12 Jan 2015

Community - OS Activities -

The Option of Choices - An interview with Mr Lee Hsien Yang, Chairman, F&N Limited

The Option of Choices - An interview with Mr Lee Hsien Yang, Chairman, F&N Limited


It’s fantastic when one is given an option to choose. Conversely, being able to exercise a choice can be the very option that makes life so much more complicated. Gone are the times when days were simpler - the observation of Mr Lee Hsien Yang, Chairman of F&N Limited.


Mr Lee, 55, remembers how life was more straightforward. It never crossed his mind to work overseas after his studies at Cambridge University and Stanford Graduate School of Business. “I never thought about it. I went on a scholarship (and) I knew I was going to come back. The idea of buying myself out of a bond never crossed my mind. I guess I knew what I was signing up for. My view is that if you go for a scholarship, you know that it’s a commitment for the next ten years or so of one’s life, and you do it with eyes wide open.

Comparatively-speaking, he says young people today have so many avenues to choose from and “maybe having too many options and choices is not a good thing. I never thought about what I would do, what my career path would be or where I wanted to get to, you just got on with life. I think generally with a lot of the younger people today who have done reasonably well academically, it’s always ‘Where shall I go?’, ‘Which college do I want to go to?’, ‘What job do I want to apply for?’. They have too many options and when you have too many options, you ponder very hard on it”.

But in his defence, he clarified he wasn’t against having options, but how some tended to “ruminate too long on them (choices)”. He calls it a problem with abundance.

The father of three recognises the diversity of pathways at his children’s feet. When asked what makes him proud as a father, he revealed how he enjoyed the fact that his children had done well in their own ways in different fields. However he added that at the end of the day, “it’s their lives to lead and not for us to live our dreams and hopes through our children”.

Broadening Perspectives Abroad

Coming back to the availability of choices these days, many Singaporean students are pursuing higher education overseas and there would be those who decide to work a few years overseas after graduating before returning to Singapore. Mr Lee counts them lucky to have such an opportunity. “It’s a different world and it’s a very porous world in which people who have the ability and talent, find it much easier to pursue those opportunities. I think if I started life out today, I’d be surprised if I didn’t spend at least some time of my working life abroad. My own advice to executives working with me is, even if you see coming back in the longer term as something you want to do, that exposure you get from working abroad is invaluable. I think most companies today who are recruiting look for that international dimension to people and that experience, and those who don’t have it, you’re almost at a disadvantage.”

Would this be the same advice he’d give his children? “I’m afraid (that) with my children, I don’t give advice. You’re not sure when you advise them that they’ll listen or they’ll move in the opposite direction. So if they ask, we would advise them, but it’s their choice, it’s their lives. They decide where they want to go and what they want to do.”

Hats & Balances

The former CEO of SingTel has been Chairman at F&N since October 2007. His other offices include chairmanship at CAAS, directorship at the Singapore Exchange and ANZ Bank. Mr Lee also serves on the Governing Board of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

With such diverse engagements, even Mr Lee finds it a tad challenging to introduce the work he does. “I do portfolio activities - that’s how I’d describe it. I struggle a bit when I’m asked to fill in immigration forms which ask what your occupation is…It’s a range of activities and there’s sort of a cycle to them. I do three listed company boards (F&N, Stock Exchange and ANZ Bank) and they tend to have a cycle that follow the quarterly reportings and you tend to have peaks where everybody is at meetings trying to do accounts, the board meetings follow that tempo. In between, you tend to have quieter time.”

One can expect life at the top and with fingers in many pies to be a juggle. “I try to maintain some balance. There are some things I will put into my diary as sacrosanct. We all need to have some balance in life. As the CEO, you tend to lose that balance; it’s very easy in the hurly burly of working life to lose that."

Cutting a trim figure, you’d be surprised to find out that food is his indulgence. “I like to eat - from hawker food all the way up to nice restaurants. Unfortunately, I can’t consume as much calories as I would like to, but I think food is one of the great joys of life and the variety that’s out there.”

More Than The Fizz

That variety is reflected at F&N. “The company is quite diversified. People sometimes ask why we are in printing and publishing, and I didn’t realise until I joined the company that although it’s always been associated with F&B, that in fact, it started as a printing company. It is actually more a real estate company today than food and beverage, if you look at what is value. There are three businesses and each of them have different challenges and different opportunities. I think we have reasonable capabilities in each of these three spaces.”

He elaborates: “In property, we’re sort of a mid-market developer, we don’t do the really high-end condos. We do executive condominiums and entry-level upgrader housing in Singapore. We do some projects in China, Australia and the UK but essentially, fifty to sixty per cent of our real estate business is in Singapore. We also do some shopping malls in the heartlands. We’re not so much into the super prime shopping malls. In the food and beverage business, I suppose we’ve been there for a long time; we’re seen as a soft drinks provider. 100Plus - which is one of our very successful products, has actually been beyond our expectations when it was first introduced twenty years ago.

But beyond 100Plus, and in the older days, Sarsi, Mr Lee reminds that their products also find their way into the unassuming teh tarik.  “Many don’t realise how much of the usage of that (evaporated milk and condensed milk) is in the drink which you get at the coffee shop.

As much as the drink is comfort food for many, his grandmother’s recipes including fried chicken wings and pork belly in soy sauce were what he inherited at cooking sessions before he ventured abroad to study. “If you look back, they weren’t very healthy recipes, they weren’t heart-healthy, so you’d eat it sometimes, not too often.”

However, they proved a lifesaver during his days as a student in Cambridge where he “quite quickly decided that hall food was an abomination”.  Aside from grandma’s recipes, he also credits Katharine Whitehorn for her cookbook titled ‘Cooking in a Bedsitter’ which he said “taught you how to cook a one-pot meal as a student to survive….from my point of view, better than the institution food which I’d have to eat otherwise”.

While I can’t say for certain if pork belly will be served at Mr Lee’s upcoming speaking engagement with Singaporeans in Hong Kong at the Distinguished Business Leaders (DBL) series, rest assured dinner will be served for all attendees.

By Stanley Leong


Watch his video interview on our Youtube Channel. 


Read the stories of Singaporeans living overseas.