Dato Saw Choo Boon: One Shell of A Guy

Here’s a brain teaser for readers of this website who have a talent for maths or statistics: out of the thousands of ACS Ipoh students who entered the work force in the last 40 years, do you know how many have made it to the top of their chosen professions?

This is not a frivolous question but one measure of the educational legacy of our Alma Mater, and a reflection of the quality of our teachers as they carefully corralled us into those bright but airy classrooms, feeding dollops of history, literature, maths or the sciences etc. that would be our daily diet in preparation for the world at large.

This writer – with no predilection for maths – will leave it for readers to mull over how many succeeded in conquering the Mt. Everest of their profession. Instead, here are some insights about the qualities you need to become a successful corporate giant like Dato Saw Choo Boon.

Tall and slim, Dato Saw is the epitome of a perfectly polished gentleman. Those who have interacted with him know he casts a long shadow with his achievements over the last 40 years with Shell Malaysia.

Reading his CV is a heady business as you can see his steady rise when, after graduating with a Bachelor of Science (Honours) in Chemistry from the University of Malaya in 1969, he landed his first posting with Shell’s Port Dickson refinery as a Refinery Process Engineer. Having found his calling, he stayed with this and the Pulau Bukom refinery in Singapore for the next 17 years, picking up skills in the Technology and Operations part of the business.

Then it was off to Shell Manufacturing HQ in The Hague as Senior Consultant  in charge of Gasoil and Fueloil Product Quality for 4 years from 1987; back to Malaysia for another 4 as the Planning, Supply and Trading Manager for Shell’s Downstream activities; up another notch as the first Malaysian Managing Director for the world’s first Gas-to-Liquid plant in Bintulu; steadily up the ladder as Managing Director of Shell Malaysia Downstream where he was responsible for the entire marketing and refining operations – a gigantic task as Shell runs more than 800 retail sites.

This was not the capping stone of his career, however, for Dato Saw had still more blue ribbons to collect. In 1999, he was appointed the Vice President Commercial for Shell Oil Products East (SOPE) with responsibilities spanning the entire Asia Pacific, from the Middle East to Australia and the Pacific Islands. Four years later, he was the President of SOPE and then assumed the position of VP for Global Marine which markets fuels and lubricants for the global shipping industry.

The pinnacle of his career came in 2006 through 2010, during which time Dato Saw was the Chairman of Shell Malaysia and VP for Business Development in the Asia Pacific. As Chairman, he oversaw the entire network of Shell Malaysia’s oil and gas operations in Malaysia and chaired 13 Shell Malaysia companies. As VP of Business Development, his canvas was to develop commercial businesses in China, India, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Given his illustrious career, he more than earned his Dato’ship in 2007, awarded by the Yang di-Pertuan of Negri Sembilan.

With his retirement in 2010, Dato Saw was heaped with directorships – RHB Capital, Shell Refining, RHB Investment Bank, Digi.Com, Nusa Gapurna, Integrated Petroleum Services, Java Offshore – and Board Director/Chairman of Guinness Anchor Berhad (GAB). As if that’s not enough to keep him busy, he also does voluntary service, most notable of them being a member of Pemudah, the government’s Special Private-Public Sector Task Force Facilitating Business. It is in this capacity that he contributes a column in the online portal of the New Straits Times.

What makes Dato Saw tick?

A FRIEND FOR A FATHER

Dato Saw was born in Ipoh in 1946, the only child of his third generation Malaysian Chinese parents. Like most families of that period (circa 1940s), his mother was a stay-at-home caregiver while his father brought in the daily bread first as a clerk in a rubber godown in Taiping before venturing into various businesses at different times.

His early life, as he describes it, was a far, far cry from that of many Malaysian children today. For one thing, communal living was the norm – not unlike a native long house where each family would live in a single rented room of the building, sharing common toilets and a kitchen. But having lots of other children around to play with, Dato Saw was happy enough.

When one of his father’s business ventures opened the door to a better a life, the family moved to Ipoh. Sadly, that business failed and the next stop was Teluk Intan (Teluk Anson then) where his father worked for a small lorry transport company. From the way he spoke of his childhood, it was fairly typical of that time, simple but carefree.

