Wisdom crosses cyberspace

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 March, 2011, 12:00am

Some people write e-mails, others key in a line or two. Liew Mun Leong, group president and CEO of CapitaLand, composes them, not just a paragraph or two but kilometre after kilometre of cyber scribble.

Of course, coming from the big boss of the largest listed property company in Southeast Asia, these are more than mere scribbles.

'Personally, I find it very relaxing to spend several hours on a Sunday - when I have the luxury of complete privacy - to organise my thoughts and reflections, and weave them into a story-telling e-mail,' he writes.

In these e-mails, Liew shares his vision and his company's core values and strategy. Hitting the 'send' button pushes Liew's e-mails to 11,000 of his colleagues in 113 cities across more than 20 countries. It is practically - and literally - a captive audience.

This book is the second volume of a compilation of his e-mails. The first was launched in November 2007 - almost a decade after Liew started composing his Sunday electronic missives. That book is being used as a management training teaching tool for participants at the CapitaLand Institute of Management and Business - the company's in-house training institute in Singapore - and is standard reading material at orientation sessions for all new hires.

Given its often raw source material, the book would have benefited from tighter editing and distillation. One saving grace, perhaps, is that all royalties from the two books will go to CapitaLand Hope Foundation, which aids programmes for the shelter, education and medical needs of poor children.

Critics may think of this project as a bit self-indulgent, but Liew's stature and experience do give his words a certain heft, given his career of almost half-a-century in the public and private sectors. Liew was appointed head honcho of Singapore's engineering board after helping build airports, military camps and airbases in the city-state.

The portfolio of his company includes homes, offices, shopping malls, serviced residences and mixed developments in more than 110 cities in over 20 countries.

Liew has won a string of accolades, including a public service award in 1979 from the Singaporean government and the inaugural CEO of the Year award at the 2007 Singapore Corporate Awards.

In his books, Liew strives to write the e-mails in conversational style, but the technically inclined engineer in him sometimes gets out of hand. The main aim of the e-mails, he says, is to reinforce CapitaLand's 'core values, morals, ethics and ethos'.

Here he talks about his company's 3P strategy: 'Be paranoid of what can go wrong and persevere to reach perfection.'

For executives, Liew offers an insider's view of the company's efforts to cope with the financial crisis - freezing projects and 'bottom-fishing' for distressed assets, slashing travel expenses and seeking voluntary salary cuts to save jobs. Not surprisingly, CapitaLand ended 2009 in the black with a slew of trade awards.

'Don't let greed and hubris take over,' he writes. 'They can slowly creep into organisations and people.'

Liew's January 2009 e-mail on the retail industries in Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan - written amid the conflagration that was the global financial crisis - offers some scathing criticisms of the dismal way some Singaporean sales clerks maltreat casually dressed customers. Coming from a Singaporean, this is quite brave, particularly given his paeans to the exquisite levels of service from shop attendants in Hong Kong and Japan.

This book offers something for everybody. The beauty of its episodic structure is that readers can pick and choose from its various entries, depending on their interests.

Book Building People: Sunday Emails from a CEO - Volume 2
Author Liew Mun Leong
Publisher John Wiley & Sons (Asia)