Singapore's newest billionaire made his wealth from nothing

Singapore's newest billionaire made his wealth from nothing

SINGAPORE - Described as one of Singapore's best-known and least-celebrated tycoons on American business magazine Forbes' online article in August, 85-year-old Goh Cheng Liang, who recently joined Singapore's rich list as one of its newest billionaires, never went to school or inherited a family business.

The article written by Forbes Asia contributor Neerja Jetley highlighted the humble beginnings of Teochew tycoon Goh who made his debut on Forbes' Singapore 50 Richest people at number nine with a net worth of US$2.1 billion (S$2.6 billion).

His rags to riches story began in 1928 when Goh was born in a one-room flat where he later grew up with three sisters and a brother, reported Jetley.

During the Japanese Occupation, his father was unemployed and his mother did laundry while his sister sold 'soon kway', a popular street food, said Goh in an interview with The Business Times in 1997.

As a boy, he picked up skills while helping his brother-in-law sell fishing nets in Muar and as an apprentice at Tan Chong Huat hardware store.

According to a Business Times interview in 1997, the young Goh had to endure 'gruelling tasks' during his apprenticeship and decided to try something new when he felt 'the itch' to be a boss again. Then, an opportunity came when the British auctioned off rotten paint in 1949.

The self-starter, who had some knowledge about paint during his time at the hardware store, started to experiment by mixing up different solvents and later created his own brand of paint 'Pigeon'. The next year, due to the Korean war, imports were restricted and Goh's paint business landed a 'whopping profit windfall', said Jetley in the Forbes article.

To advance his paint business, The Straits Times reported in 1990 that the tycoon went to Denmark to learn paint manufacturing technology. His skills and knowledge led established brand, Nippon Paint, to approach him for a business venture.

Goh then launched into a 60-40 joint venture with the Japanese company, which was already a household name in Asia, and a Thai partner. This deal led to the construction of Nippon mixing plants in Singapore and Thailand in 1963 and 1967 respectively.

Today, Nippon Paint is available in 15 different countries out of Japan, according to Forbes Asia contributor Jetley, and has a staff strength of around 15,000 and factories in 30 locations.

From 1970s to 1990s, the Teochew tycoon built up Wuthelam Holdings as a conglomerate, expanding his business activities and invested in property, retail distribution, logistics and even a mining company in China.

Under another of his groups, Yenom Industries, Jetley also reported in her Forbes article that Goh and his partners also owns golf courses, marinas, hotels and even housing developments in Gulf Habour and other parts of the world.

In a 1997 Business Times interview, Goh said he was '75 per cent retired' and leaves his son, Goh Hup Jin, who was educated in the US, to oversee the company together with a team of professionals.

Today, the annual turnover stands at US$2.6 billion (S$3.25 billion). Goh Hup Jin is the chairman of NIPSEA Group, a joint venture between Wuthelam Holdings Pte Ltd and Nippon Paint Co. Ltd.

In the same interview, we learnt that the humble billionaire worked in a 'spartanly-furnished' office at Genting Lane in the East. His only luxurious indulgence is his collection of super yachts and catamarans.

He shared that he goes deep-sea fishing and scuba diving in Bali on board White Rabbit II, his US$30 million (S$37 million) three-deck yacht. He stopped playing golf due to his kneecap and he was never fond of entertainment such as cinemas and KTVs.

In Singapore, prominent landmarks such as high profile medical centre Mt. Elizabeth Hospital and Liang Court at night life area Clarke Quay were built by this business magnate.

Currently in his mid-eighties, the media-shy billionaire rarely gives interviews or make appearances. But his philanthropic presence is seen making headlines through the Goh Foundation with their generous endowments to scholarship funds, cancer research and education.

In 2009, The Straits Times reported that the foundation donated S$12 million towards leukaemia research and last October, The New Paper said an undisclosed grant was given to a project to develop the world's first risk-free drug test using the patient's own skin.

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