Dato’ Seri Chet Singh a/l Karam Singh

The Penang Development Corporation (PDC) and the Bayan Lepas Free Trade Zone (FTZ) are institutions of great change and development for Penang. Set up in November 1969, the PDC and the FTZ brought in foreign direct investments with the setting up of multinational electronics and semiconductor companies which rapidly industrialized Penang, earning the state the name of the “Silicon Valley of the East”.

Those intimate with the industrialization of Penang are reminded of the late Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu (Chief Minister of Penang, 1969 to 1991) as the “father of industrialization” in Penang. However, at one press interview on the industrialization of Penang, Tun Dr Lim named Dato’ Seri Chet Singh as the person who is truly responsible for industrializing Penang.

Penang Trails had a pleasant chat with Dato’ Seri Chet Singh recently and we are honored to present an essay on the man who worked on the industrialization of Penang.

Dato’ Seri Chet Singh – The Man Who Industrialized Penang

Dato' Seri Chet SinghDuring his school days, Dato’ Seri Chet thought his thin and tall physique would make him excel in sports. He tried out cricket, hockey and a few other sports but he quickly ascertained that sports is not his cup of tea. He was only good enough for the second or third team and although he eventually made it to the first team for cricket, he took his mother’s advice and went into sports administration instead. While in the university, he got elected into the University of Malaya Athletic Committee as Assistant Secretary and ended being the President. In 1961/62, he set up a hockey club called De’ Recreio, and the team was so good it managed to become champion in the first division of the Selangor Hockey League.

Finding his calling …

Chet graduated from his university in Singapore and went back home to Malaysia to work in the civil service in Kuala Lumpur.

In December 1967, after seven years with the Internal Defense Section of the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Internal Security and Home Affairs, Chet was transferred to Penang to become the State Financial Officer, working under Penang’s first Chief Minister, Tan Sri Wong Pow Nee.

“I just built a house in Kuala Lumpur and we (Chet, wife and daughter) were ready to move into this new house. On Saturday, we went to the furniture shop to look for furniture but somehow, we did not like the color and promised to go back another day to look at others. When I went to work on Monday morning, my boss called me into his room and informed me that someone up north requested for me to be transferred to Penang to take on the role as the State Financial Officer. I was very upset at that time. We were just about to move to our new home!” said Dato’ Seri Chet.

When Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia, led by Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu (Penang’s second Chief Minister) took the helm of the State Government in 1969, Chet was unsure if his service would still be required. He was advised to pack up and be ready to return to Kuala Lumpur. He remained as the State Financial Officer and later, Dr Lim Chong Eu asked for him to be seconded to fill the position of the General Manager of the newly created Penang Development Corporation (PDC). He eventually left his federal government position and took up a state government position. He held this position until he retired in July 1991. By the time he retired, he had served three Chief Ministers.

Dato’ Seri Chet opined that his transfer to Penang in 1967 and his leaving his federal government position for a state position were actually blessings in disguise. His family liked Penang. His two other children were born in Penang and he actually built his career in PDC. In fact, he claimed that PDC was his “second-wife”. He spent his entire day (six days a week) in PDC and it was indeed a special place for him. He couldn’t have done better if he had remained in Kuala Lumpur.

Penang was in the economic doldrums in the 60’s; having lost its free-port status, Penang had a double-digit unemployment rate and was experiencing brain-drain.

Unlike the other states in Malaysia, Penang lacked natural resources; her only asset was her people. As such, the state’s priority then was to generate employment and it was deemed that the best way to create employment was through export-oriented industrialization.

But export to whom? Who would set up factories in Penang to export their products? What can Penang offer to investors that other states in Malaysia can’t at that time?

Dato’ Seri Chet acknowledged that it was the late Tun Dr Lim who came up with the idea of setting up a Free Trade Zone – at that time, there were very few free trade zones – Shannon Free Zone in Ireland that was established in 1959; Kandla Export Processing Zone (EPZ) in India (1965); Kaohsiung EPZ in Taiwan (1966) and Masan EPZ in Korea (1970). FTZ or EPZ is basically a geographic area outside the principal customs area. Goods may be brought in for manufacturing or value-adding and for re-export under specific customs regulations, free from customs duties and taxes.

