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“The entrepreneurial dreamer and his policewoman wife: Yee Wah Sing” (The Fiji Times, 5 Dec. 2015)

07/12/2015

The entrepreneurial dreamer and his policewoman: Yee Wah Sing

 The story was really meandering, as I tried to find out what lay behind the entrepreneurship of Yee Wah Sing, who:

* came from a poor Chinese family in Lautoka growing cheap vegetables for FSC sahibs, later growing bananas on a 10 acre banana farm in Lomaivuna;

*as barefoot boys, being looked down upon by other prosperous town Chinese;

* is that incredibly rare agricultural graduate who actually took up commercial farming (ginger);

* established a successful ginger processing company Frespac, eventually sold for a good profit

* took a risk after the 2000 coups, in building Garden City with 50 retail outlets, now earning $X annually (have a guess), with a capital value at least 20*$X (have a guess)

* imports and sells quality guaranteed products (Marco Polo at Garden City).

* is about to restructure Garden City into a upper end shopping mall.

Yee Wah Sing is well-known in Fiji as a self-made entrepreneur, an adventurer like his company name, but not so well-known is the possible role of his “policewoman” wife, Verna.

Entrepreneurial origins?

Wah Sing reminisced that he was once a Fiji Times journalist, but left when he realized he was missing out on beautiful sunsets (while another FT colleague became a hot shot lawyer).

Even though Wah Sing obtained his diploma from the Fiji College of Agriculture and was dux,  his loan application was rejected by an FDB loans officer.

Thankfully, the highest authority in the FDB asked him if he wanted to borrow some more, and that person went on to even higher glory in Fiji, until laid low in 2006.

Not getting anywhere with Wah Sing, I asked his clever son, Kevin, his laptop clicking, what lay behind his father’s success.

Kevin, an accounting graduate of the University of South Australia, nonchalantly explained that his father was the most intelligent person he knew, he was not misled by conmen and scams, and he was a very honest person.

So Yee Wah Sing then had to explain the hilarious agricultural scams he had personally come across.

Morality versus Crooks

Wah Sing genuinely believes that although SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises) are the real hard workers and engines of economic growth in Fiji, they are not given the right support, and they are always exploited by Big Businesses, local and foreign.

“They will use their reputations, write their purchase orders, get delivery of whatever you are selling, and delay paying you until you are almost bankrupt” complained Wah Sing (a common story, I thought).

A NZ company director drove Wah Sing around in his flash Mercedes, wined and dined him on his luxury yacht, but still refused to pay the $40,000 he owed Wah Sing.

An Australian businessman debtor declared himself bankrupt, paid all his family members’ alleged outstanding salaries, and left Wah Sing a mere five cents in the dollar owed.

Wah Sing gave inside accounts of Fiji’s Big Businesses who profited from Fiji’s agricultural scams, especially after the 1987 coup.

But how could SMEs survive without taking orders from Big Business, I asked.

They must honestly deliver quality, said Wah Sing.

Fiji, a dumping ground

Wah Sing related how Fiji’s Big Importers had a reputation in China for buying the biggest, cheapest, lowest quality products rejected in the West and even in China. Any builder in Fiji (including yours truly, occasionally) would agree with that observation.

Wah Sing gave all his products his personal guarantee of quality and after-sales service, which no Fiji hardware merchant ever gave.

So why were Big Businesses so successful in Fiji?  “Areh, you know” replied Wah Sing with a wink.  “Easy in Fiji to get high duty protection for manufacturing products with no real value adding, with prices higher than that of quality imported products”.

I complained to Wah Sing, “You are talking like an economist my wife knows. I just want you to explain how you became an entrepreneur”.

Don’t trust donor consultants

Yee Wah Sing replied “SMEs should not trust donor consultants”.

He related how his ginger processing factory had employed 150 people, doing the meticulous  cleaning and cutting of the irregular ginger roots.

Then a foreign consultant, sent by an international organization to help him improve efficiency, solemnly advised him to halve his workforce-  by “inventing a ginger processing machine”.

Though Yee Wah Sing furiously refused to sign off on the consultant’s contract, the useless fellow was paid anyway (a common experience, I agreed, straight out of Epeli Hao’fa’s Tales of the Tikong).

“But surely you have been helped by government advisers and all these government grants?” I challenged Wah Sing.

Cackling with laughter, Yee Wah Sing gave me his “vuniwai” story.