The period I cherish most was in Telok Intan,’ he recalled, in a speech he made to students at the University of Technology Petronas a few years ago.

The Perak River, streams and plantations were our playgrounds. Our games consisted of tops, bottle caps, fighting spiders, fighting fish, etc. We had no TV, no computer games but I don’t remember being bored or having a lack of things to do. Those were happy, carefree days.

Understandably, during his early childhood, Dato Saw was left to be brought up by his grandmother while his parents worked at making ends meet. While the day-to-day chores of living may have been trying, at another level there were deep rooted lessons that helped shape his character.

Notably, he had a good relationship with his father.

‘My father was my friend. He never forced me to do anything, just gave me advice and left me to make my own decisions,’ he recalls.

Tellingly, he recalls that it was his father’s advice to join Shell instead of the beverage company or airline that had also offered him his first job after graduation. In his father’s estimation, Shell as an international company would be able to offer him “a bright career, respect in the community, a comfortable life.”

‘I took my father’s advice and I ended up 40 years with Shell. If given another chance, would I have changed my decision? No.’

DIFFERENT SCHOOLS, DIFFERENT VIEWS

Another building block in his character was the dual language education he received. His father, being Chinese educated, perceived pronounced differences between those who went to Chinese medium schools and the others who attended English medium ones.

‘I remember my father telling me that Chinese school students had more character than English school students. In a way, he has influenced me on some values in life such as loyalty, filial piety, sacrifice, integrity, etc.,’ adds Dato Saw.

Inevitably, Dato Saw ended up going to both for his primary education. In the morning, he would go to the English school and then in the afternoon, proceed to a Chinese school.

‘Very different education. English school, a for apple, b for ball, Jack and Jill. Chinese school was about manners, filial piety, heroes, sacrifice, and persistence.’

Elaborating on the impact education had on him, Dato Saw acknowledges the “quality education and the life lessons” he learnt in school – even in the small town of Teluk Intan – which enabled him to compete successfully in his working life with colleagues  from around the world, many of whom were products of Harvard, Oxford or Cambridge.

‘We had outstanding professional headmasters – Gong Ngie Kong in ACS Teluk Intan and Teerath Ram in ACS Ipoh – who didn’t just manage the day-to-day operations of the school but also paid attention to continually improving the quality of the facilities and the education. These, on top of raising funds!’

The teaching faculty comes in for heaps of praises too for Dato Saw remembers them as ‘dedicated, committed, competent and nearly all of them interesting characters which made them memorable.’

He recalls with fondness and in particular, his Form 5 and Form Six teachers –  Wong Chong Yim and S. Nagara (Chemistry); Tan Chin Huat (Physics); Foong Ah Yoong  and C. Mahendran (Biology); M.S. Rhandava (English); John Arumainayagam (General Paper); Allen Moreira (English and Literature; A.T. Balraj and Tai Swee Kee (Mathematics).

He goes on to say: ‘In many ways, they impacted on my life tremendously. I was too playful and never took my studies seriously enough but they made me feel special despite my mediocre performance. They instilled discipline and taught me that discipline means taking responsibility and action. They brought out the competitive spirit in each and every student. I have been lucky to have had them in my life and to them I say a big thank you.’

The third pillar in Dato Saw’s personal journey came when he was at ACS Teluk Intan. The father of his best friend Lim Mah Hui was the pastor of the Methodist Church and through him, Dato Saw imbibed Christianity, absorbing the moral and spiritual values that came with it. Throughout his school life, he was to remain active in the Methodist church.

The fourth pillar he ascribes to the many extracurricular activities offered at ACS Ipoh from the staging of plays, musicals to debating. While modestly describing himself “not good enough for any leading roles”, he nevertheless participated in Macbeth and Brigadoon, experiences which taught him team work.

However, it was in debating that Dato Saw was to find his oeuvre. In 1965, he led the team comprising Wu Min Kuo, Ngan Siong Hing and Foo Nyuk Yong to victory, winning the Perak Inter-Sixth Form Debates for the Ogle Shield and then, the first National Inter-Sixth Form Debates for the Oppenheim Shield organised by the University of Malaya.

It was debating that helped him develop his communication skills and analytical thinking. As he describes it today, the effect of condensing pages of notes and hundreds of points into 10-15 minutes of speech “really sharpens and crystallises the mind to select the key points to raise.”