Initially, getting the FTZ accepted and approved by the federal government was difficult. Although Tun Dr Lim had identified and gave the giant task to Dato’ Chet to implement the setting up and promotion of the FTZ, Dato’ Chet attributed the success to his team of eager and capable people. He named a few during his chat with Penang Trails: his capable lieutenants were Ahmad Khair (Dato’), Mohd Rusli Hussein (who was transferred to Kuala Lumpur), Wong Pak Sun, Cheah Phee Hin as well as his new recruits. As the first FTZ in the country, Dato’ Chet’s team put together the documentation for the eventually very successful FTZ in Penang.

Dato’ Seri Chet recalled, “There was suspicion in Kuala Lumpur that the idea of the free trade zone was a backdoor for Penang back to being a free port.” However, he had some university buddies in the Federal Government who supported Penang’s proposal of a FTZ. In fact, the Penang Customs, led by Haji Sidek Lassim also supported Penang’s move to set up a FTZ.

When the late Tun Abdul Razak, Director of the National Operations Council (NOC), visited Penang, Dato’ Chet was asked to show the plot of land identified for the first FTZ in the country. By waving his cane, the late Tun Abdul Razak approved and declared the area as the site for the Penang Free Trade Zone (FTZ) at Bayan Lepas. He instructed his federal officers to take note and to facilitate the declaration according to the law.

Dato’ Chet believed that the close rapport between the Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu and Tun Abdul Razak who were both visionaries, eased the route for Penang to cut through red tapes and to drive the development of the first FTZ in Penang and Malaysia.

Through the development of the FTZ, PDC succeeded in creating new jobs and reducing unemployment in the State. Dato’ Seri Chet attributed the success in encouraging the multinational corporations (MNCs) to set up offshore operations here to the intelligent and trainable workforce in Penang.

“Our workforce were the best in Asia at that time. They were English speaking and science-oriented”, said Dato’ Seri Chet. The duty and tax free status as well as the law that prohibits worker unions to be set up in the electronics companies were also value propositions for investment in manufacturing in Penang.

Dato’ Seri Chet recalled the ‘Job-cum-Training Program’ that was established by the City Council of George Town with the support of the State Government to bring the Penang workforce up to speed in the electronics industry. He cited an example of how car park attendants worked for four hours in the morning, and then attended the training program later for another four hours so that they can move in to support the growth of the FTZ. This job-cum-training program was held at Macalister Road (the premises of the present Penang State Museum).

Dato’ Chet remembered how our ‘science-oriented’ workforce managed to impress the investors. He told a story of when Mr William Hewlett and Mr David Packard of Hewlett Packard, while in a restaurant in Penang, were approached by a waitress who noted the calculator they had with them. She asked for permission to use it. Mr Hewlett and Mr Packard were extremely impressed when the local waitress could readily use the Hewlett Packard calculator.

Dato' Seri Chet SinghAt the time Dato’ Seri Chet retired in 1991, the electrical & electronics (E&E) industry provided about 55% of the total employment in the PDC industrial areas while the manufacturing sector contributed to about 46% of the State’s GDP. Unemployment rate had reduced significantly from 16.4% in 1969 to a situation of near full employment.

The numbers speak volumes of the great accomplishment of the efforts of Dato’ Seri Chet Singh and his colleagues from PDC and the people of Penang in the development of Penang’s Free Trade Zone.

Armed with the experience of setting up free trade zones, Dato’ Chet Singh led the PDC to set up three other phases of Free Trade Zones in Bayan Lepas and the Free Trade Zones in mainland Perai. All the subsequent FTZs became major centers of manufacturing and income generators.

The conferment of the Honorary Doctor of Letters in 2012 by the Wawasan Open University (WOU) is a testament to Dato’ Seri Chet Singh’s accomplishment — a trailblazer in the economic planning and development of Penang. The conferment is the most befitting recognition for this man of vision, action and transformation.

Spreading his wings, growing beyond Penang …

In the 1980s, the World Bank used to send its officials to Kuala Lumpur and these officials would normally visit Penang during the weekends. Heeding the late Tun Lim Chong Eu’s advice “You have to make full use of the opportunity to engage with them”,

Dato’ Seri Chet made sure that he met up with every World Bank official who visited Penang, be it on a weekday, Saturday or Sunday.

