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Sunday, July 31, 2005


Voon Seng Chuan

BUSINESS: From Batu Road ... to IBM


K. T. Chelvi
Sunday July 31, 2005


It has been a long and hard journey but the boy from Batu Road has found his niche in a venerable old American company, a household name the world over. K.T. CHELVI talks to VOON SENG CHUAN, the bossman of IBM Malaysia.

Victoria Institution and University Malaya aside, IBM Malaysia’s captain Voon Seng Chuan was shaped by the Batu Road School of hard knocks.

"Growing in Batu Road was tough. It was not the nicest of neighbourhoods and I was practically neighbours to thugs and gangsters," says Voon who started facing challenges head-on from a very young age.

"However, this neighbourhood made me a tough and street-smart kid who could stand up to challenges."

Money was hard to come by, so at times he had to support himself by doing part-time jobs after school.

"I was doing a variety of jobs, from dish washer and mechanic’s assistant to encyclopedia salesman," says the second of five children in the family. Dad was a mechanic and mum a housewife.

Despite the lack of money and close proximity to trouble, Voon stayed on the right side of the law and for that he credits his father.

"I can’t say that my father was strict, he let us live a little but he was firm. Family values were strong and the boundaries between right and wrong clear."

AT THE HEIGHT OF HIS CAREER: Voon joined IBM in 1987 at the insistence of a friend.

From Batu Road Primary school, he went on to Maxwell school and then on to the Victoria Institution, where he came into contact with the more affluent and saw the opportunities that lay before him.

"The environment was a total contrast to the place I came from and it made me want to excel.

"My Batu Road days taught me that it was solely up to me to make things happen. So, I wholeheartedly embraced all aspect of this new life — academic and extracurricular.

"Soon, I was the president of the Interact Club, a member of the debating team and one of my proudest moment was winning the drama competition."

He also excelled academically, securing the Kuok Foundation scholarship to further his studies at the University of Malaya, where he majored in mathematics.

"My love for extracurricular activities grew even more. I became a life-wire, so involved in college activities and student union that I left it to my roommate to choose my major.

"This resulted in me being the only non-double maths student majoring in pure maths.

"Pure maths was tough but since my childhood had taught me not to mope, I looked on the bright side of majoring in pure maths — no lab work and afternoon lectures, leaving me ample time for my student-body work.

"I enjoyed student politics tremendously and another of my proudest moment was my speech at UM’s famous speaker’s corner which was reopened for campus election by the Vice-Chancellor then, Prof Emeritus Ungku Aziz."

Neither the complexities of pure maths nor a active social programme stopped him from excelling academically.

After graduating, Voon began working in the insurance industry doing underwriting before branching out into marketing.

"I had no career preference at that time, to me all jobs were good as they provided me opportunities to learn and pick up experiences."

Voon joined IBM in 1987 at the insistence of a friend and saw his career taking him to new heights.

Before he was appointed as the Managing Director of IBM, in January 2000, he held several key local and regional positions which include Channels Manager and Customer Centre Manager, Country Brand Manager for IBM Malaysia, General Manager for Business Partners, IBM Asia Pacific and Vice-President for Business Partners, Sales and Marketing, IBM Asia Pacific.

"I came in without an inkling of what to expect and was enthralled to discover a chapter on ‘what IBM can do for you’, in the employees manual."

Voon embraced IBM fully, and immersed himself completely into the IBM way of life.

"IBM introduced me to the world of high performance working culture and I was training and communicating with the cream of the crop. And all this rubbed off on me."

In IBM, Voon found a career that constantly challenged him.

"IBM is one of the top consulting and technology company in the world and I was working with bigger clients, on bigger projects and on a much wider range of products compared to the average technology companies here.

"I was also working with top performing teams from IBM offices around the world."

He found the constant need to better himself invigorating and this made him remain in IBM. The company, says Voon, nurtures and help develop exceptional breed of people.

He considers himself a true IBMer who lives by its core values such as dedication to every clients’ success as well as trust and personal responsibility in all relationships.

In his 22 years in IBM, Voon saw Malaysia’s information technology (IT) industry, transforming from an industry that was merely concerned about fast processors to an "on demand industry" which increases the competitive edge of a company by making it highly responsive, flexible and efficient.

"In Malaysia, IBM has been working closely with not only huge companies, but also small and medium enterprises, helping them enhance competitiveness through IT."

Voon says though the majority of the SMIs need not be educated on IT, some businessmen are reluctant to invest in it, as opposed to investing in luxury company car.

"Nevertheless, on my part, I constantly keep reminding them that with IT, the world is their hunting gound."

IBM has over the years brought investments into Malaysia, and the most obvious one being the establishment of the six regional offices in the country.

This includes its Asia Pacific South Regional Administrative Support Centre, Asean/South Asia Regional Technical Sales Support Centre, Asia Pacific South Regional Accounting Centre and Regional Contact Centre.

IBM, says Voon, has helped nurture and bring out the leader in him.

"It’s a concept I had no clue of before joining IBM."

When he is not working, the father of three is nurturing his children with the lessons he has learnt from his Batu Road days till IBM.