Record of Interview with Chairman Toh Soon Huat
Reporter: Nice to meet you, Chairman Toh. Very special thanks for taking our interview in your busy schedule. If we can plant a seed of philanthropy in children’s heart, some of them may grow up becoming philanthropists like you, which is a beautiful hope of ours. You’ve been practicing charity for over 20 years. When was the seed of charity been planted in your heart? What kind of specific incident that made you start your journey of charity? How did you feel on your first practice?
Chairman Toh: I believe in “From the society, for the society”. Humans do not need much in lives, but usually want a lot, even endlessly. I believe one shall be grateful when one gets something and think about why you get it. For example, you must have thought of who brought you to the world. That’s your parents. Why did they? That is a beautiful fate. You were cultivated in her body. When you were little, the society was helping you, your parents were helping you, siblings were helping you, friends were helping you, which were all learning journeys. In your whole learning journey, the society helped you by providing you the platform for you to grow up. I believe that one shall make returns for all one has obtained, even little by little, second by second. One must be grateful, contributing, forgiving and compassionate. One should do something that lead to universal salvation and that can help the others.
Reporter: It’s often said that parents are our first teachers and family is our first school. You come from a big family with 11 siblings. According to your sharing, your mother adopted two sisters even your family was already in deep poverty. That deed of your mother was already a kind of charity. Besides your mother’s kindness, what did you learn from your parents and your family environment in which you grew up? How did that help you in your business success later?
Chairman Toh: You will never understand the feeling and sorrow of being poor if you have never been in poverty. When in poverty, you have to face another kind of difficulty besides life itself, which makes you learn something. My mother was great. We grew up in a poor but happy family. I feel very grateful in this learning journey and the sharing journey. I learnt a lot from my mother, about devotion, for kids, for friends, for residents in our village. Though in poverty, we were never short of dignity. Poverty is an environment of learning to me, rather than poverty itself. I didn’t understand, in my early age, why my mother had so many kids. But it was the environment at that time, no one telling you having less kids. My mother believed it as a blessing to have more kids. She believed that as a contribution and gratitude if one or two among them made contribution to the society. Nowadays, I practice philanthropy a lot, which is greatly influenced by my mother, my family. I really appreciate my mother and my family which made me grow step by step till today to understand all these and to be happy to help others.
Reporter: It is an amazing thing even in these days to be admitted into Hwa Chong Institution on own performance. You were admitted into Hwa Chong at 15 years old with your flying score but quit your study in order to share the family-raising responsibilities of your parents. Were you in a pity for that? Have you imagined how you would be if you hadn’t quit your study then?
Chairman Toh: My dream was to be a doctor at the beginning. Later on, I wanted to be a lawyer. Doctors save lives while lawyers uphold justice. However, I am grateful to have left school, which made me today. If I became a doctor or a lawyer, I couldn’t lower my body gesture to help others today. It’s never easy to “Off the cut, Bear the give-up”, which is what I learnt in the whole thing. At a certain timepoint, you have to make it an end, for you being able to start a further journey. Deal with things with brightness and in an optimistic direction. Though feeling pity to quit school, I was willing to do it. I gave all money I earnt to my mother, letting her manage all the household expenses.
Reporter: You started to take part-time jobs after you quit school, among which some were heavy jobs. Later you became an entrepreneur with your own hard-working. However, it wasn’t a smooth cut to be an entrepreneur. Your first business lost $30,000 in 3 months. Was that all you had at that time? How did you get through that difficulty? Do you still have contact with the friend who betrayed at that time? You mentioned that you had three times of failing experience in your life, what do they mean to you?
Chairman Toh: I started my first business with full confidence, but I knew little about business then. Furthermore, the person who invited me to the business claimed that he was very familiar with that industry. However, he was not indeed, but rather looking for an opportunity to start business. I took my money out but he didn’t even after several months. I teared and begged him to invest his money in so that we could continue. The first failure was due to unthoughtful consideration. My second failure was to invest money earned during success into real estate. I didn’t expect that the Gulf War would have made me pay heavily. I almost lost all I earnt in the few months of Gulf War. I had a shareholder at that time who could have helped me get through the difficulty. We invested together in our business. He could have bought mine at market price so that I could have cashflow to turnover, rather than selling my real estate at a very low price. The second failure was due to inexperience and bad friend. The third failure was one more story about bad friend. It was exactly 20 years after my second failure. I met with a famous person with status, who was supposed to look after bros. I didn’t expect that my third failure was still in business. Business is like battle. I am quite emotional on business. I do business with brotherhood, which is actually not right. Doing business should haggle over every ounce and bargain over every penny. On the other hand, contracts are very important, not being based on a couple of casual words or just brotherhood. The third failure was also due to my inexperience. I didn’t blame any of them. It was my thought or expectation to human being that had an aspect of perfectness. It was not true. I should treat all people, all investments, all business behaviors, all living wisdom, and attitudes of being human being, with rationale. To conclude, no matter what to do, we shall think over thoroughly, shall deal with right-or-wrong, deal with work, investment, or life experience with our rationale and wisdom.
