Tattoos. Great Eastern Life Assurance (Malaysia) Bhd CEO Datuk Koh Yaw Hui has achieved a great deal in his life, but there is one thing on his bucket list that he is waiting to do: get a tattoo. We end up spending a good part of our allotted time together discussing how to choose a design, how a novice would pick a tattoo artist and, of course, how much pain one can expect to endure. It is not how one would have imagined Options’ conversation with the respected corporate captain to start, but he is full of surprises and heart-warming anecdotes. A family man who puts health and wellness above all else — appropriate, seeing as he heads an insurance company — he is charming, chatty and charismatic, and an engaging storyteller to boot.
Great Eastern Life Malaysia (GELM) began its operations in 1908 and was certified by The Malaysia Book of Records in 1998 as The Oldest and Largest Life Insurer in Malaysia. With more than a century of experience and a solid financial foundation, the company boasts RM91.5 billion in assets and more than three million policies in force. It relies on a network of 22,000 agents nationwide. “Do you know, over 90% of our sales come from our agents?” Koh says proudly. “Our company, in many ways, rests on their shoulders.”
Over the years, GELM has won many prestigious accolades that affirm its leadership. They include the Reader’s Digest Trusted Brand Gold Award in the Life Insurance category for the 19th consecutive year, The BrandLaureate Brand of the Year Award in 2020, and the Top Brand in Putra Brand Awards’ Banking, Investment & Insurance category for two consecutive years. Koh hasn’t been too shabby in the awards department either, having won the Asia Entrepreneur of the Year — Entrepreneurial Spirit Award at the Malaysia Power Brand Awards in 2014 and gaining international prominence as the first Malaysian CEO in the life insurance industry to receive the 2011 Chinese Top 10 Economic Talents’ Awards in Beijing.
You could say the loyal employee of GELM for 20 years subscribes to old-fashioned ideals of loyalty and hard work beyond what is expected. But these principles, however archaic some people may say they are, worked for him. “They pay me well, treat me well, and I really want to stay,” he says.
How fascinating that his career in insurance fell into his lap by accident.
Entry by MBA
A small-town boy who had earned a scholarship from the Sarawak government, Koh graduated from Universiti Sains Malaysia with a bachelor of social science in economics and worked with the state’s Public Works Department to fulfil his bond. Having impressed the employees of Shell during his communications with them, he was offered a job by the oil and gas giant. He worked with the company for 12 years.
In 2001, Koh held a regional role in Penang and was thoroughly enjoying work and family life. Shell then offered him an international move that he and his family were simply not ready for, the alternative was to work in the company’s headquarters in Kuala Lumpur. He wasn’t keen on this either. “You know lah, when god is not nearby, you can be king,” he laughs. “I was my own boss and managing a team quite independently at the regional office, which I really enjoyed. I was living a nice life in this way.”
He knew at this point that it was time to consider a career change. He and his wife also decided to move back to Sarawak and settle down there. As he pored over the classified sections of local newspapers — what a throwback the reference is, we joke — he found what he thought would be the ideal job.
“I spotted an ad by Great Eastern looking for a regional manager based in Sarawak — can you imagine? Wah, it was perfect! It was a huge company, which I wanted, and it was a posting in a location that I wanted as well. I applied for the job but they said they couldn’t offer me the salary I wanted. But they did have an opening in KL, at the head office, that might meet my expectations.
“Aiyoh! I said, ‘No, thank you’ because this head office business wasn’t what I wanted. But I asked the lady who called me, out of curiosity, what the role was. When she said senior vice-president, I said straightaway, ‘Yes, I will consider it.’
“I mean, it’s a bit silly lah to say no to such a good role just because it’s in the head office, isn’t it? At least, if people say it is a bad move to leave a company like Shell, I am becoming a senior vice-president somewhere else.”
