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City&Country: Cover Story-- Property Man of The Year

Datuk Alan Tong Kok Mau is renowned for transforming a rubber estate on the fringes of Kuala Lumpur into what is now the thriving international enclave of Mont’Kiara, earning him recognition as “KL’s Condo King”.

Before his Mont’Kiara venture, he was involved in politics for more than a decade. The former two-term Bandar Klang State assemblyman was among the first to have a service centre “to serve the rakyat and to listen to their problems”, he tells City & Country with a smile.

On the day of the interview, Tong, 75, dashed past the writer into his office in Plaza Mont’Kiara with a vigour belying his age, and looked perfectly composed as we sat down for the interview.

Tong is chairman of Bukit Kiara Properties Sdn Bhd, which he co-founded in 2000. He is the first Malaysian to be elected Fiabci (International Real Estate Federation) world president from 2005 to 2006, during which he helped increase Fiabci Malaysia’s international membership five-fold in less than a year, giving its members a greater global reach to network. He was also Fiabci Malaysia president from 1994 to 2002.

Since 2006, he has served as the federation’s president for Asia Pacific and chairman of its Pacific Regional Secretariat. He has been actively promoting Malaysia as an international property investment destination, speaking at numerous seminars and conventions at home and abroad. He has also been pushing the Malaysia My 2nd Home Programme (MM2H).

Tong, a keen golfer, was also deputy president of the Real Estate and Housing Developers Association (Rehda) from 1994 to 1995.

He has received numerous accolades over the years, and at the 18th Malaysia Property Award organised by Fiabci Malaysia on Nov 11, he was bestowed yet another — “Property Man of the Year”.

Asked which award means the most to him, he diplomatically answers: “Every award is unexpected.”

Tong, who has been a developer for over 40 years, started out as an architect and shares with City & Country how it all started. “I was born in Klang, just 200 yards from Klang High School, into a big family of 13 children. We lived in a 2-storey shophouse, together with some other extended family members. Imagine all of us in a 2-storey shophouse ... how we did it, I am not sure!” he exclaims.

His father came from China, was a taxi driver and lived a frugal lifestyle, he says. An example of how frugal his father, says Tong, was that  he would wait and make sure he got passengers for the return trip if he had to send a passenger from Klang to Kuala Selangor. “But he was known to have the cleanest taxi, and it is something my mother proudly took credit for,” he adds.

His father went on to buy a few more taxis and later set up a bus company. “I remember following my father from Klang to Kuala Lumpur, I was a little over 10 years old then,  as he had bought an old lorry and wanted to hire a contractor to convert it into a bus. My father spoke only one dialect (Henghua, a subdialect of Fujian province) and it was pretty funny watching these two men communicate in bahasa pasar, but with a handshake, a business deal was sealed. Perhaps that was my initial exposure to business or entrepreneurship,” says Tong.

That was the beginning of his father’s bus company, which was eventually taken over by his elder brother, who has since moved to Sydney, Australia.

During the Japanese occupation of Malaya from 1941 to 1945, Tong had to relocate to a temporary home and was unable to attend school regularly. He continued his studies at the Overseas Chinese School. Each class, he says, had about 90 students and he fondly recalls his teacher who guided him and a few other students to excel in subjects such as English.

Tong, who was active in sports like football, hockey, javelin and tennis, continued his studies in Hobart, Australia, and received an architectural degree from the University of Sydney in 1959.

Asked why he chose architecture, Tong admits: “To be honest, I merely fancied the word. I didn’t know what architecture was all about back then. Upon graduating, I thought if I could design some bungalows, it would already be a dream come true for me.”

With what he knows now, which educational path would he have taken, given a choice? “It’s all fated, really. If I were really good in architecture, I may never have become a developer,” he quips.

After working in Australia for a year, he returned to Malaysia and joined the Architectural Department of the Municipal Council of Kuala Lumpur (now Kuala Lumpur City Hall) on contract for three years. He was involved in building schools and a wholesale market, among other projects.

So what did he do when his contract was up? His  matter-of-fact answer is “when you do not have a choice, you create your own curry even though you may not have all the ingredients”.

Perhaps it was the entrepreneurial spirit that drove Tong to start his own architectural practice in 1964. “Risk taking, in some ways, is inbuilt, but I was careful at the same time,” he says.

Four years later, in 1968, he formed Sunrise Sdn Bhd. “I realised I was helping other people make more money, so I decided to set up Sunrise,” he says. Together with Ngoh Development, a company owned by his father that owned four pieces of land in Klang, Sunrise embarked on its first project, OG Heights in Old Klang Road, in 1984.