Reporter: You mentioned that you quit school at 15 years old to ease your family’s burden. Your 13-year-old sister then made the same decision as yours. Both of you could only get very limited job opportunities at teenage. I especially would like to know the current situation of this younger sister. She must be the one having closest relationship with you in your 11 siblings, isn’t she? Did this sister involve in your later charity cause as well?
Chairman Toh: When I left school, my mother was in deep sorrow. My father didn’t agree to that. He questioned why I quit school when I had such a bright future. My mother said to me that she felt sorry for me. It was a surprise that she also quit school voluntarily. I was 15 then and she was 13. We are very close siblings. Among all siblings, she is the closest one with me, even until today. However, philanthropy is a subject, a connotation, which is not an easy job for everyone. She participates in doing good deeds, but not like me. I’m practicing charity, which requires devotion of every effort, even with your life, daily living and your future. Charity is definite, no change, no preference. It is very difficult to persist on charity cause. It would be great if my sister could devote every effort. However, I’d like to thank my sister and all my siblings for their advice and guidance during the whole process.
Reporter: Your sister is the “fellow person” you had at 15 years old. Now on your charity journey, you have met more and more “fellows”. You mentioned several times that Lee Foundation gave you enormous help and encouragement especially during Sian Chay’s most difficult period, for which you were always grateful and expressed your appreciation many times. Besides Lee Foundation, what other organizations, or “fellows”, provided their help to Sian Chay? Who supported you to open the first branch clinics and how much was the sponsorship? How much does it cost to open a branch clinic now?
Chairman Toh: It costs $300,000 to $500,000 for a new branch clinic, depending on its size or scale. I got a lot of help from many benefactors on my way of charity, such as Lee Foundation. When we were in extreme difficult with only hundred thousand deposits with Sian Chay, we asked for $1 million from Lee Foundation. We didn’t expect that Lee mailed $1 million to us in just a few months. He said on his letter to us to work hard and to write to him next year if still in need. He said Lee would strongly support us. I didn’t expect to receive $3 million in three years from Lee Foundation. The specific fund was established, “PG Charity Fund”, to help those Pioneer Generation, who were over 65 years old, to enjoy free consultation and medication at Sian Chay. We especially respect Lee Foundation as there are not so many foundations like Lee in Singapore. Besides, many good friends donated $1 million, almost 10 in total. Also, San Wang Wu Di, Peihwa Foundation, and Transcab (the taxi company) were great to help us raise funds. Some personal donations are from some good friends, such as, Teo Ngiang Heng, Derek Goh, Lim Oon De, etc. They generously donated $1 million, which could be a house, or a sports car. But they believe in universal love, thus they donated to help the disadvantaged groups in the society. I make Sian Chay concise and run it as an SME by spending every cent where it’s worthy. The problem now is not at opening a new branch, which is just an issue of $300,000 to $500,000. It’s rather the operation of a branch, which is a like a professional course.
Reporter: You devoted all yourself into charity. Does your family understand and do they support? After all, you spent most of your wealth on charity. It would be certainly understandable if your family wishes you to leave your huge wealth to your children.
Chairman Toh: Frankly speaking, my family fully understand my purpose on doing charity. The problem is that they think I’m doing too much. They think I should take rest after decades of years in charity. I didn’t enjoy the money I earned by working hard, but paid off my health as well. Doing charity in Singapore costs $6 million to $7 million a year, which is not an easy job. You need to participate every minute in fund-raising, in management, in facing and bearing. As charity is a social work which is required by the society. My children all support me in doing charity. My wife thinks I’m doing enough and I should enjoy my old age as I’m getting older. They all understand me, which I really appreciate and hope for their understanding as I have very little time to be with them. I hope they will devote their labor or money in the future to manage their lives and charity wholeheartedly.
