TENGKU Zafrul Tengku Abdul Aziz, 36, is the group director of investment group K & N Kenanga Holdings Bhd. He was previously the chief executive officer of Tune Money, described as Malaysia’s first online “budget” finance house. In October 2008, he quit abruptly from Tune Money. But Zafrul was surprisingly candid and reflective about this move, and even wrote about it in January 2009.
Zafrul is also quite eager to talk about his extra-curricular endeavours. He is deputy chairperson of the Kuala Lumpur Business Club (KLBC), which he says is “like an entrepreneur’s non-governmental organisation”. Additionally, he sits on the Federation of Investment Managers Malaysia board.
He is also the chairperson of Xterra Malaysia, an off-road triathlon event. Zafrul does not just chair the event, he is a triathlete himself. “Every week, I run 40km and cycle 150km,” he tells The Nut Graph in this exclusive interview, held at his office in Kuala Lumpur on 8 Sept 2009.
He relates how he once cycled for three hours in a thunderstorm from Putrajaya back to Kuala Lumpur. After a stunned silence, The Nut Graph ventures into questions about his dreams and hopes for Malaysia.
TNG: Where were you born?
Tengku Zafrul Tengku Abdul Aziz: I was born at Kuala Lumpur General Hospital, 25 June 1973.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up mostly in KL (Kuala Lumpur) and PJ (Petaling Jaya). I went to kindergarten in PJ. My primary school was Sri Petaling, in Section 14. And then from Form One to Form Three, I was at Bukit Bintang Boys School, which was next door to Sri Petaling. I did Form Four and Form Five at Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK).
Then I got a scholarship to do my A-Levels in Dorset, England. I studied economics and accountancy at Bristol for my undergraduate degree. I came back to Malaysia afterwards, but then the currency crisis hit soon after, so then I went on to do my Masters in finance at Exeter University.
Can you trace your ancestry?
My maternal grandmother is from Ipoh. My maternal grandfather is from Kuala Pilah, Negeri Sembilan. He was a civil servant, and travelled a lot, but was based in KL. He goes back to Sumatra, to Pagar Ruyung, sometimes to have a look at what’s there, and he likes studying history.
My mother went to Methodist Girl’s School in KL. Then she did her Form Six at St John’s Institution, and that’s where she met my father. She was also a civil servant, the first woman director-general of the Economic Planning Unit. She’s from that generation and background that really believes in serving the country. There are a lot of civil servants on my mother’s side.
You know (acclaimed theatre director Datuk) Zahim Albakri? He’s my cousin through my maternal grandmother’s side.
On my dad’s side, both my grandparents come from Langkat, near Medan, in Sumatera. They came to [the Malayan peninsula] out of necessity.
My paternal great-grandmother was the then Sultan of Selangor’s daughter. She was married off to the Sultan of Langkat and went to Langkat. She and her husband were very rich as Langkat was a rich oil state, like Brunei. And then in 1945 there was a revolution in Indonesia, and the royalty was targeted. That’s why she came back here. They had to start from “scratch”. I say that because their “scratch” still meant they had some support lah.
I still have relatives in Langkat, and I’ve visited them.
My father was born in Kedah and migrated here when he was seven years old. He speaks fluent Dutch, as do many of my relatives.
What is your strongest memory of the place in which you grew up?
I had a lot of fun in Form One and Form Two playing hockey. Although I went to school in PJ, I lived in the Bangsar and Brickfields area, which was predominantly Indian [Malaysian]. I was always invited to play hockey with them. Always, there were only two or three Malay [Malaysians] playing hockey with them. I played hockey until I left for the UK to study.
When I went to MCKK, it was all Malay [Malaysian]. But because I went only in Form Four and Form Five, I already had my Chinese and Indian [Malaysian] friends. A lot of MCKK boys didn’t have this.
What are the stories you hold onto the most from your parents?
It’s all about money, always about saving up. They’re very stingy. When I was a kid, they’d lie that they didn’t have money. Now I find out that they actually did have some money, slightly above the poverty income level.
My parents always wanted me to mix around with everyone, but they gave me such a small amount of money that I couldn’t do much. It influenced the groups I hung out with. For example, in university I hung out with all the scholarship holders.
They never gave me money when I was abroad. If I asked for money, I’d have to justify why I needed it. At that time, I resented this, but now I appreciate it.
How do you connect with these stories as a Malaysian?
I realise that friendship is very important. I keep friendships from primary school and secondary school until now. Some of my friends have migrated, to Australia, the UK and so on, but we still keep in touch. I value these friendships. Your friendships define who you are right now.
Of course, people do change. But when you meet with friends from your past, they remind you [about] who you are. Sometimes we move too fast, and we forget where we come from. That’s why it’s good to meet old friends who tell you the truth. And you also help to keep them grounded.
That’s why I started this program called L4T, which stands for Leaders for Tomorrow. I started it a few months ago together with a group of friends. It’s for young Malaysians who need a platform to voice out their concerns. These are young people who are not interested in politics, or if they are, they’re not interested in entering party politics. They prefer multicultural settings, career guidance, and just general knowledge about current affairs in the country.
In March 2010, L4T will launch something called the Cili Padi programme. It’s a mentorship programme for rural students in Form Four and Form Five. It’s a multi-racial group, with about 1,000 members so far, and it’s officially registered.
What aspects of your identity do you struggle with the most as a Malaysian?
I [returned] to Malaysia after I graduated from university to discover that there was a divide between local and foreign graduates. I’m lucky, I came back around 1996. It was boom time, and a lot of people were able to get jobs.
But the thing is, it’s even more evident among Malay [Malaysians]. The majority of Malay [Malaysian] students are graduates from local universities. But there is a minority of Malay [Malaysian] scholars who studied overseas and so on. And overseas also you have a lot of Chinese and Indian [Malaysian] students who probably studied at some point in private colleges.
So when I was a student, I was in my own comfort zone. I didn’t see the real world. I came back to Malaysia only to realise that Malaysia is not so Malaysian after all. You can even see this in the office, when people take lunch breaks. They don’t hang out with people from the same department. They hang out with people of the same background. It is more of an urban divide. There are also undercurrents of resentment by some Chinese and Indian [Malaysians] towards Malay [Malaysians] who studied on scholarship.
Describe the kind of Malaysia you would like for yourself and future generations.
I hang out with my L4T guys, with my triathlete and KLBC friends, and most of them were happy with the results of the March 2008 elections. But they are now disappointed with how things are moving along. March 2008 gave people hope because they thought there would be more checks and balances [in governance], but now we see other markets progressing while over here there’s just fighting between two political coalitions.
As a corporate person, I keep wondering, where will we be in the next 10 years? There are fewer investments in corporate Malaysia because of fighting among political parties. They’re not even fighting to counter-check policies, often it’s just about personalities clashing.
If this continues, we will be left behind. The government should start governing, and the opposition should start [being a responsible opposition]. We need to get our act together.
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