Saturday September 29, 2012
MY OTHER BUSINESS
By CHERYL POO
Beyond the bottom line, Vincent Tan shares about his love for the marine world below.
In the 1970s, an insurance agent visited Pulau Tioman during a company trip. He was fascinated by the golden shores and rich marine life and vowed to stake his presence there one day.
He had a dream to enter into the hospitality industry that would thrive in the pristine environment of the country's many nature spots.
That man, now one of the country's prominent tycoons Tan Sri Vincent Tan, not only achieved his dream the following decade, but discovered a newfound interest for exploring the world under the sea.
"My acquisition of the resort at Tioman motivated me. I figured that since Tioman drew so many snorklers and divers, I'd better get a taste of the sport too," says Tan.
The marine world is far away from the clubhouse in Kuala Lumpur where this interview was conducted but the passion clearly sparkled in his eyes.
Tan, the founder of Berjaya Corp Bhd, appears well-rested and relaxed in black slacks and a white shirt.
The conversation, for the purpose of this column, revolved around his other interests and business matters were not raised.
We glanced over the previous night's football matches, another of his favourite subjects since his acquisition of Cardiff City Football Club, but we talked mostly about diving.
Tan's enthusiasm was obvious as he recollected his many oceanic adventures.
"In Redang, some years back, my dive master spotted a puffer fish a beautiful, shy species that swells up into an inedible ball when threatened and signaled me over. I wrapped my hands around it and discovered that what I thought were sharp, poisonous thorns around its body were actually soft and harmless. That was priceless," recalls Tan, who turned 60 this year.
He has dived in the Maldives and Hanuma Bay, on the eastern island of Oahu in Hawaii, but finds that the marine life in those oceans is not nearly as rich as our very own Sipadan Island, a world-renowned diving spot off the east coast of Sabah.
Tan reckons that with more development, there will be more tourists, and the coral life will be compromised.
"I suppose it's nature's law of compensation," he notes.
Over the decades, water pollution and irresponsible methods of fishing by trawlers have also impacted the bountiful marine life, but fortunately many islands on the east coast of the peninsular and those off Sabah and Sarawak have retained the beauty that lay beneath and beyond it.
"We organise clean-ups and educate hotel guests not to litter. As divers, we make it a point to remove the crown-of-thorns starfish from the seabed," he says.
The crown-of-thorns starfish preys on corals, which affects the ecosystem of the ocean.
Tan scrolls through his smartphone for photos and video footages taken on recent diving trips there.
"See how we're surrounded by thousands of jack fish. You can only find them in Sipadan. We swam into them and they circled around us," he recalls, gesturing to the screen.
"And that's (Datuk) Robin in his shorts, for ease of identification when we're underwater," he chuckles. "We don't normally dive together, but he and my other son U-Ming were able to accompany me on that trip."
Tan plays another clip of them swimming over the renowned Sipadan drop-off, where the underwater rock formation suddenly disappears over a forbidding chasm and the sombre ocean beyond.
"Look at that! The water was so clear and surroundings so enchanting that we didn't realise that we had gone 180 ft deep. We went up after that."
Interestingly, Tan prefers to freedive, that's diving without a mask and tank an uncommon activity for someone his age.
With a daily routine of running on the threadmill and swimming laps in his pool, Tan is health-conscious and intends on keeping it that way.
"I like food, especially curry, so it's important for me to exercise every day," he says.
"To keep this down," he jokes, patting on his stomach. "I don't want a pouch."
Tan frequents his resorts in Redang and Tioman several times a year and doesn't tire of exploring the dive sites there.
He remembers an underwater cave near Pulau Tulai, some 20km to 30km off Pulau Tioman, where divers can swim through the opening of the rock formation and emerge at the other end.
Tan was initially apprehensive about trying it out, but he now recommends the dive spot as one of the island's must dos.
He talks about the importance of knowing how to swim and the need to incorporate it into the education curiculum, as is done in the United States.
(In Malaysia, swimming is currently a co-curiculum activity that is optional for school children.)
"In my time, and perhaps it wasn't the best method, we simply jumped into the river and swam," he remembers of his modest upbringing in a village in Batu Pahat, Johor.
"I've always felt attuned to the ocean. Even when Tioman's development was in its infancy, before we built an airport there, the long boat rides wouldn't faze me. I consider it a gift."
"Diving is, in many ways, similar to running a business. To me, these are calculated risks and you will be safe as long as you follow the safety precautions. But one man's meat is another man's poison. What I think is a calculated risk may not seem so to another. You've just gotta have faith in the Creator."