Life has not been a bed of roses for them but they’ve managed to rise to the top

You know what they say – when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. These inspiring individuals probably had less than a lemon to start with. They weren’t born with a silver spoon – in fact, all of them started from humble beginnings.

Here are 12 of our favourite real-life Horatio Alger tales:

1. Goh Cheng Liang, founder of Nippon Paint (Singapore)


The first 12 years of his life was spent in a $3-a-month shophouse on River Valley Road with his parents, three sisters and a brother. He was sent to Muar in Malaya when World War II broke out and helped his brother-in-law sell fishing nets before his return to Singapore in 1943.

After his return, he started a business selling aerated water but failed. He then went on to work at a hardware store for the next 4.5 years. In 1949, he bought “rotten paint” cheaply from the British army auctioning war supplies. He mixed colours by adding solvents and soon, his own Pigeon Brand of paints was conceived. The next year, his paint business flourished due to the restricted imports as a result of the Korean War.

In 1959, Nippon Paint approached him to be a distributor and he gradually built up his company to become Asia’s largest paintmaker.

The paint tycoon is now Singapore’s richest man.

2. Anastasia Liew, CEO of Bengawan Solo


Indonesia-born Liew was the third of eight children of a housewife mother and a father who owns a provision shop. In the 1960s, civil unrest in Palembang caused her to stop schooling but she went on to upgrade herself by signing up for baking and cooking lessons.

In 1970, Liew came to Singapore in a bid to improve her English and married an Indonesian-Chinese accountant Johnson Liew in 1973. Two years later, she started baking cakes and kueh lapis to sell to friends, acquaintances and shops. However, in 1979, government officials instructed her to stop supplying shops as she did not have a food manufacturing license. She then opened a shop near her house, naming it Bengawan Solo. In 1983, she started a second outlet at Centrepoint shopping mall. Bengawan Solo eventually grew from a single store to a chain with over 40 outlets. In 2008, Bengawan Solo had a turnover of $43 million.

Despite her success, she remains humble and treats her employees as family.

3. Mohamed Abdul Jaleel, Founder and CEO of The MES (Mini Environment Service) Group


India-born Jaleel came to Singapore at age five. The only son in a family of seven, he had to sleep in the open at his father’s wooden sundry stall in a back lane, with only a thin blanket keeping him warm. For 12 long years, Jaleel used public toilets to bathe and wash up in between packet meals. After school, he helped his father out in the shop while juggling several odd jobs to earn extra money for the family.

In Secondary 2, he dropped out of school as his father was unable to afford the fees. Jaleel proceeded to work to reduce the family’s financial burden. He was diligent and eager to learn, which prompted construction firm Sum Cheong Piling’s Managing Direction to send him for construction training.

In 1977, Jaleel started MES with knowledge of the construction industry and it has since grown into a leading guest-worker accommodation builder and facilities operator including trading, logistics and property development.

4. Olivia Lum, founder of Hyflux

World Entrepreneur  2011 Olivia Lum from SingaporeSource

Lum was an orphan who never knew who her biological parents were, and grew up with a woman she called her ‘grandmother’. Her grandmother gambled away her savings when Lum was 3, and they had to move to an attap hut without water supply. At age 15, the Malaysian came to Singapore and studied at Tiong Bahru Secondary School, supporting herself through sales jobs and tutoring.

The turning point came in 1989 when the 28-year-old Lum invested $20,000 from selling her car and condominium in water treatment equipment. There were only three employees in the beginning, with Lum riding on a motorcycle to promote her company’s treatment chemicals and water filters. In 2007, the company had over 800 people and was worth $1 billion.

In 2008, Lum resigned as independent non-executive director of the Singapore Exchange so she could better focus on growing Hyflux.

5. Lim Hock Chee, founder of Sheng Siong Supermarket


Lim started out as a pig farmer at his father’s farm, and would feed pigs and clean their pens. The business was eventually brought to an end in the 1980s as the Government phased out pig farming. With an excess of pork, Lim approached the owner of Savewell provision store in Ang Mo Kio after noticing they did not sell pork.

Later, he bought over the shop at $30,000 as the owner was in financial difficulty. With that, the first Sheng Siong outlet was started in 1985 and prospered despite competition, as its prices were kept low with a variety of products offered.

Last July, Lim was estimated to have a net worth of $545 million and was ranked 45th on Forbes Singapore’s 50 Richest list. Today, Sheng Siong has 35 chain stores, most of which are supermarkets.

6. Chong Phit Lian, CEO of Singbridge Holdings


Malaysia-born Chong came to Singapore to study after the demise of her father, the family’s sole breadwinner. She applied for grants and gave tuition to see herself through engineering studies at Singapore Polytechnic. She later juggled three jobs as an insurance salesperson, a tutor and a technical assistant, and used the money to fund her university education. Financial difficulties still plagued her as she paid her tuition fees by working at a factory part-time in Birmingham.

She would later become the president and CEO of Singapore Precision Industries and the Singapore Mint for 16 years. She was also Safe Enterprises Group’s Chief Executive. At 54, Chong decided to switch industries and became Jetstar Asia’s first female CEO in 2006, and turned the situation around as Jetstar Asia was in the red then. In 2010, Jetstar Asia raked in $6 million in revenue.

The 63-year-old is currently the CEO & Director of Singsbridge Holdings, independent non-executive director of Tiger Airways and board member of various organisations including Jetstar Asia and Valuair.

7. Neo Kah Kiat, founder and chairman of Neo Group


Neo, the second youngest of four children, was accustomed to having his utilities cut off and nailing wooden planks to the windows to block out the sun and rain. When he was in Secondary 2, he dropped out of school despite being a top student. He wanted to earn money as quickly as possible to support his family. The teenager helped out at his relative’s economic rice stall.