Reporter: You once mentioned that capable kids didn’t need your money, while legacy is useless for incapable kids. Then what is really meaningful that we should leave for our children?
Chairman Toh: I don’t think that life is all about money. Money is just something needed for daily living. Thus, I believe we should leave spirit, culture and connotation to our children, hoping them be healthy, be able to take care of themselves and of those disadvantaged groups and people in the society with their spare money and time. I’ve made it clear to my children that I wouldn’t leave anything material to them, including money and I hoped for their understanding. They can accept my current ideas.
Reporter: When you joined Sian Chay in 2008, there were only 4 employees with $300,000 savings in bank account. How is the size now? Can you disclose the number of employees and savings?
Chairman Toh: There were 4 employees with $300,000 savings when I joined. Now we have 130 employees and a saving of $14 million. The problem is that the cost then was quite low, just above $100,000 every year. Our cost now is over $6 million a year. Therefore, $300,000 can last for 2 years then, while $14 million can last for 3 years now. In the past, Sian Chay served around 20 patients daily. It’s now 1,200 patients. Thus, I feel that fund is much more needed than previously. I have to work hard to continue fund-raising, keep simplifying and improve our level to serve more needy residents. I believe that helping one is not only the one, but rather a whole family, as one’s own problem will surely cause problems of the whole family. Our job is to take away their pain and relieve their minds to decrease complaints or negative energy in the society.
Reporter: You run Sian Chay by the principle and means of running an enterprise facing the large team to be managed. However, the kindness to patients is obviously not suitable in enterprise management. Are you strict on management of staff? What kind of quality do you care most on staff?
Chairman Toh: I interview every staff in person. I care most about his compassion, rather than capability. One is not suitable to be in medical care industry if one lacks compassion, even if he or she has high capability. When he has a compassionate heart, he’ll be my preference. Once he joins our medical institution, it’s my job to train him to be capable. Thus, I train them as how SMEs do, as we do not have abundant money or savings. We need everyone to take responsibilities of several. Once one takes multiple responsibilities, his capability and wisdom will be improved. I’m strict as it’s about lives. We must be very serious as it’s medical service, with zero tolerance on carelessness. Therefore, being strict is understandable. However, all staff can accept that as I include a family-like care in the process. Sian Chay’s core values are “Forgiveness, Universal Love, Compassion, Gratitude and Blessings”, with which all staff are integrated. Therefore, it’s not my biggest concern of managing staff.
Reporter: How is the turnover rate of Sian Chay employees? Was it high?
Chairman Toh: (The turnover rate is) not high. There are few voluntary resignations. Rather, it’s more often that I request some staff to leave when I find out them not suitable for this job. I will ask them to leave when I notice that they are not compassionate, forgiving or positive. As I cannot let those people stay in Sian Chay to influence the service of the whole charity organization.
Reporter: When you were a businessman, you earn money. Now you spend money. Which role do you think is more tiring, businessman or philanthropist? What is the difference between them?
Chairman Toh: When I was a businessman, I thought it was tiring to be an entrepreneur. When I do charity, I find out it is not tiring as a businessman as there is only one goal that businessman need to follow, which is making money. But philanthropy is different. It requires you to be careful and considerate. In the meanwhile, it also requires you to be firm, flexible and deal with everything. There are too much to face in practicing philanthropy. Moreover, it’s a losing business while being an entrepreneur is on profiting business, whether great or few. Charity is devotion but entrepreneur is reward. They are totally different. I felt it very tiring to practice charity, but I love to take the challenge and bear the responsibilities. After so many years, my heart has been set and firm, not feeling tiring, but being used to everything. It’s never a difficulty or a bottleneck if something you do everyday is something you acknowledge, you appreciate, and you are willing to do. Rather, you will enjoy it. I regard it as a bright and meaningful future.
Reporter: Sian Chay develops itself with the pace of time and era. Some of my friends, even myself, had experience with depression. Every step of Sian Chay tries it best to suit the needs of patients and the time, providing consultation services both physically and mentally. Is there any detailed plan for the next move?
