Mr Loke Gim Tay is a Malaysian-born Chinese businessman who made good in Singapore, and who is now known as an extraordinary entrepreneur with a heart for the community. Because of his altruism he is particularly well-known in the arts and education circles in Malaysia, Singapore and China.
“Everything fell into place and I have been given more than I need,” mused Mr Loke. “Since I have been blessed, I can now be a blessing to others around me.”
An Extraordinary Life
Born in 1958, Mr Loke spent his early years in his hometown in Penang, Malaysia and studied at the Chung Ling High School there. He arrived in Singapore in 1979 on a Singapore government scholarship to study Building and Estate Management at the National University of Singapore. Upon graduation, he joined the civil service.
But after seven years, he realised it was not what he wanted — not if he wanted to make a name for himself. So he stepped out of his comfort zone and left, at the age of 32.
“When you build something up with your bare hands, it will mean so much more to you, so that was what I did. Back then, I was all alone in Singapore. I had left my loved ones behind in Penang and I wanted to do them proud. I wanted to be able to provide for my family. I wanted to feel a greater sense of independence. I figured that the fastest way to achieve all that would be to go into business,” explained Mr Loke.
At the time, his altruistic spirit had not manifested itself. “Even if I had wanted to help the community then, I was in no position to do so. We must be realistic. How can I help others if my own life is not in order? I had to make things right for myself first before I could make a change in society, influence others to do their part to help the community, and pass on this spirit of giving back to the next generation.”
He was willing to try anything, as long as it gave him an opportunity to gain business experience. “It didn’t matter what was behind the door. What mattered was that there was an opportunity waiting for me behind the door. I just needed an opportunity and I would make the best out of it and be the best at it,” said Mr Loke.
From the civil service, he joined the glass industry.
He started work in a glass curtain wall company and did everything that he was asked to do. It was no walk in the park but he quickly learnt the ropes. He even made use of what he learnt from his time in the civil service. “You have to be clear about what you’re doing and what you have to do. Establish the steps you need to take to achieve your goal, and follow the steps,” recounted Mr Loke.
But a year in, he decided to set up his own company. Taking a risk, he ventured into the glass manufacturing business. At the time, many people said it was a sunset industry but Mr Loke was undeterred. He did his research, realised that there was a market for high-tech glass systems and set his heart on transforming the industry.
“When there is a problem, you shouldn’t focus your attention on it. You should think of a solution. You were not the one who caused the problem but you can solve it, so channelling all of your energy into finding a solution is a smarter move. And if you put your heart and soul into it, you will most definitely succeed,” said Mr Loke.
Today, Mr Loke is the owner and managing director of Flamelite, a specialist high-tech glass company. He is recognised as a local pioneer in the manufacturing of a variety of high-tech glass products, including radiation-resistant and fire-resistant varieties which are used in hospitals, science laboratories and military camps. Mr Loke even experimented with the making of bullet-resistant glass. His competitors were selling bullet-resistant glass that was eight to ten inches thick but the specimen that Flamelite came up with was twenty times thinner — a complete breakthrough in those days.
The Secret to Success
Although his success was partly due to the pro-enterprise business environment in Singapore, Mr Loke also attributes it to his school teachers, and particularly those from his alma mater Chung Ling High School who drummed his values into him.
The Chinese-medium school is one of the top schools in Malaysia and its teaching is steeped in Chinese culture. The wisdom that he gained in school coupled with the school environment accounts for his tenacity in trying situations. “Nothing fazes me,” he said. “I am thankful to the School for giving me an invaluable set of life skills. That is the wonder of a Chinese education that builds character development by cultivating one’s morals, virtues and values. It teaches you how to treat others, what to do in the face of failure, to face each challenge head on, to be aware of your strengths, to have fighting spirit and to never hang your head in defeat even when the odds are against you. You learn to decide what you want and go about doing it, knowing that you can do it.”
He revealed that when he struck out on his own, he earned more in a month than he would in a year if he had remained a salaried employee. But Mr Loke is modest about his commercial success. Instead, he looks at it as a vehicle for him to carry out his community work.
“When you have achieved a sense of stability in your life, that’s when you can and should contribute to the betterment of society. Rather than accumulate material possessions, you can help those who are in need and make a difference in their lives. That’s much more meaningful,” said Mr Loke.
As such, he is quick to help those around him and those who matter to him. Since Mr Loke strongly believes that it was his education in Chung Ling High School that not only made him who he is today but also gave him what he has today, he has done a lot by way of giving back to the School.
