The first 10 minutes of my interview with Malayan Banking Bhd group president and CEO Datuk Abdul Farid Alias are spent discussing the shrinking green lungs in Kuala Lumpur, a topic inspired by the sprawling view from his level 48 office. Encouraged though we are by our city’s impressive skyline, we also lament the lack of public access parks and how strong the tendency is to develop any amount of green space left. For all the environmental travesties that golf courses are accused of committing, at least they are a dedicated, untouched patch of green, versus painfully bare and barren land or yet another concrete edifice. This is a point once made by Australian golfing great Greg Norman, and one that Farid agrees with.
Apart from being the ultimate icebreaker, this part of our conversation was a nice way to ease into the subject at hand — the upcoming Maybank Championship golf tournament, which will be held at the elegant Saujana Golf & Country Club from Feb 1 to 4. This is the third iteration of the tournament in its current form, after a decade of running as the Maybank Malaysian Open. Boasting a purse of US$3 million, the four-day tournament will play out on Saujana’s Palm Course — nicknamed the Cobra — which was upgraded last year, reinforcing its standing as one of the most difficult golf courses in the world, and a leading championship course in Asia.
The Maybank Championship was established in 2016 with the vision of not only building a platform for players from the European and Asian Tours to compete but also providing opportunities to appropriately qualified Asean and Malaysian players to compete in an international event. This was a particular area of interest for Maybank as opportunities for rising Asean golfing talent on the international stage were limited, which in turn limited the potential for regional professionals to make their mark on the global professional golf circuit.
Maybank’s focus on this aspect was demonstrated when it introduced a special category for Asean golfers last year as part of its efforts to grow the game of golf across the region. The first initiative of its kind on the International Tours’ circuit, the category created opportunities for rising tour professionals in the region, as well as 10 top Malaysian golfers from the PGM Tour, to compete with some of the world’s best golfers from the Asian and European Tours.
“Maybank has been a key driving force behind the rise of businesses and economies across Asean and making a positive impact on the communities that we are in. We have supported the development of both infrastructure and people in business, government, communities and sport in any way that we can. Golf is one area we have been involved in for over a decade and the Maybank Championship is a distillation of all that into a single platform where the best in sport, business and talent as well as a superior experience come together in Malaysia from across the world, including Asean,” Farid begins.
“If you look at the Maybank Championship, it carries the character that we want to portray for Maybank,” he says. “We want to have a tournament of international standards, but we want to have Asean players as well — the championship is a competitive platform that also seeks to uplift and unite the Asean region through the power of competition, fair play and camaraderie. A lot of organisations have gone into golfing, and we told ourselves that we need to design this tournament to showcase who Maybank is and who we want to be. Therefore, we decided that we would get the best of Asean to meet the best of the world — let’s elevate the game for Asean players, and let’s give regional players opportunities that they wouldn’t ordinarily have.”
Based on the roll call of global golfing stars who have confirmed their participation in the tournament, Farid and his team are certainly making good on this promise. Expect to see world No 9 Henrik Stenson strut his stuff alongside Bernd Wiesberger, Mateo Manassero, last year’s champion Fabrizio Zanotti, 2016’s champion Marcus Fraser, and former world No 1 Lee Westwood.
Younger players including Julian Suri, Wade Ormsby, Lucas Bjerregaard, Romain Wattel and Paul Dunne have also confirmed their participation. Dunne, who participated in last year’s Maybank Championship, recently won his first European Tour title at the British Masters.
This year’s Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjørn will be part of the pool of talented golfers gracing the event. Apart from that, an exciting name, Andrew Johnston, affectionately known as “The Beef”, will make his debut at the Maybank Championship, alongside the Prince of Japanese golf, Ryo Ishikawa. South African heavyweights Haydn Porteous and two-time European Tour winner Dylan Frittelli will also be bringing their skills to the greens at Saujana.
Two Korean superstars, Wang Jeunghun and Soomin Lee, who came from the ranks of the Asian Tour and went on to win a title respectively on the European Tour, are sure to be hits as well as Chinese star players Li Haotong and Bowen Xiao, the recent winner at the KG S&H CITY Asian Golf Championship.
According to Farid, this year’s tournament will continue to expand the appeal of golf as well as enhance the sensory experience of visitors, to bring both Maybank and the tournament closer to the people. “The course at Saujana is very competitive and will challenge our golfers, while the facilities will ensure that guests enjoy the many experiential elements that we will be bringing to life on site. Whether they come to experience the game, see the various community engagements we have for visitors, or just mingle while enjoying our five-star hospitality, we will have something for everyone, just like we do when it comes to providing our services across the region.”
The best place to experience this is at the Village, where you will be able to enjoy exclusive offerings from partners and sponsors while getting needed respite from the heat at any one of the chill-out areas. The setting of the tournament is also the ideal occasion to showcase the corporate social responsibility work that the bank has undertaken in a non-intrusive and sensitive way.
