two minutes, taking bites from his dessert, before he comes up with his answers which reflect the unique perspective of someone who has witnessed much of Singapore’s modern history.

“The recent election has been described as a watershed,” he begins. “It is not a watershed, it is a milestone. The actual watershed occurred in 1959 and not in 2011.” In 1959, the People’s Action Party won 43 out of 51 seats and became the ruling party in Singapore. “This recent election is ... just consolidation, changes, evolution, not revolution.”

While he feels the country has progressed much, there are “minor” issues. The two Integrated Resorts, for instance, concern him. While they promote tourism, he fears the social effect of gambling “because some compulsive suckers will get their families ruined”, he says. “By the law of averages, the casino always wins and these suckers think they can win. That’s wishful thinking ... That’s self-conceit.”

Another pet gripe about modern Singapore: Noise pollution. Mr Chan, who lives in the heart of Orchard Road, feels there is too much noise from passing traffic and blaring music from street parties. “For a country to advance, you must have the right environment to do your thinking.”

A father of two with two grandchildren, Mr Chan describes reading, writing and giving talks on entrepreneurship as his favourite pastimes. “You start to derive more pleasure by sharing your thoughts and experience than from making a few more dollars,” he chuckles. “And the funny thing is, you derive more pleasure by giving more money than earning more money.” He contributes “substantial” sums to the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, Harvard Singapore Foundation and a think-tank in Australia. His next area of philanthropy will be in ecological protection, he says.

As we end our lunch, I ask if he will be driving to his next destination. His wife does the driving, he replies. “She says I am always
occupied with thinking.”

As we step out of The St Regis to board a taxi, Mr Chan is instantly recognised by the hotel’s doorman as a frequent visitor. He declines the offer to wait in the comfort of the hotel, standing in the afternoon sun to wait for a taxi. “I’m lucky, you know,” he says. “Some people who were upset in their early stages of their lives, remained upset. I’ve made good.”

Alan Chan