He explained that this was the rational choice. “Charity begins at home. Is there a need to head off to far-flung places like Africa to do charity work when you are unsure of what you can do to help them? Start with what you’re familiar with. For me, it was my alma mater.”
Giving Back to Chung Ling High School
As the Honorary President of Chung Ling High School Alumni in Singapore he does his best to ensure that the School gets what it needs, and there is no limit to what he donates in any one year.
When he became a successful businessman, the first thing he did for the School was to pay for 30 IBM (International Business Machines) computers for the School’s computer lab. These were the best computers in the 1990s. He also fitted the lab with air conditioners and bought better tables and chairs. As a former athlete, Mr Loke donated more money to build a gymnasium for the School. These donations came to more than $200,000.
He decided to “give back” in another more direct way when he made a simple observation: “My former teachers were old and retired, and were leading such simple lives. I thought that they deserved much more than that.”
As a result, every Chinese New Year, Mr Loke gives these retired teachers a red packet as a mark of his respect and gratitude. Other alumni have also joined in the practice.
“This was even covered by The Star, a local English newspaper that doesn’t usually write about Chinese schools. I guess they were also touched by our gesture. It’s not about the money that we’re giving our teachers. It’s more of a token of gratitude, to show that we appreciate and recognise their efforts in teaching us well,” explained Mr Loke.
In addition, Mr Loke has bought books for the school library and also, over the years, raised money to expand the covered walkway and renovate the canteen. “This is only the beginning for myself and the other alumni members, to bring Chung Ling High School to greater heights,” he said.
But it is not just Chung Ling he donates to. As Mr Loke is close to the many Chinese associations in Singapore he also actively helps the Chinese schools here through a yearly contribution of about $40,000.
Promoting Chinese Culture and Art
Apart from giving back to education, Mr Loke is also well-known for his zeal in promoting Chinese culture and art.
He recalls that the spark of his love affair with Chinese culture was lit when he was given a copy of the Chinese classic novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, in school.
Inspired by the historical novel even as an adult, he set about looking for oil paintings of it. Unfortunately, there were none in the market at that time so Mr Loke commissioned a young and relatively unknown artist, Mr Xue Jinyong, to paint scenes from the novel. It was a process that took more than a decade but Mr Loke now reportedly owns the biggest collection in the world with 88 Romance of the Three Kingdoms paintings.
Each painting is worth an estimated $300,000 but to Mr Loke, each and every one of his paintings is priceless so he does not intend to sell or give any of them away. Instead, they form part of a travelling exhibition. His collection made its first appearance in 2007 in an exhibition at the famous Millennium Monument in Beijing in response to an invitation from the Chinese Ministry of Culture. Soon afterwards, in recognition of his contribution to Chinese art, Mr Loke was invited to sit, as an honorary member, on China’s Arts Appraisal Committee.
His art collection, which he started in 1989, has also been on display at the Joint Exhibition of the History of Chinese-medium Schools that was held in Hwa Chong Institution in 2008.
Not only does Mr Loke want to promote Chinese culture and art through his collection, but he also collects art pieces to preserve Penang’s heritage and, he hopes, to give Penang artists greater international recognition.
Accordingly, Mr Loke owns paintings by prominent Penang artists like the late Mr Khaw Sia and Mr Ang Swee Hin. The late Mr Khaw Sia is a renowned artist who painted in oil, pastel and watercolour with equal artistry, and is known for his paintings of orchids, while Mr Ang is one of the first few Chinese brush painters in Penang and is known for his landscape paintings.
“Mr Ang actually came to me, and told me that because he was getting old he was hoping that I could keep his paintings and display them in art exhibitions. Of course, I agreed,” said Mr Loke.
A Penangite at Heart
Even though Mr Loke is based in Singapore he returns to Penang at least once a month. He is proud of his roots and does his part in preserving the rich history of his beloved hometown by investing in heritage property in George Town. “There’s no other place that’s quite like Penang. Its vibrancy is the result of its colourful history. Its unique architecture reflects its colonial past and is a mixture of Western and Asian influences. I very much enjoy entertaining my guests, especially my Singaporean guests, in the heritage houses that I own,” said Mr Loke. To date he owns more than 50 of these properties.
“To lead a meaningful life, we must use our money to bring about positive changes in society. Respect can’t be bought so if you want others to respect you, lead an exemplary life. My education in Chung Ling High School allowed me to make good on my promise — to help my community when I’ve made it in life.”