A highlight is KataKatha, a project that aims to achieve a mutual understanding of the history, culture and traditions between Southeast Asian countries to enhance a common artistic, cultural and intellectual experience. The spotlight will also be trained on Maybank’s R.I.S.E, an entrepreneur-mentorship and financial training programme that provides structured support to physically challenged participants with the aim of establishing and improving the capabilities of their businesses, creating positive impact on their surrounding communities.
“We are very excited about these programmes because we want to make sure what we do is impactful and not just for show. We hear a lot of stories about how these programmes are able to help those who need them the most, and we want to showcase that,” Farid says enthusiastically. “To me, this event is more than just about golf, and we’d also like to provide an authentic experience to the golfers and spectators who have come from all over the world.”
Over the last three years, the Maybank Championship has grown a great deal — according to Farid, global viewership now stands at 450 million households. The event is also part of a long list of others that have put Malaysia on the regional sporting map: Apart from motorsport activities at Sepang, there are also other golf tournaments as well as running and cycling events that often serve to highlight the undulating beauty of the country.
However, the Maybank Championship has a bit more bragging rights because of its provenance — the Malaysian Open was first held in 1962 with a humble purse of RM22,500. After Maybank took over as title sponsor in 2006, the tournament enjoyed some of its best and most productive years, growing rapidly in terms of global audience, prize money and participation of local players.
Even if leaving a legacy isn’t a conscious part of the plan for the Maybank Championship, it’s essentially a done deal. Farid agrees. “I think we have already left a legacy … We have been involved in golf for years now, and we were doing this when no one else was. We have grown together with golf in the country, and, going into the Maybank Championship, we thought to expand its horizons and to involve Asean as well — timely, as the bank is expanding regionally too. So, the idea was to bring the same kind of spirit into the tournament.
“Golf used to be a very elite game, and I’d like to think that what we’ve been doing has made this sport more accessible to a larger group of people. I don’t have a three or five-year plan for the tournament — we are looking at this year by year, and then we will see if it’s still relevant. We don’t want to be doing this for the sake of it. Once we sense that people don’t like it anymore, players and spectators don’t like it anymore, we will do something else. But in its present form, it’s been going on for three years and what it will evolve into is, I think, going to be very interesting.”
Farid promises that he will be hitting the greens during the tournament — because of a shoulder injury, the last time he played in Malaysia was, in fact, during last year’s championship. The 49-year-old seems more relaxed now than when we first started our chat, and I manage to coax some information about his own career in Maybank and how he got into golf. A small-town boy from Negeri Sembilan, Farid has applied his professional qualifications in accounting, finance and management to a rich career in investment banking, corporate finance and capital markets in various investment and merchant banks.
To me, this event is more than just about golf, and we’d also like to provide an authentic experience to the golfers and spectators who have come from all over the world
Playing golf was a result of peer pressure, Farid admits with a laugh. “In the old days, my friends and I used to go to the Kundang Lake Country Club in Sungai Buloh and that’s where we all learnt to play. Because it was so far — this was in 2005, before the highways were built — we had to wake up and leave home very early. We could afford to make mistakes there because we all were learning then,” he reminisces. “It has always been a social thing — to hang out with friends after a busy week, clowning around, seeing who is better.”
These days, he particularly enjoys playing at the Mines Resort & Golf Club as it affords him some well-appreciated solitude. “The thing about golf for me is that it provides solace, where I can take my time to enjoy the game and the company, and not be hurried. You know, if you’re on the course on a Saturday morning and you’re in a hurry, then don’t play a game like golf lah,” he grins.
Lessons learnt from the greens are often brought into the boardroom, but for Farid, they have mostly been personal. “Lessons from golf are more about self-improvement — about doing the right thing, especially. It’s very easy to tell when someone is going to cheat on the greens … he may be someone fun to play golf with, but I’d never do business with him,” Farid laughs again.
Prior to his resignation, former Maybank chairman Tan Sri Megat Zaharuddin was the face of the championship, so to speak. By Farid’s own admission, Megat was both more passionate about the game and better at it than he is. But stepping into the limelight has allowed Farid to inject his own ideas into the event that is reflective of his own predilections — although he has continued with his predecessor Tan Sri Wahid Omar’s vision for the bank, Farid has injected some speed into the digital movement. For example, on-ground transactions at the championship can be done via the newly launched Maybank QRPay, which was introduced last month.
Tickets for the Maybank Championship are on sale on maybankchampionship.com.my, where you can also access information on the course layout, the final list of players as well as a full schedule of activities, both on and off the green. Indeed, the Maybank Championship looks set to be a thrilling event, in line with its aspiration of ensuring the best mix of international and Asian golfing talents in a Malaysian world-class tournament.