Siew Nim Chee - First Among Equals

Siew Nim Chee

Dato' Siew Nim Chee has always been a man ahead of his time. He was one of two Malaysians to graduate with an honours degree in economics from the University of Malaya (UM); the first Malaysian to obtain an M.Sc in Industrial Relations from the prestigious Cornell University in the United States; the youngest lecturer and first head of the Economics Faculty at UM (Kuala Lumpur) in 1957; and the first chief economist of Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM) in 1959. Later, he co-founded and ran Malaysia's pioneer numbers forecasting operation in 1969.

Today, Siew is recognised as a doyen of the Malaysian corporate world and revered as one of the outstanding economists of his generation. But unusually for a man who is very much at home in a capitalist world, he still remains a socialist at heart the result of having witnessed many heart-rending incidents of poverty during his childhood.

One incident, though, more than others, left an indelible mark. "I have been a socialist since the age of nine," he says. This was in 1934 when he recalls witnessing destitute Indian labourers who, for the price of a drink of toddy, were prepared to "sell" their daughters and wives.

Thus, it was this which made him decide to opt for Cornell years later when he wanted to pursue his master's degree. Siew chose Cornell even though he was offered a place by all the Ivy-League universities as it boasted the best industrial and labour relations school. "I wanted to teach the unions to 'fight' their employers," he explains. Later, having honed his union-organising skills in the classroom, he taught American union leaders as a summer course lecturer.

Fate, however, intervened. He did not end up as a union-buster but joined the "enemy" instead working his way to the top of the corporate ladder, rising to become an owner- manager himself. But his socialist ideals never left him. His closest friends were among Malaysia's foremost social reformers the late opposition politician Tan Sri Dr Tan Chee Koon, the late social activist James Puthucheary and the late labour leader Tan Sri Dr P.P. Narayanan.

Born on Aug 2,1925 in Prai, Penang, Siew's outstanding achievements in the Senior Cambridge at the Victoria Institution saw him bag a Federal scholarship to study at Siew Nim Chee - 1948 Raffles College (later University of Malaya) in Singapore in 1947. In 1951, he was one of only four students (two Malaysians) to graduate with an honours degree in economics. Among them was a young Ungku Aziz (Royal Professor and the first Vice-Chancellor of University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur).

Upon his graduation, he was offered a US Government scholarship, one of five awarded, to complete his postgraduate studies at Cornell. However, Cornell officials were a little suspect of this young man and his qualifications. "They had never heard of Malaya (as the country was then known) and so I was told I would be admitted initially only as an observer," he says.

Siew did not disappoint. That semester, he was the second-best student in his class and was appointed a graduate assistant to teach freshman class. In 1953, he graduated with an M.Sc in Labour and Industrial Relations. His links with Cornell still remain strong to this day. He is the only Malaysian to be elected to two four-year terms of the Cornell University Council by the president and chairman of the Board of Trustees of Cornell. He was bestowed the title a Friend of Cornell University in 1993 the highest honour in Cornell.

After Cornell, he returned home to teach at UM in Singapore. After independence in 1957, he was sent to UM's Kuala Lumpur campus. In 1959, he became the chief economist of Bank Negara Malaysia. It was at the central bank that Siew broached the idea of setting up a Malaysian Economics Association (MEA) to the governor, the late Tun Ismail Ali. The aim of such an organisation was to establish a national organisation for economists and create a credible forum for the expression and dissemination of economic ideas and ideals. To fan support for the fledgling association, Siew wrote to his former students, who were by then employed at the various ministries.

Together with Ungku Aziz, Ismail, the late Tan Sri Jamil Rais and the late Raja Tun Mohar Raja Badiozaman, the MEA was born in 1962, with Siew as the convenor. Ungku Aziz was elected as the first president while Siew was the deputy president. Siew himself later helmed the association from 1966-70 and today remains a trustee of the MEA Foundation. His contributions to the association and the field of economics were recognised when he was conferred with the Fellowship of the MEA in 1993, one of only six people to have received the accolade.

After five-years at the central bank and having served the nation faithfully since his graduation, Siew opted for a fresh challenge. At 40, an age when most would be content with their lot, he decided to venture into the private sector and began a long and distinguished career in the corporate world. His first stop was at Exxon where he created a record as the most outstanding employee for five years where he was the treasurer. Later, he formed and headed Magnum Corporation, Malaysia's first numbers forecasting agency. Thus far, he has been a director of more then 50 companies and is currently the adviser of Ancom, a diversified conglomerate.

Now 78, Siew is still active in the philanthropic world. His donations and fund-raising efforts have contributed millions to innumerable charitable causes, particularly education.

As the president of the Victoria Institution Old Boys Association, he has donated generously to his alma mater. There are seven scholarship funds instituted in his or his family name.

"Education is the love of my life," he says. He himself had a hard childhood and duly credits education for saving him from a life of poverty. "No student is perfect; therefore, caring teachers are vital. My teachers were 100 per cent committed to their pupils," he adds. Which explains his passion for educational causes.

Gunalan Namasivayam is honorary editor of Ekonomika.
October - December 2003

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