Star financier Tan Chin Hwee, also an adjunct associate professor at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), has racked up a string of achievements after 21 years in the finance sector. He is currently the Asia-Pacific CEO of Trafigura, the world’s second-largest metals and independent oil trader, and has received various accolades, which you can read about here. By his own account, he came from a humble background where home was a one-room flat in Toa Payoh, but yet went on to secure scholarships to the NTU and Yale University. Below, he offers a recipe for a successful and enriching life.
Believe you are worthy of respect. As a student, I didn’t get straight As but I was fortunate to land a job in a big local company upon graduation. One of the first things I did was to notice that in this company, there was a difference in the standards of the bathrooms—between the manager and the executives, and the normal officers and below. I felt a deep sense of injustice and proceeded to speak to the director of human resources about this. This is what the director told me:
This is none of your business.
You are arrogant.
Get back to work.
Clearly, I had angered one of my superiors, which didn’t bode well for my career prospects. However if I could do it again, I would. I strongly believe that anyone who contributes to a company, or to society, should be treated respectfully.
Speak up. Many of us have been brought up with the Asian mentality, which places emphasis on respect for those in authority or in senior positions. While there is value in this, we may sometimes forgo the opportunity to share our best ideas as a result. I have a story about this: When I was 31 years old, I relocated to America for four years, and I worked in Amaranth Advisors, one of the largest hedge funds in the world. The hedge fund industry in the US is a rough-and-tumble environment and I was the first Asian to join at my level—I was hired to be an analyst supporting portfolio managers, rather than giving investment ideas.
My first language is Mandarin and I think in Mandarin. I was expecting to be fired because I could barely understand the colloquial American English they used, and many of them could not understand my Singaporean accent. But on my first day there, I went up to Amaranth’s founder and said: “I have an investment idea for you with a 20% return. Give me US$20 million cash and fly me to Indonesia.” Back in 2001, there was a bank called Bank Mandiri that was heading for IPO [initial public offering], and shareholders of Indonesian origin could purchase the shares at a 20% discount.
“You must be crazy. Give you US$20 million and fly you to Indonesia? This is the first day I’ve met you,” said the founder.
He didn’t act on the idea but he remembered me for it, because it was a good idea. I was fortunate enough to be given a profit-and-loss account to manage later, and that helped me to be promoted quickly over my four years there.
Of course it’s not wise to speak carelessly. Before you speak, you must have the ability to back up what you say, and you’re unlikely to make a good impression if you’re not sufficiently prepared. In this case, I only approached the founder because I had given this idea a lot of thought. It was important that I did this, as my first day on the job could also have been my last day.
Be resilient. My advice for young people is to “live like a cockroach.” Roaches have been around for millions of years, since the Jurassic Period. They survived the mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs and many other animal species. How did they do it?
They can easily adjust to any new environment—if they are forced to move from an ice-cold place to the scorching desert, they’ll readily adapt. They’re said to be able to survive even a nuclear attack because of their simple body structure.
They’re not averse to dirt.
They display collective decision making when hunting for food.
In the world of business, if you want to succeed, you need to be able to adapt to different working styles, market volatility, and regulatory changes. And when you’re starting out in your career, you need to put aside your sense of entitlement, roll up your sleeves, and get your hands dirty. It’s during this process that you learn about your own limits and expand your comfort zone.
Never underestimate the collective wisdom of a team or overestimate your own abilities. There’s an African proverb that goes, “If you want to run fast, run alone. If you want to run far, run together.” Forge friendships, treasure the people around you, and seize the day.
Invest in others. Many try to find happiness in the wrong places: They look towards wealth, power, success, and fame. Some of them acquire these, but the joy derived is fleeting as there is always someone who seems to have more, and it results in a never-ending chase.
Instead, people should think about the legacy they want to leave behind. Think about the people that we admire, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, or Jesus of Nazareth. A good majority of them have the characteristics of integrity, courage, and selflessness. I believe most people want to live as their most noble self, but do not know how to do so. My advice would be to focus on setting a good example for others, giving back to society, and helping others reach their full potential. Use your expertise to make this world a better place and create a generation where love for one another abounds. Invest in your values and in others, for no other asset can give you a greater return and joy than your soul, your family, and your society.