Dato’ Seri Chet was in New York with Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu when a telegraph message from someone in the World Bank arrived at his office in PDC. It was from a World Bank official who was impressed at how PDC had developed the FTZs and industrialized Penang. At that time, Kenya was applying for funding assistance for industrialization from the World Bank. The World Bank official was so adamant that PDC should be involved in this project that he requested the assistance of the Malaysia Trade Commissioner’s office in Nairobi to contact PDC. PDC was invited to bid for the project to plan and design an Export Processing Zone (EPZ) in Kenya.

A trip was made by Dato’ Seri Chet and Lim Pao Li of PDC to Kenya prior to bidding for the project. Dato’ Seri Chet commented that the aerial photographs of the industrial parks in Penang, which he brought along with him, managed to convince the Kenyan Government of PDC’s credibility in developing EPZs/FTZs. A bid was made to the World Bank and PDC was successful in being appointed as consultant.

After the successful setting up of Kenya’s FTZ, Dato’Seri Chet and his colleagues were consultant for the development of EPZs / FTZs in other places, including Sarawak and Sabah, East Malaysia.

Upon his retirement, Dato’ Seri Chet joined the Innovation and Consultancy Centre of the Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) to work on university-industry collaboration. When he was at USM, he was appointed the Corporate Advisor to Kota Kinabalu Industrial Park (KKIP) Sdn Bhd, a Sabah State Government company responsible for industrial park development in Sabah. Dato’ Seri Chet recounted how he was appointed as Corporate Advisor.

“One day when I was still with USM, I was reading the newspaper and noticed Sabah government’s announcement on their intention to go all out to industrialize the state. I sent a letter to my friend in the SEDC (State Economic Development Corporation) Sabah to congratulate him. I also added a note at the end of my letter, to offer my assistance if they need help. About a week later, I received a response from Sabah offering me the position of Corporate Advisor to the KKIP Sdn Bhd.”

Words of Wisdom from Dato’ Seri Chet …

When we started industrialization in Penang almost five decades ago, we were young and hungry. Our young workers humbly took on whatever jobs that were offered and they were thankful that they managed to earn a living and put food on the table.

Situations changed; economic and business environment changed; and we have moved from a low-tech to a high-tech environment. Somehow, the attitude of our workforce also changed, but not necessarily for the better. Good times have pampered us and we tend to forget our difficult days. If we don’t check and rectify we might lose our competitiveness to the emerging economies.

Therefore, to retain what we are enjoying now and to move ahead, our workforce need to realize that they have to acquire knowledge and be dedicated. We cannot afford to lose our competitiveness. Around in the Southeast Asia and South Asia region, the pool of workers is very large and they are waiting for job opportunities. To continue to be the leading center of investment, we need to continue to have a competent workforce having the necessary skills; a pro-business government making it seamless to invest and operate; and a conducive environment to live in.

Dato' Seri Chet SinghDato’ Seri Chet Singh was born in Kuala Kangsar, Perak in 1936. He was the second among five brothers. He was educated at Clifford School, Kuala Kangsar, Perak until Form Five and then at the King Edward Seventh 2 School in Taiping. Chet later attended the University of Malaya (Singapore) and in 1959, graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and History, and Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in History.

His father, Mr. Karam Singh, was a teacher who eventually became the headmaster of Clifford School. Chet is married to Bhajan, whom he met in Singapore. She was also a teacher. He has two daughters, Sharon and Surita and a son, Anil.

• Innovation and Consultancy Centre (ICC) of Universiti Sains Malaysia to promote industry-university linkages, to and establish R&D activities at the university (1991)
• Senator Malaysian Parliament (1995-1997)
• Board of Directors of IOI Oleochemicals (1995)
• Board member of SERI, then Penang institute (1999 – present)
• Part of research specialist network for PE Research (present)
• Chairman, Board of Trustees, Gurdwara Sahib Bayan Baru (2001- present)
• Board of Governors of Wawasan Open University (WOU) (2007 – present)
• Special Advisor to Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng – KPI Task Force for the PDC (2010- present)
• Trustee of Khalsa Dharmic Jatha, Petani Road, Penang
• Consultant of Penang Blueprint (2011-2015) by the Penang Institute

• Darjah Yang Mulia Pangkuan Negeri (DMPN) which carries the title ‘Dato’ in 1975
• Darjah Gemilang Pangkuan Negeri (DGPN) which carries the title ‘Dato’ Seri’ in 2010
• Honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Wawasan Open University in 2012

by Anna Ong
February, 2017

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