From humble beginnings to business tycoon, with an astonishingly successful career spanning 31 years as an entrepreneur, Tan Sri Datuk (Dr) Haji Mustapha Kamal Haji Abu Bakar, or fondly known as MK, is a genuine model for success in the competitive, modern business world of Malaysia. His track record surpasses any young entrepreneur’s wildest dreams, having completed over RM2 billion worth of development projects on time within the last five years alone. His business is still growing exponentially and has already taken on over RM4 billion projects for the next five years. And not only that, MK has achieved all of this responsibly, with the environment, sustainability, local people and his own personal code of ethics in mind throughout. In this issue, Top 10 of Asia speaks with the energetic and inspiring MK about his early years, the turning point in his life and his current relentless conservation efforts to lay a meaningful foundation for future generations.
Tan Sri Mustapha Kamal (MK), the founder and owner of the Emkay Group, readily admits that he was not the shinning beacon of academic excellence while in school. Harvard University researchers have said for many years that grades in school have no statistical correlation with success in life. By any measure, MK is a successful man. His flagship company, MK Land Holdings Berhad, has built a reputation as a quality property developer. MK earned the moniker “King of Affordable Housing” when he successfully built 11,000 medium cost dwellings at the Damansara Damai project in Sungai Buloh, Selangor that most were sold for only RM25,000 per unit, which even at that time was at a ‘give-away’ price.
MK came from a relatively modest background. He was born in Perak, where his grandfather was a vegetable seller and his father was a government employee. In the early years in secondary school, MK displayed prodigious talents as a musician, so he entertained dreams of being a rock star like Elvis Presley. Gifted talents notwithstanding, his father though, instilled in him the practicalities of life. He therefore entered University Malaya in 1968 and after graduating in 1970 he became one of the first groups of Assistant District Officers throughout Malaysia, to be trained in community development.
During those years in the 1970s, the typical career track for Malay university graduates was to join the government civil service. MK’s first posting after graduation was as Assistant District Officer in the Ulu Selangor District. As his career progressed within the civil service, MK moved to different districts in Selangor. Even though he felt it very fulfilling in helping the communities where he worked, MK became increasingly frustrated by the bureaucracy and snail-pace decision making of the government system.
In all probability, MK would have retired as a government administrator if not for a life-changing encounter with a tycoon. When MK was a Senior Assistant District Officer in Gombak in the state of Selangor, he granted a meeting to an old Chinese businessman even though it was after office hours. When the meeting was over, the humble businessman walked MK to his new Toyota Corolla and even opened the door of the car for him.
As MK drove his car out from the parking lot, he saw the businessman accompanied by two assistants stepping into his own big Mercedes Benz. MK then stopped his car to have a word with the businessman. He told the businessman he was embarrassed that the man had called him “Tuan” even though it was apparent that he was a very rich man. The Chinese tycoon told MK, “You are in a position of authority and have the power to decide, and I have money. Authority and wealth normally cannot reside together. If you desire to be rich, then you have to be in business and not be in a position of authority.”
That chance meeting changed MK’s life completely. He quit his job and started his new life’s calling in the property industry as General Manager of Shah Alam Properties, a Selangor state government company. In 1983, MK entered another phase of his life when he resigned from Shah Alam Properties to strike out on his own. He felt he had enough knowledge, skills and experience in properties to be successful running his own business.
MK then had always believed that wealth is only a means to an end. He is now into another phase of his life where he wants to use his acquired wealth for the betterment of his family, the community, the environment and leave sustainable enterprises for the benefit of future generations. Most of the day-to-day operations of the companies in the Emkay Group are now managed by his children. MK now spends his time being the visionary, hands-on implementer, of the many philanthropic activities that he loves.
To say that MK’s efforts are merely projects in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is to deny his obvious deep passion and sincerity when he talks about his activities. Many companies do CSR projects for branding and tax deductions, and all they do is throw money at the projects and hog the media glare. On the other hand, MK’s projects, with the support of his Board of Directors, Panel of Advisors and Board of Trustees, have long term sustainability in mind and the objective is not to make financial profits from them. For example, the Belum Temengor Forest Complex in the state of Perak in Peninsular Malaysia, a 130-million-year-old pristine forest covering 300,000 hectares, through his Pulau Banding Foundation in particular, will assist the State Government in ensuring that the forest is protected. They will report on illegal logging activities or poaching activities to the government authorities. Through the Foundation’s Pulau Banding Rainforest Research Center, the research into the preservation and conservation efforts for this rainforest is also met – mainly by local researchers and university students. Belum is one of the most untouched jungles in the world, rivaling the Amazon in South America in terms of its diversity in animal species, flora and fauna. When construction of Emkay Group’s hotel (Belum Rainforest Resort)and its components were made, not a single endemic tree was cut. For example, in the upcoming villa project, one might be able to see trees growing in the certain areas of the villas. Many other companies build resorts in beautiful natural areas in Malaysia but destroy corals, uproot trees and cause bio diversity extinction in the process. The Pulau Banding development under the Emkay Group is bound by its self-imposed guidelines under the Pulau Banding Charter that guarantees its continuous preservation.
Through MK’s other foundations, namely Emkay Foundation and Bukit Merah Orang Utan Island Foundation, projects in education, health and nutrition, training, scientific research, and animal conservation are carried out even for the benefit of the aborigines and local wildlife. These projects include setting up toy libraries, advice on nutrition and diseases to the natives, and research on the endangered Orang Utans. The Bukit Merah Orang Utan Island started its rehabilitation project with just three orang utans in the beginning and at present, the island is home to 26 members today.
In relation to his efforts in Belum, MK has established the Green Rangers, a Malaysian Ministry of Education recognized co-curriculum activity in schools. This effort hopes to instill environmental awareness, protection and conservation early on in school kids.
His other pet projects, namely the ‘Kampung Selamat Educational Programme’ in the rural district of Kerian, Perak, and the Industry Academia Collaboration called the ‘Cyberjaya Graduate Employability Enabler’ (CGEE) through Setia Haruman Sdn Bhd, in the Multimedia Super Corridor development in Cyberjaya, are some of his very successful philanthropic initiatives. The CGEE programme, in particular, is unique and effective because it is not only about uplifting of skills (soft skills) for the unemployed graduates but the alignment of those skills to the needs of the industry in Cyberjaya. This programme has, to date, achieved a 100% success rate.
One of MK’s employees revealed that MK demands high standards from his employees but is fair to all. This is the reason why one will either last only a short time in the company or one will work for many years with MK. MK’s deep passion and vision for the corporate and philanthropic projects leave his employees with a sense of fullfillment and motivation that they have done something good because they can see the wider perspective that this work is also a means to an end.
For the billionaire philanthropist, all of this was no mean a feat. What perhaps motivates MK to achieve such great things is the great, sincere and deep passion that is within him, the livelihood of his staff and their families, his desire to see his fellow men thrive and be as successful as he is, and most importantly, gratitude to The Almighty. Having stepped back from full time management of the Emkay Group, MK is now turning his attention fully to his philanthropic projects with the admirable intent to give back to the country that has given him so much and leave a legacy that will be hard to match.