Women Rule on Prestige Magazine 2012
Dear students and friends,
Guess who’s on the front cover of August 2012’s issue of Prestige Magazine??? Head Liaison and President of Kechara House Datuk May, Liaison Li Kim, and Li Kheng! The Phng ladies (mother and two daughters) were approached by the magazine to be interviewed, as they have inspired others through their secular and spiritual success. In Prestige’s August issue, there’s an 8-page feature article on their take on life. Wonderful pictures.
I have known Datuk May since 2007. When I first met her, she was direct, very vocal and had minimal Dharma knowledge… but through it all, I could see that she was a kind and intelligent lady who was very interested in spirituality. Datuk May is one of my students that has shown transformation within a few years in the Dharma… I’m very proud and happy for her… not for any other reason, but because she practices sincerely and has gained visible results from applying the Dharma into her life.
From her transformation, she has brought her two daughters into the Dharma. Now, Datuk May’s eldest daughter Li Kim is the CEO of the publication arm of Kechara, and her younger daughter Li Kheng is working in the Ladrang Dept of Kechara. How wonderful that their family motto is to benefit others. The two daughters work hard and sincerely for dharma and they dedicate their merits to their mom, dad and people they love. Selfless.
Do read the featured article of this wonderful trio and let me know what you think. Did their life story inspire you in anyway? Which picture did you enjoy the most?
Prestige – August 2012
Turning 65 years old come October; Datuk May Phng is one accomplished lady. Hers is a name highly regarded, not just within circles of the upper echelon but beyond. Renowned for her strong business acumen and firm hand in raising four children who are today strong, independent and successful adults in their own right, Datuk May has earned many monikers over the years, one of them being The Dragon Lady.
Datuk May is not just The Dragon Lady however: She is wife to Phng Hooi Siang whose family established the reputable Asia Motors, mother of four, grandmother of eight, director of a couple of business, member of the Board of Trustees of the Malaysian Rubber Export Promotion Council, president and head liaison of Buddhist organization Kechara, teacher, student and more. Though these titles may come across an ‘icing on the cake’ to many, hers is a life of challenges, sleepless nights, working round-the-clock, anxiety, stress and frustration, along with all that entails marrying into a wealthy yet traditionally conservative Chinese family.
Of her mother; Li Kim, the elder of two daughters and Datuk May’s second child, says, “My mother is pivotal in most of my key decisions in life. She is someone whom I respect very much and the epitome of what I believe to be an independent woman. She is brilliant and experienced, so I take her advice very seriously.”
Younger sister Li Kheng, says, “My mum and I share a relationship that’s trusting and inspiring. She has been my life coach, generously sharing her experiences and opinions that have contributed to my growth as a person. Since the age of 16, I have been chatting with mum about life philosophies deep into the night. Many of the principles I live by are based on the things I learned from those conversations.”
We go back to the early years to get a better picture of Datuk May who married into the Phng family at the age of 18.
“I met my husband when I was 17. I was then teaching primary school children at the Pudu English Girls’ School and taking shorthand and typing classes at night. I must’ve been quite a good teacher as the headmistress referred me to the famous teaching training facility at Kirkby in Liverpool, UK. I also received a scholarship to study in America but I thought, why waste time, better get married,” Datuk May remembers. It was back in the 60s then and the choice between a blossoming romance and studying abroad was clear. She chose the former, but it wasn’t all about eating, drinking, making merry and enjoying the perks of marrying into a wealthy family. Instead, she went to work for the late Tun Sir Henry HS Lee as his personal assistant, who was then in charge of the Development and Commercial Bank. Soon after, her father-in-law suggested that she work for the family at Asia Motors and that was where her training in business began. “The offer came just in time, thank goodness. I couldn’t see myself as a teacher forever. My mind was too wild,” claims Datuk May.
At the automobile industry’s peak, Datuk May managed four to five departments at Asia Motors. She even supervised the running of an oil palm estate and developed buildings under the family business’ property arm. How Datuk May managed to oversee all these enterprises without having gone through the whole nine yards of a formal education was simply because of her fearless nature and sheer determination.