That was just after Tong quit the political arena. He had become involved in politics in 1972, serving as State assemblyman for Bandar Klang for two 4-year terms from 1974 to 1982, and was also a Selangor State executive councillor.

He then focused his attention on OG Heights, a condominium project. Although it was launched at the height of the global recession in the mid-1980s, and there was scepticism about the condominium market, the project was well received. The first block was fully sold within six months, and chalked up RM42 million in sales.

Tong moved on to the Cascadium condominium project in Bangsar. It was around this time, in 1989, that a broker approached him to buy a 10-acre tract in Segambut.

“I was busy then with Cascadium and Sri Bahagia Court in Cheras so I ignored the offer. The broker approached me again six months later and this time, I decided to just buy it and think about it later. I did not know the 10 acres I bought were part of an old rubber plantation known as Estate of Segambut, which was actually over 100 acres in total,” he recalls.

“It is strange how all the pieces of land in the estate literally came to me as people, including some friends, began approaching me to sell me their land and I ended up being the owner of the whole estate. My vision was for a high-rise concept development as there would be no need to flatten the land,” he explains.

The rest, as they say, is history. Tong describes OG Heights as a prototype for his venture into condominium development in Mont’Kiara, which earned him the unofficial title of “KL’s Condo King” in the 1990s. He developed the first few condominiums there, with Mont’Kiara Pines completed in 1993, followed by  Mont’Kiara Palma, Mont’Kiara Pelangi, Mont’Kiara Sophia and Mont’Kiara Astana, as well as office-and-retail complex Plaza Mont’Kiara.

He later decided to sell his entire stake in Sunrise Bhd, one year after its listing in 1996. “We only said okay after the third offer, and it was just months before the Asian economic crisis. I think the only mistake we did was liquidating the holding company,” he says.

Tong and his son N K, whom he refers to as “my junior”, founded Bukit Kiara Properties Sdn Bhd (BKP) in 2000. His son is managing director of BKP, which has since developed high-end projects such as Aman Kiara and  Hijauan Kiara.

BKP is currently building the one-of-a-kind Verve Suites in Mont’Kiara, which offers fully furnished units within five towers, each having its own out-of-the-box sky lounges. The latest and last tower, known as Vox Tower, offers Malaysia’s first “beach in the sky”, 37 storeys up in the air.
On BKP’s innovative products, Tong says: “They all began as mere ideas, dreams. And they are  definitely significant milestones for the company when they become a reality. I am just glad to be part of it.”

Tong cites OG Heights and the opportunity to develop Mont’Kiara “with a free hand to create something out of nothing” as his most cherished moments. He is also proud of BKP’s managing director and the team.

“In life, to be successful, one must work for it and be focused. Trust, integrity and honesty are essential traits. In business, and this applies to any type of business, it is most important to gain your customers’ confidence,” he stresses.

Hopes of sustainability
Tong’s hope is for the real estate industry and development in the country to be sustainable.
“That would be ideal. There should be sustainable competition among developers too. Is it possible? Yes. Do not produce too many properties without careful planning. Supply must meet demand, and meet demand fast. That way, we can discourage speculators.”

He welcomes the government’s Greater KL development plans as well as its aspirations to turn Kuala Lumpur into a world-class city. However, “it is essential to ensure plans are carried out in the most efficient and practical way. From my travels, I realise that the biggest problem faced by major cities is always transportation. It must be worked out not only by the authorities but also by the private sector. Yes, it will take time, but it is extremely important.

“I am glad the MRT (mass rapid transit) system is in the works. While it will take years to complete, it is also crucial that by then, there is a sufficient population [of MRT users] otherwise it will be running at a big loss. It’s a chicken-and- egg situation,” he notes.

“Perhaps along the MRT routes, we should encourage high-rise developments. The city could then afford to talk about higher density buildings as everyone would like to live close to MRT stations, with walkways to ensure a certain comfort level. This calls for in-depth studies. Of  course, with higher density, comes a higher cost of building,” he explains.

He adds that before the MRT is completed, there must be an efficient bus system to discourage people from driving in the city. He cites the free trams in Melbourne, Australia, and the free buses in shopping areas in Denver in the US, which translates to less cars on the roads in those cities.

“The authorities must quickly make public where the MRT stations will be and (town) planners must identify the allowable density for developments around them. Hopefully, when completed, the MRT can achieve economies-of-scale in construction and operation costs,” he says.

This article appeared in City & Country, the property pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 832, Nov 15-21, 2010

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