Koh and his family settled down in KL, temporarily abandoning their plans to move back to Sarawak — a good decision considering the man of the house would remain in the same company for two decades. Recognised for his leadership potential, the then senior vice-president was tasked with heading GELM’s agency management in 2002. At the end of his five-year tenure in 2007, he was made deputy CEO, which ultimately led to his appointment as the company’s head honcho the following year.
“This is why lah, I tell people I got my job here at Great Eastern through an ‘MBA’ — masuk by accident,” Koh quips, and the room erupts in laughter.
Although it would have made more sense to look within the company and choose one of its high-ranking agents to manage the agency management division, GELM was trying its luck with a trend set by its Singaporean counterpart — hiring professionals from non-insurance backgrounds to lend the company a unique perspective. Its bank of agents acknowledged Koh’s appointment with an understandable sense of suspicion. Did this guy know what he was doing?
“How did they accept someone with no experience leading them? I tell you, it was very tough. My only advantage was that at Shell, I did a lot of sales. So, I had that going for me. I sold diesel and lubricants to end-users who were in the middle of the jungle, as well as petrol stations and motorcycle shops in urban areas. I mastered the skill of cultivating relationships — how to talk to them, how to drink with them and to see things their way. Also, the insurance industry back then was very different. At that time, the competition wasn’t so intense. I am very grateful to the then CEO for giving me the time and space to make mistakes, which is not possible anymore. Honestly, it took me two to three years to find my footing.”
Soon enough, he found his niche — an ability to motivate his people. “My biggest responsibility was dealing with Great Eastern’s agency force, which is the most established and largest in the industry. While I came with no experience, I always had an open door and was willing to talk to my agents all the time ... this made a difference. There is a saying in Chinese that loosely translates as ‘before running a business, you must first be a person’. I held on to that.
“So yes, the agents didn’t reject me outright, even though they were all quite surprised that the company had hired someone with no background in the business. But soon enough it didn’t matter because in insurance, the ability to motivate people is very important — unlike Shell, where the products sell themselves. In this case, though, you need to be a huge motivator. And I knew how to do that, because once upon a time, I had to do it myself.”
It’s not how you start, but how you end
Although Koh eventually graduated with honours from university, he had a rough start, albeit through no fault of his own. Koh was one of the final few Form Five students to complete their Higher School Certificate, for which passing Bahasa Malaysia was not mandatory, but acing the English exam was. It was not that he couldn’t speak the language, but his was more colloquial and mixed generously with local dialects.
At about the time he entered university, the education ministry required all scholars to pass a Bahasa Malaysia test in order to graduate, and those who failed would be held back. Therefore, all classes and lectures were conducted in BM too.
Koh floundered. He recalls flying home during the Hari Raya holidays, a month after his university course started, and telling his mother he was ready to throw in the towel. After all, his father was a local entrepreneur and he could have easily made something of himself in the family business.
“My mother said no,” he says fondly. “She reminded me that not that many small-town kids from Sarawak had the opportunities I did, and that I should not waste them. She was right. I decided that I had no choice but to succeed.”
Setting aside all social events — including his weekly attendance at church — Koh spent all his waking hours in the library studying. He would get his friends to share lecture notes with him and painstakingly translate them so he could understand what was going on.
“I was at the library waiting for the doors to open in the morning and the last one to leave at night. At the end of my first year, out of 400 students, I emerged the book prize winner. I share this story with my agents very often because of the lesson it taught me: When you don’t have a good start, you must work harder than everyone else — because it is never how you begin, only how you end.”
The recognition Koh got as book prize winner was a turning point for him, and he never looked back. To this day, he remains a huge proponent of acknowledging and celebrating successes, no matter how big or small, and using those as stepping stones for future successes. “Once we taste success, we will always want more. Human nature is that simple.”
Finishing with a bang
Although fit as a fiddle today, Koh shares that he didn’t always pay attention to his health. This is another hard-won journey for him and a family holiday in 2013 was the catalyst for some serious lifestyle changes. And no, it wasn’t a health scare.