“I remember the time my father-in-law told me to start developing buildings. I had to work with architects, engineers and contractors. I didn’t even know what piling was or even what columns or beams were, for that matter,” Datuk May reveals. She relates how she pushed herself to learn as much as she could, even if it meant working round-the-clock overseeing the development of buildings along the highway and building Malaysia’s first ice-skating rink at what was known at the time as Asia Jaya. “Back in those days when most married women were homemakers, I applaud my father-in-law who believed in the power and capability of women despite the fact that he was one of the most traditional men I’ve ever known! For him, when it comes to smarts, it didn’t matter whether you were male or female. Much of my business training come from him.”
Datuk May continued to work, building her family business empire even as she and her husband began to grow their family. She tells of the time her father-in-law was overjoyed when she bore the family their first grandchild, Phng Wee Kiat – the start of the third generation. “My father-in-law threw a huge ‘full moon’ party and because of the Phng family status, everybody congratulated my father-in-law instead of me,” says Datuk May who was barely 20 years old then. Second child Li Kim was born four years later.
“After my two brothers-in-law got married and started their own families, my father-in-law came up to me and said I was hopeless, having given him only two children in a span of 10 years,” says Datuk May. “I knew I’d better quickly bear another child or my father-in-law would get a second wife for his son. The problem was, I wasn’t on any birth control and simply wasn’t getting pregnant. Moreover, both the other daughter-in-law were producing girls. On the birth of my third child Li Kheng eight years later, my father-in-law came into the delivery room and said, ‘Even you have given me a granddaughter.’ I assured him that around this time next year, I will give him a grandson. At that time, my gynecologist Dr McCoy asked me how I was going to do such a thing as I wasn’t very fertile. I told him, don’t worry, I’ll do it.” Determined, she surely was and that was exactly what she did 13 months later with her son, Wee Liang. “You’ll be amazed at what the mind can do,” says Datuk May. “At this time, there were nine Phng grandchildren. Two were boys and they were both my sons.”
Datuk May then shares about the passing of her father-in-law in 1984, followed by her mother-in-law six months later. Due to disputes within the family, the business was liquidated. By that time, Datuk May had already started her own medical glove manufacturing business, Ampri Rubberware Industries, which she ran together with Li Kim upon her daughter’s graduation.
Li Kim, a Bachelor of Science graduate armed with a degree in Business Administration from the Pepperdine University in California, shares that being the daughter of the founder made little difference as she had to start from scratch like any other employee. She refers to her childhood as one where she was treated like a princess and enjoyed an extremely privileged lifestyle: “Once during an outing with our relatives, my brother and I spotted an organ and a piano which we both liked. Next thing we knew the piano and organ were delivered to the house,” says Li Kim. As the two eldest grandchildren and the first two of the third generation in the Phng family, Li Kim and her brother grew up with many golden opportunities. Armed with maids and body guards, they were sent to study at a boarding school in Singapore and lived with their grandparents over the weekends.
Upon the passing of their grandparents, Li Kim returned to complete her secondary education at an international school in KL and then, went off to study in the US for three-and-a-half years. “I contemplated taking up law like my father or perhaps becoming an actress,” says Li Kim who finally took up business with the expectation to work in her mother’s glove manufacturing company. Happy-go-lucky by nature and one who knew how to have a good time in any situation, Li Kim doesn’t deny that her parents never gave in to her whims and fancies. In fact, she says, “They were clear from the very beginning with their terms and conditions, rules and regulations.”
The eldest daughter relates how her father gave her an ultimatum to get her degree before she turned 22. “I did and graduated one month just before my 22nd birthday,” she says with a smile. Of Li Kim, Datuk May says, “Li Kim has a very quick mind and she operates with more freedom. She is not afraid of what people think of her and so, she’s not so pressured to produce results. Being the eldest granddaughter in the family, along with my elder son, they were raised more by my husband’s parents and totally spoilt by their aunties and uncles.” Like her enterprising mother however, Li Kim simultaneously took on a role with a German dental company, managing the company’s outsource manufacturing facility in Malaysia while working with her mother to run the glove manufacturing business. After eight years of managing both these manufacturing establishments, Li Kim ventured into other avenues dealing in marketing and digital media.