In 1992, Neo invested $15,000 borrowed from friends and relatives and rented a small kitchen in Joo Chiat to run a catering business.

Today, Neo Group is the parent company of three catering businesses including a Japanese food-outlet chain, a restaurant, a wine cellar and a yacht catering service, with an annual turnover of more than $40 million. He owns several properties, including a terrace in Sentosa Cove he calls home, with a yacht docked at the back.

8. Jennie Chua, CEO and President of Ascott Group


The oldest of 12 children, Chua began working as a tutor and a typist in her teenage years. Despite having a scholarship to attend National University of Singapore, Chua dropped out after a year as her family was poor and she had to work to support them.

In the 1960s, she joined St Margaret’s secondary school as a junior teacher.  In 1971, she worked as a trainee at the Mandarin Hotel and was paid $650 monthly, an amount she fought for from the initial $400 they offered. $650 then was a big sum. In 1988, she was Westin Hotels’ marketing director. In 2003, she assumed the role of CEO of Raffles Holdings. In 2007, she managed CapitaLand’s subsidiary, the Ascott group. She soon became CapitaLand’s chief corporate officer and CEO and president of the Ascott Group.

She retired in 2012 but still holds leadership positions, including Ambassador to Slovakia and United Mexican States, as well as a Justice of the Peace.

9. Eldwin Chua, CEO of Paradise Group


Chua was the second of four children of a lorry driver father and a part-time babysitter mother. The family lived frugally as their finances were tight.

In 2002, he was tasked to run his grandfather’s coffee shop in Defu Industrial Estate. Chua then quit his job as a property agent and ploughed in $10,000 into the stall. He slogged behind stoves, scoured wet markets for ingredients, cooked, served and did the dishes daily. In 2004, he converted his coffee shop into a 400-seat restaurant after an overwhelming number of patrons flocked to his stall, Seafood Paradise. In 2009, he exhausted $4 million to open a second Taste Paradise in Ion Orchard, despite mentors advising him against opening one in Orchard. Fortunately, that venture proved to be successful.

Now, Paradise Group has more than 30 restaurants in Singapore and 10 in Asia, including Taste Paradise, bar concept LÈ, Paradise Pavilion, Seafood Paradise, Canton Paradise, Paradise Inn,  Paradise Dynasty, My Nasi and a catering arm, One Paradise.

10. Merry Riana, founder of Merry Riana Organization


An Indonesian from a humble background, Riana is the eldest of three children, with a businessman father and a housewife. In 1997’s Asian Financial Crisis, violent riots broke out throughout Indonesia, forcing Riana to flee to Singapore due to its proximity and safe environment. The next year, she enrolled into Nanyang Technological University’s Electrical and Electronics Engineering course after taking up a study loan. After graduation, she realised she was $40,000 in study debt.

She dabbled in stocks and shares with hard-earned savings, but lost everything. After studying the market, she joined the financial planning industry but was fazed with difficulties due to the lack of support for her decision and hardly any contacts. Things eventually worked out for her as she worked as a financial advisor with Prudential Assurance Company and repaid her S$40,000 debt within six months. In 2004, she was promoted to manager. She soon started her own agency, Merry Riana Organization. At age 26, she had already become a millionaire.

In fact, her life story is so inspiring that it has been turned into a drama movie, Merry Riana.

11. Patrick Liew, CEO and Chairman of HSR International Realtors (HSR)


As a kid, Liew grew up sleeping under his grandmother’s bed due to space constraint in his 200 square feet apartment, which housed his family of seven.

In 1992, although Liew was doing well as a regional sales manager in a multi-national corporation, he was not satisfied as he felt that he was not improving himself personally or professionally. He decided to quit his job and forayed into the real estate business after chancing upon two studies which revealed real estate agents to be some of Singapore’s top income earners.

In 2003, HSR was affected by the global economic downturn and was on the brink of collapse. He did some soul-searching and decided to reinvent his business model to be more people-oriented. Currently, HSR is Singapore’s biggest property agency and has over 7000 employees in Singapore alone.

12. Annie Gan, Founder and Managing Director of Jian Huang Group of Companies


After her primary education, she had to stop schooling despite her good grades as her family could not afford school fees. At 12, she started tapping rubber with her mother. Two years later, she sought help from her uncle, expressing her interest to return to school. Her uncle arranged for her to study in a school in Kuala Lumpur, where she spent three years while working part-time at Kentucky Fried Chicken. After completing the Malaysian equivalent of O levels, she came to Singapore.

She started as an administrative clerk with C&S Construction with a starting pay of $800. Later, a colleague proposed setting up a company registered under her name since he was not a PR, and would give her $2,000 monthly doing the same thing she did at her old company. She agreed but he wanted out two years later, so she changed the name of the company from Giant to Jian Huang. It is now a a leading Design-and Build contractor for factories and ramp-up warehouses as well as rental/ leasing of construction equipment.

So you want to be a millionaire too?

Rome was not built in one day; similarly, these inspiring figures have come a long way since, building their empires with blood, sweat and tears. It is imperative to bear in mind that there is no fast track to success.

These 12 stories remind us that nothing is impossible to overcome – from being orphaned from birth to dropping out of school to sleeping under one’s grandmother’s bed. These average Joes managed to beat the odds and emerge even stronger.

If they could do it, why can’t you?

Featured image via Forbes
With reference to The Peak MagazineSingapore Infopedia, Web In TravelSingapore Business Review, The Peak Magazine, Wikipedia, The Straits Times, Money Minting, The Peak Magazine, Wikipedia, Singapore Tatler, Canon, Slideshare, Singapore Women’s Hall Of Fame, Wikipedia, Jobs Central, The MES Group, The Straits Times, Google Sites, Jian Huang Group