Tong recognised for contribution to Fiabci

DATUK Alan Tong, chairman of Bukit Kiara Properties Sdn Bhd, does not need much introduction, especially in the real estate fraternity. Renowned for transforming a rubber estate on the fringe of Kuala Lumpur into what is now the affluent township of Mont'Kiara, Tong became known as "KL's Condo King" in the 1990s. He was also involved in politics for more than a decade, and served two four-year terms as Bandar Klang state assemblyman.

Tong was the first Malaysian to be elected Fiabci (International Real Estate Federation) world president in 2005/06. During his term, he helped increase Fiabci Malaysia's international membership five-fold in less than a year, giving its members access to a greater global network.

He was also Fiabci Malaysia president from 1994 to 2002, and has served as the federation's president for Asia-Pacific and been the chairman of its Asia-Pacific regional secretariat since 2006. Tong actively promotes Malaysia as an international property investment destination, speaking at numerous seminars and conventions at home and abroad, and promoting the Malaysia My Second Home Programme (MM2H).

Tong's commitment and pursuit of excellence have seen him receive numerous accolades over the years. In addition to the countless awards we noticed in his office during the recent interview, Tong was bestowed the prestigious "Medal of Appreciation" during the Fiabci Prix d'Excellence Awards 2013 held in Taiwan on May 27. This was only the second time such an award has been presented; the first was given to Sheldon Good from New York. "Sheldon Good was the one who started the Prix d'Excellence Awards back in 1992," Tong says.

Yeow Thit Sang, president of Fiabci Prix d'Excellence Awards 2013 and president of Fiabci Malaysia, who was also present during the interview, adds, "The first Medal of Appreciation was presented to Sheldon Good as he contributed a lot to start the award in 1992. He managed to get the Otis [Otis Elevators] sponsorship and also The Wall Street Journal to be our media partner. The Wall Street Journal has been our media partner for the past 22 years."

"The Prix d'Excellence committee felt that Datuk Alan Tong also deserved this award because when the Otis sponsorship ran out in 2002, after 10 years and yearly grants of US$115,000, Fiabci International said they wanted to stop the programme [Prix d'Excellence Awards] due to lack of funding. Datuk Alan Tong saw the value of the awards and what it can bring to the federation, and offered to use his own money to fund the awards so that it could continue," Yeow says.

Tong, who was already on the committee back then, says the actual administration at the time was at the Fiabci headquarters in Paris. "Over there, they are paid in euros but here, we are paid in ringgit … if they can't do it, maybe we can. I have good and committed colleagues like Yeow who volunteers his time and I was very certain our secretariat here could also do a good job. I felt it would be a shame to just let it [the awards] go as the potential is there and it had already gone through thick and thin. I didn't see any major problems if we continued it.

"The Fiabci World Congress was held in Kuala Lumpur in 2002 and coincidentally, it was the same time the Fiabci headquarters announced the end of the Prix d'Excellence as it would be a financial drain for them to continue without funding. We, including Yeow and a few others, stepped forward and said we would do it. We would be responsible for the expenses and whatever else. So we took it on from there," he says.

Since then, the administration of the annual Fiabci Prix d'Excellence Awards has been handled in Malaysia, subject to the committees' approval. Judges, however, are independent and appointed from over 60 countries around the world.

The Medal of Appreciation is not given out annually. "It is only given to those who have contributed a substantial amount of effort in promoting the Prix d'Excellence Awards and Tong is one of them. Without him, it would have ended in 2002 and because of his insistence and commitment to fund the awards, they continue on until today. It is indeed a rare honour for the world to recognise his contribution to the awards. It was not my decision alone but the decision of a committee of 10 people from 10 different countries," Yeow says.

Tong admits that he felt honoured and rather embarrassed when he received the letter informing him of the award. "I told them no, not when I am still active here. Why not give it to me when I retire, which is something I am not ready to do yet. I related this to them twice but they showed me that the programme had already been sent to Taiwan, so here I am, talking to you," the 78-year-old smiles.

The bond and mutual respect between Tong and Yeow is obvious throughout the interview. Commenting on the growth and impact of the Prix d'Excellence Awards since 2002, Yeow, who has been active in Fiabci for a long time, says, "We hope there will be more countries that will run their own national level awards so they can send the winners to compete in the Prix d'Excellence Awards. It is the best among the best. As for the impact of the awards on the industry, I can only comment about Malaysia and Singapore.

"In Malaysia, the awareness of the awards has been growing. It is well known among the public and has become a brand by itself. Any project that wins our award is of a certain standard as the criteria that we set have evolved over the years and look into every aspect of the project. The marking systems are fair, so winning the award is very important to developers as it is a huge marketing tool and of value to them.

"You see developers use our awards to brand their products on billboards all over the place. In Singapore, you can find a huge advertisement in the airport near the immigration checkpoint by Far East Organisation. Far East is the leader in property prices there and they use our awards as one of their marketing tools, so the effect is there."

The awards also provide an intangible value to the developers, Tong adds.

Aside from S P Setia's Gold for Best Master Plan for its Setia Alam township, the other Malaysian Gold winners at the Fiabci Prix d'Excellence 2013 are Tujuan Gemilang Sdn Bhd's PJ Trade Centre (Office category) and YTL Land & Development Bhd's Sandy Island waterfront villas in Singapore (Best Residential (Low-Rise) category). The Silver winners are Quill Group's Quill 6 in Lebuh Ampang, Kuala Lumpur (Office category) and Selangor Dredging Bhd's 20Trees in Taman Melawati, Kuala Lumpur (Best Residential (Low-Rise) category).

The Condo King

Bukit Kiara Properties Sdn Bhd chairman Datuk Alan Tong has been a developer for over 40 years. When asked why he chose to become an architect, the Klang-born 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 be a dream come true for me." He graduated with an architectural degree from the University of Sydney in 1959.

Tong returned to Malaysia and joined the Architectural Department of the Municipal Council of Kuala Lumpur (now Kuala Lumpur City Hall) after working in Australia for a year. He was involved in building schools and a wholesale market, among other projects. When his contract was up, he decided to start his own architectural practice in 1964.

Four years later, he formed Sunrise Sdn Bhd. Together with Ngoh Development, his father's company that owned four parcels of land in Klang, Sunrise embarked on its first project — OG Heights condominium — in Old Klang Road in 1984.

That happened shortly after Tong quit politics. He got involved in politics in 1972 and served as a Selangor state assemblyman for two four-year terms, from 1974 to 1982. He was also a state executive councillor.

Tong then focused his attention on OG Heights. Despite its launch at the height of the global recession in the mid-1980s, the first block was fully sold within six months, chalking up RM42 million in sales. After OG Heights, he 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 what was then Segambut.

"I ignored the offer as I was busy with the Cascadium and Sri Bahagia Court in Cheras. 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," says Tong.

"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 adds.

Tong went on to develop the first few condominiums there. Mont'Kiara Pines was completed in 1993, followed by Mont'Kiara Palma, Mont'Kiara Pelangi, Mont'Kiara Sophia and Mont'Kiara Astana, as well as the office and retail complex Plaza Mont'Kiara.

He sold his entire stake in Sunrise Bhd one year after it was listed in 1996, and set up Bukit Kiara Properties with his son Datuk N K Tong in 2000. Among the high-end projects by Bukit Kiara Properties are Aman Kiara, Hijauan Kiara and the
nearly-completed Verve Suites in Mont'Kiara.

When asked if he would have chosen a different career path if given a choice, he smiles. "It is all fated, really. If I had been really good in architecture, I may never have become a developer."

This story first appeared in The Edge weekly edition of Jun3-9, 2013.

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