Datuk May sold off the glove manufacturing business after 10 successful years and helped her son to start a company setting up ‘clean rooms.’ “It’s a niche market and my son became quite a specialist at it,” says the proud mother, who later handed the company over to her son.
Datuk May then decided to take it easy, enjoying the things she never had much time for. “I began travelling, playing mahjong, reading all the books I’ve always wanted to read, going to the gym to exercise, buying jewellery and going shopping,” she says. As one who has always thrived on challenges however, that period didn’t last very long. Restless, the businesswoman soon felt the pace in Malaysia a tad too slow for her liking.
Datuk May recalls visiting The People’s Republic of China back in 1999 and 2000 when its economy was just booming. It was also at this time that a business opportunity arose in China and Datuk May saw her chance to put her foot in the door.
In the meantime, Li Kheng, a graduate from Ecole Hotelier de Lausanne in Switzerland, had just resigned from a position at The Parkroyal Hotel. The second daughter says, “As an academic who only went from school to home with a few tuition teacher visits in between, I was fearful that I would grow up clever but not smart. Despite signing the Book of Excellence and graduating as the top girl from one of the most prestigious hospitality schools in the world, I dreaded entering the ‘real world’ after graduation as I was fearful that I would fall flat on my face.”
Still, the young and determined Li Kheng had plans of her own. She aimed to become general manager of a five-star hotel by the age of 35 and swore never to be roped into the family business. Fate had other plans however. Today, Li Kheng is CEO of The Coffee Bean Shanghai and runs a chain of 30 (soon to be 36) Coffee Bean outlets throughout China – all under the family business.
“The Coffee Bean was on the brink of going bankrupt at the end of November 2004. As I had just left The Parkroyal, my family thought I could go over, monitor the liquidation and find a job in the world’s upcoming cosmopolitan city. So, I got on the plane with zero management experience and no idea of what was to come,” says Li Kheng. “I like to share with young people that life, to quote Forrest Gump, is like a box of chocolates. We should never become too fixated on what we should have, could have or would have done. Instead, we have to embrace the blessings we’ve been given and make the best of the situation we find ourselves in,” she says.
On gender issues and running a business in China, Li Kheng says, “I have a lot of fun doing business as a woman in China. Equality between genders is present in China especially in big cities. For those who have doubts, my advice is: do not focus on the obstacles of being a woman as you will only create a situation for those obstacles to grow. Harness the power of your feminine energy – we all have feminine and masculine energies, the yin and yang – to create the results you want. I believe we should enjoy being treated like ‘ladies’ so that the men get the opportunity to be gentlemen. This becomes the one experience in business that men cannot get from other men.”
All three women take pride in who they are and agree that women should take pride in their femininity. “Being feminine does not equate to being a damsel in distress,” says Datuk May. “Feminity is beautiful, strong, confident, vulnerable, honest and open. It’s the one thing we women can naturally do better than men simply by being who we are. Being a woman does not mean beating down on the men or being a feminist. A powerful synergy can be formed when men and women live in harmony.”
While their careers and businesses are extremely important to the three ladies, when asked about the real turning point in their lives, it was spirituality and awareness, and not the bottom line. “I came to a point when I realized I was known only within my inner circle. I was comfortable only with those at my level who accepted my rigidness and submitted to my wish to do things my way,” shares Datuk May. “I got rid of people who didn’t do things the way I wanted them done – a much easier choice for me although it was at times discomfiting. I would get into bouts of depression asking myself why I did this to others.”
At that time, Datuk May was a trainer at Asia Works and had facilitated about six leadership programmes when she received a vision. “That vision was for everyone to live in peace. In doing so, each person creates a better environment which enables everybody to live in inner peace, thus creating a better world.” Over time however, she found her efforts at Asia Works futile and started wondering if there was something else she could do. This led her to meeting her spiritual guide HE Tsem Rinpoche in July 2007.