Another nugget in the making of a corporate giant: in the 1960s, it was not uncommon for a too-playful ACS boy to face the ‘strictest and most feared’ teacher, Allen Moreira who doubled as the school’s formidable Discipline Master.

In the episode when he was hauled up before Mr. Moreira, Dato Saw recounts: ‘I often came late to school and one day he asked me why I was late. I told him it was raining and I remember him telling me, ‘‘Young man, this is a tropical country and one must be prepared for rain. So no excuse” and he punished me,’ a bemused Dato Saw recounts.

That rebuke, ‘no excuse,’ must surely have shaped his attitude in school and later, at work.

One of his classmates, shaking his head in amazement, recalls, ‘we boys would be fooling around and when it dawned that we had to swot for exams, we would hit the books. So did Choo Boon. But guess what? We didn’t do so well but he, despite the last minute toil, would score head and shoulders above us. How did he do it?’

Here’s the truth from Dato Saw: ‘Every time I had to study for exams, it has always been the thought that I must not disappoint my parents (and that) gave me the motivation to work hard but always at the last minute.’ No excuse indeed.

LIFELONG LESSONS

To live a life that’s full and fulfilled, one must take note of the many signs posted along the way and Dato Saw obviously did. Mindful of the lessons he learnt which could be passed on to the next generation, he shared them in his address to the students at UTP. He identifies the qualities young people need to cultivate to succeed as  – ‘never stop learning; concentrate on doing your job well and, if you can, deliver more than you are asked to; be always energetic and enthusiastic; do not be afraid to speak out; always ask whether you can do things differently and better; and learn to communicate.’

Quotes from him on learning:

‘Learning is a lifetime process. It does not stop after University. When you start work, you do not only learn about your job, you must try to learn about all the areas associated with your job. This will not only be beneficial for your job but also prepare you for other jobs. I am very interested in the world around me. And I read a lot. It makes you aware of the environment which can affect the business you are in.’

On setting goals:

‘I never really had any long-term ambition. I have never let it consume me and expend any energy worrying or scheming to get to those positions. All I ever wanted to achieve was to do well in the job that had been given to me…one must be realistic and not blindly set ambitions that are beyond one’s capabilities… You have to be aware what achieving a particular ambition will bring with it. The higher you go in the corporate ladder, the more you belong to the company. Long hours, excessive travel, lots of external functions to attend and having to sacrifice many nights and weekends.

‘Many young people today worry too much about their career. They somehow get the impression that there are good and bad jobs in a company and that there is a correct career path to take. My answer is that all jobs in the company are good and important. There is no optimal career path and worrying about one’s career is of little help. The surest way to success is to concentrate all your energy on doing one’s job well. Demonstrate your professionalism and deliver your promises. ..Demonstrate your ability to do work independently with little requirements for supervision and checking. Volunteer to take on some of the duties of your boss and make his or her life easier and you are on your way to replacing your boss one day soon.’

Being energetic:

‘I am always energetic and enthusiastic. Everything I do I put my mind, heart and soul into it and I do it with passion. I like to do things quickly…I will always try to do things without being told or asked.’
Being brave in speaking up:

‘I will always speak out if I have an opinion or view. I am never scared to do so. Asians tend to be very polite and they worry about offending people… (but) this is business and the right things must be said and the right decisions must be made. One should not worry about offending people…everybody is entitled to his or her views and there are no silly views – there are only different views.’

Describing continuous innovation:

‘I never accept the status quo..when I assume a job, I am always questioning why things cannot be done differently to be more efficient and more effective. You will be surprised at the positive changes you can effect if you have an enquiring mind.’

Importance of communication:

‘Communication is key. You can have all the knowledge in the world but if you are unable to communicate, you are really of little use. You need to be able to communicate and sell your ideas and convince people effectively. To master these skills, you need a good command of the language you are using. Reading is a very good teacher.’

Reading is a very good teacher indeed, and the teachers who taught Dato Saw how to read would justifiably be proud of one Shell of a guy who has proved that a humble beginning is no obstacle to an illustrious career.

Dato Saw Choo Boon

Dato Saw Choo Boon

 

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