Chairman Toh: For the next move, we firstly stabilized our 15 branch clinics and then set to understand patients’ deep thinking by soft capability such as free haircut. We help them to appreciate, influence them with positive energy. We also teach non-Chinese residents with Chinese language learning, hoping that this platform can help more non-Chinese and promote Chinese culture, tuina therapy and acupuncture. We hope that non-Chinese will be taken better care of from Chinese culture, being grateful and helping promote racial harmony. Meanwhile, staff need to improve themselves, in medical skills, clinical experience, affinity and their communication with patients.
Reporter: Some people are willing to practice charity but with limited capability. What should they do?
Chairman Toh: Generally speaking, practicing charity is very difficult. Common people donate and do good deeds. But charity is a longer way with heavier responsibilities. Charity is bearing more and more, appreciating more and more, devoting more and more. It’s not random, but should be firm. It’s not something you do up to your everyday mood. Good deeds are different. Someone may donate today as he wants, but not tomorrow as not willing to. Thus, it’s easy to do good deeds, donating part of what you have as you wish to do. But philanthropy is different. Besides the spirit, time, energy, money and wisdom you’ve contributed, you have to face a lot of people, to face brightness, compassion, forgiveness. When you experience them yourself, you’ll find they are totally different journeys. I advise you to practice charity when you get a chance, but not just doing good deeds. However, you must be very clear of what you are going to do and make your mind firmly if you want to do charity. You must get rid of your desire for fame or wealth, get rid of greed, anger or illusion, which are all on the opposite direction to charity, leading to hurt on yourself and others.
Reporter: So may I interpret that people can start from doing good deeds if they are willing to? You often mentioned that life is unpredictable. Is there anything special in your life that made you think so?
Chairman Toh: Will you still exist tomorrow? Life is uncontrollable and unpredictable. Nothing is under control, yesterday, today or tomorrow. There are so many accidents, even sudden death. I believe we should live for the moment, using all of our wisdom and brightness to deal with the moment. The logic is simple. We don’t know which comes first tomorrow, Grim Reaper or life. I often tell myself that this would be my last day. Thus, I must make it meaningful and plenty. I must appreciate my time, spirit and value to deal with something that benefits the public, to appreciate life and meaning, value and energy of lives.
Reporter: You once said that Sian Chay belonged to the public and some day it would step out of Singapore. Do you mean China? What in details will it be? What is your expectation of Sian Chay in the future?
Chairman Toh: I know there are three big charity organizations in the world, with great spirits. They are Red Cross, Lions Clubs International and Rotary International. Which made them worldwide? Belief, in other words, culture value. Traditional Chinese Medicine is one type of health maintenance culture of China and Chinese. TCM has been taken care of many lives, their health and happiness, over thousands of years. I think we should greatly promote TCM as it is part of Chinese culture. Besides, our language, Confucius, Mencius, and Michiko, are all Chinese culture ideology. It will be a bright thing to promote Chinese culture and TCM to non-Chinese countries. Moreover, if we can bring back Chinese culture to where Chinese originated to firmly and deeply recall, structure and remember the greatness of our Chinese culture, it should be encouraged and advocated.
Reporter: To review your life journey, if there is a chance that you can start over again, is there anything you wish to change? Or, you prefer to keep it as it was.
Chairman Toh: I am grateful to what I have and what I give. I am also grateful that the forerunners let me take over the platform, to make it bigger. Many people asked me if I feel regretted. Not a little. Why? We have this platform from the forerunners and let us to make it great. I feel we should be grateful. Thus, I practiced charity for decades without taking a cent, but donating at least hundreds of thousand dollars every year. I enjoy the Chinese etiquette and reciprocity. If you let me choose again, I will still take this responsibility and carry forward the brightness and future of philanthropy.
Reporter: Is there anything you would like to say to donators?
Chairman Toh: I greatly appreciate them to support charity, support me, support Sian Chay firmly and unswervingly. I hope they will have deeper understanding of “From the society, for the society”. There are some people in the society who are suffering. I hope capable people like us to contribute money of labor to take care of them, to relieve them from pain and suffering, to help them live a better life, to improve their life quality, so that they can live in harmony, reducing complaints of the society. When the society is a stable one, we are then blessed to share the platform, to share the peace of society. Thank you to all!
Reporter: Thank you, Chairman Toh. Thank you for your time!
At the end of the interview, we’d like to send our special thanks to Chairman Toh for sharing with us in his tight schedule about his dream of charity, and for carrying forward this positive energy. Special thanks to Ms. Amy Wang and Ms. Joanne Zhang of Sian Chay for providing information, photos and up-to-date data. Appreciation!