Government advisers and the “vuniwai”

A government loans officer was asked to verify that a loan had been used wisely by an indigenous Fijian dairy farmer, whose herd of cows had actually dropped to zero after a reguregu and a magiti. (a common occurrence, I thought).

The enterprising Fijian farmer borrowed his Indian neighbor’s cows which were “displayed” to the loans officer.

A farm laborer, who was appropriately dressed and addressed as vuniwai “verified” to the loans officer how many cows were pregnant and how well the dairy herd was growing because of the loan.

The loans officer renewed the loan and was promoted for satisfying his KPIs; the borrower enjoyed the proceeds of the loan; and the Indian neighbor obtained free pasture for his cows before quickly zipping them safely back to his farm; a “win-win” situation for all, related Yee Wah Sing, with a grin, “except for the taxpayers”.

Yee Wah Sing can also explain in hilarious detail how scams very naturally developed in agro marketing schemes.

He can also explain the cycles of agricultural enthusiasm and reinvention of wheels that Fiji has seen over the years.

“New industries” (such as in dairy, rice, potatoes) are begun with great publicity and enthusiasm by new ministers and civil servants, helped by cynical donors; only to collapse when the subsidies are stopped; then comes energetic rehabilitation with more subsidies; then disappearing into unmitigated obscurity; until the next minister came along, and the cycle started again.

Aaah, I thought, just like the Hindu Brahma cycle, of creation, preservation, and destruction of the universe. But Yee Wah Sing was not into religion.

He passionately explained SME entrepreneurs just needed a level playing field, government research and development services that improved their productivity, less paper work, and freedom from oppression by the authorities. Wah Sing related how SCC had once prosecuted him for growing plants at his Garden City shop!

But can entrepreneurship be “taught and learnt” or are entrepreneurs just “born with the talent” or perhaps blessed by some magical catalyst in their lives?

The “policewoman” wife

Wah Sing and VernaWhile the cliche is that behind every great man is a great woman, Wah Sing’s wife Verna, has been beside him, all the way.

While Wah Sing had promised his dying mother that he would choose a bride from his village in China, where a parade of beauties had been organized by his mother’s relatives, he chose instead to marry Verna, a girl he just “happened to meet” near Macao.

Verna is a very unassuming plainly dressed woman not standing out in any particular way,  until you are lucky enough to see her radiant smile, listen to her animated views on education,  and know her expertise in Mandarin.

While Verna was born into a well-off family, she was one of the sad victims of China’s Cultural Revolution, packed off to labor in the country side, and denied even basic education.

Like many of our “uneducated” mothers and fathers, Verna has worked prodigiously and cannily alongside Wah Sing in his businesses, and in raising their six smart diverse cookies.

Most importantly, according to the not-so-inscrutable and accumulative Kevin, Verna has performed the vital role of “policewoman”, controlling Wah Sing’s abundant Fijian generosity and his wilder dreams, while being wise enough to give him free rein when convinced about a project.

Perhaps

With hours of meandering discussions with Yee Wah Sing getting me nowhere, I concluded that Wah Sing’s entrepreneurship might be related to the following:

* he repeatedly said that he had a “hunger” for taking risks, which he reduced by careful planning (just as he did with his other passion in life, cycling);

* Fascinated by behavioral economics. Wah Sing tries to do in business, what Fiji rugby sevens players do- to zig and zag with changing circumstances, and not follow fancy inflexible business plans of airy fairy MBA graduates who never risked their own father’s money (baap ke paisa nahin);

* Wah Sing has continued experimenting and researching in agriculture: all FNU agriculture students should do a guided tour of Wah Sing and Verna’s half-acre block just off Princes’ Road, drool over their magnificent garden and exotic mixture of vegetables and herbs; be amazed by a new state of the art nursery with misting equipment to reduce the green-house temperature during the hot season; and just listen in fascination to the extraordinarily well-read Yee Wah Sing, who is still asked for advice by the College of Agriculture;

Misting equipment

* Millionaires Wah Sing and Verna live in a very ordinary run-down house with his parents’ old furniture, purely a life style choice, but also delivering their valued luxury good of frugality.

In a remarkable coincidence for me, during World War II, Yee Wah Sing’s father ran a Victoria Parade laundry where my own dhobi father also worked, until Wah Sing’s father threw a heavy iron at an insulting American serviceman.

Hah haah, I thought, this explains it.  Eentrepreneur Yee Wah Sing is descended from solid dhobi stock, just like this economist.

Hmmm, a pity we cannot all be entrepreneurs.

 

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