“If it had been, it would have been easy to make a change. It is life or death, you must do,” he observes correctly. “I was 104kg, my waistline was 40in, and I didn’t have an issue saying my T-shirt size was XXL. I was happy to settle for larger sizes even though the sleeves were drooping past my shoulders.” He points to a framed picture on his desk from that period and frowns slightly.
The Koh family go on an annual “pilgrimage” to Bangkok every year-end, and on one such trip, his daughters bought him an early birthday present — an office shirt in a slim fit style. It didn’t fit, and moved by the two girls’ disappointed expression, he vowed that he would be able to wear the shirt in exactly a year’s time. He couldn’t wait to get back to KL and kick-start a healthier lifestyle.
It did not happen.
“You know lah, we are all affected by the routine of our everyday lives,” he says ruefully. “[Chinese billionaire] Jack Ma said this: ‘Before we go to sleep, we will be thinking of the thousands of roads that we can use. But after you wake up, you use the same road. Unless someone blocks that road, you won’t take another one’.
This was very much me. My wife kept reminding me of my promise to my daughters and I kept telling her I still had time — 12 months is a long time!”
It was a chance encounter in an office lift that set things in motion. A new member of staff hired to run the newly opened on-site gym spoke to Koh one fateful day and promised that he would help him achieve his weight loss goal. An excited Koh showed up at the gym as scheduled the next day, and exercise soon became a permanent fixture on his schedule.
“There are two reasons I stuck to it,” says Koh. “None of the staff used the gym back then, and when they saw me going, I knew I had to set a good example by sticking to the regimen. The second reason is, I started to see results! My weight started to drop, and that was when I became obsessed with losing weight. I really worked on my diet too. I lost 28kg in three to four months. My wife was asked a lot if I was sick, in fact. People are frequently impressed, but I always say, getting to 78kg is easy but keeping to that weight is hard — and I have maintained this weight for five years now.”
His regime sounds punishing, to say the least, but it has become habitual at this point. While weekends are reserved for golf — he walks all 18 holes, no cart — three weekday evenings are reserved for exercising on his balcony. Planking for three straight minutes, 1,200 leg lifts, 1,000 ab crunches — the man is a machine, and it is plain to see why he boasts a waist size of 32in at his age.
“There are no shortcuts,” Koh says, rubbing his chin. “I am proof that it can be done, but you need to put in the work.”
As the CEO of an insurance company, it makes sense that he pays extra attention to his health, but it’s obvious that his north star is his family.
“I’d say good health is important to all of us, CEO or not. I have a wife and two daughters. So, it is my responsibility to be around for them. As CEO, I am a figurehead. If I want the agents and the staff to be healthy, I must set the example. No matter what I say to my people about health and exercise, I need to back it up. It is a lot of sacrifice but it is worth it.”
Koh looks back on his time at GELM with no regrets. He is from a generation that values loyalty and staying with the same employer for decades, whereas conventional corporate wisdom dictates that employees not be afraid to change jobs if it means a higher salary, as well as an opportunity to learn new things. Even if this holds true in some corporate environments, he sees things differently.
“If you say you can only gain new experiences if you change jobs, I don’t quite agree. Great Eastern is a big company with so many moving parts. Do you want to learn new things? Then you will.
“Another thing is my responsibility to see things through. The new policies and products we provide today, we may only see their benefits some years down the road. This is something I tell my agents: ‘Let’s fight together’.
“I am qualified to say this because I have proved that I will be around, whether it is good or bad times. The industry had many rough patches during which I could have left. But as a leader, I could not do that. I have a good life with Great Eastern and every day, I am learning new things. When I see my agents do well, it is a wonderful feeling. And when the company does well, I know it’s a recognition of my leadership capabilities.”
He sips warm water from a cup and thinks carefully before saying, “I am treated well here and I earn well enough to provide my family with anything they desire. I believe it is my duty to serve the company for as long as I can.”
Well said, sir. Though that tattoo will be coming later rather than sooner, we think.
This article first appeared on Jan 30, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.