“I was greatly moved after a conversation with Rinpoche, spiritual advisor of Kechara, about spirituality and bringing benefit to others. I thought to myself, this was a place where my vision could grow. I realized after our conversation that while HE’s vision was miles ahead and much bigger in scope than mine, our visions were along a similar path,” says Datuk May whose spiritual journey transformed as she began to practice Dharma.
Datuk May’s gradual transformation did not escape unnoticed by her children and today, every family member is an active member of the Kechara Buddhist organization. Li Kheng, together with a few friends, set up Kechara Tea House – Kind & Kinda Delicious and Kechara Soup Kitchen in Shanghai. “Kechara Tea House is an F&B concept developed based on the teachings of HE Tsem Rinpoche on kindness and respect to the environment,” she shares. “It is a vegetarian bistro that serves a variety of healthy dishes that use natural ingredients gifted to us by nature. Unlike most vegetarian concepts that create a mock-meat menu, here we reintroduce the deliciousness of vegetables. We accompany our wide array of dishes with innovative tea concoctions like Ruby Tara MarTEAni made with roselle, hawthorn and licorice, as well as Beauty Vitamin made with oolong tea and fresh snow pear juice.”
In KL, Li Kim has come to run one of 13 departments under the Kechara umbrella as CEO of Kechara Media & Publications. She says, “I may have been born a Buddhist or Taoist but spirituality to me was merely a concept. Praying on Wesak Day and on the eighth day of Chinese New Year was about as religious as I could be.” She had her first encounter with HE at a private function in 2009, which she says left her thinking, “Buddhism ain’t that boring after all.”
Li Kim says, “My aspiration has always been to be happy within and without. It hasn’t changed since coming to Kechara. In fact, it’s here that I find myself closer to achieving my aspiration. Kechara has helped me find true happiness that comes from a deep inner self. My aspiration now is to be happy with a purpose,” says the mother of three boys.
Under Li Kim’s leadership as CEO, Kechara Media & Publications (KMP) has published my inspirational books and a number of bestsellers such as the recently released The Promise and Tales My Lama Told Me, along with previous titles like If Not Now When, 108 Ways To Grab My Apples, PEACE, Gurus for Hire, Why I Make Myself Unhappy and Snakes, Roosters and Pigs. Together with her team, she has not only put KMP on the global map but through her books and the essence of her Dharma work, has shared her Spiritual Guide’s thoughts and teachings with the rest of the world.
In addition, Li Kim has also taken paper to television, with KMP’s first of 13 television series soon to be aired on NTV7 called Tsem’s Paranormal Zone. “The show is broken down into entertaining and informative 30-minute segments. It’s basically about spirits that are really all around us,” she says, not wanting to let the cat fully out of the bag. As the host of the programme, Li Kim is one step closer to her lifelong dream of becoming an actress.
The three ladies believe that Malaysian businesswomen should network more in support of one another. “We should stop giving into the rules and regulations of the world, stop falling prey to oppression, suppression and repression. We cannot relate to our power and empowerment in the same way a man does. We should look at the strengths and gifts we have as women and use them well,” says Datuk May passionately. “And I personally don’t think Asian women are any more restricted or restrained than women in other parts of the world. Just look at Indira Gandhi, the first female prime minister. We women are very strong in many ways.”
Datuk May encourages all women to stand up for themselves and be proud of who they are. In a lesson she’s always taught her children: “Our situation is always in our hands. An independent person is one who dares to do what he or she wants to do – mistakes and all. Don’t let society’s norms entrap you. When Malaysia received independence in 1957, did you think the leaders were going to regret it? They decided they had to do something for things to change. We will always make mistakes but don’t let mistakes pull you back. If you fall, just get up and go on – that’s independence. It has nothing to do with your social status, money or education. It’s all in the mindset. Independence is how well you take what you have in your life and what you do with it.”