Ooi Boon Hoe, Jurong Port

Blessed by God: Living out God's Word has brought Ooi Boon Hoe much favour, pictured here receiving the Port/Terminal Operator of 2018 award from Lloyd's List APAC for Jurong Port. All pictures from Jurong Port Facebook pages.

The story Ooi Boon Hoe tells about himself looms larger than life. That “I, Me and Myself” could have consumed his past persona is contrary to the self-effacing, generous man he now is.

“I never really was very grateful for anything that I’ve been blest with, and I’ve been blest with so much,” he says. “With that entitled mentality, it was all about me and me.”

A look at his impressive biodata, and you might understand why: Besides obtaining a Bachelor of Science degree, with First Class Honours, in Economics from the University of London, the Singapore Armed Forces merit scholar also achieved a First-Class Pass from the prestigious Britannia Royal Naval College (more commonly known as Dartmouth).

Ooi Boon Hoe, Jurong Port

Kingdom seeker: CEO of Jurong Port and the Chairman of Jurong Port Tank Terminals Board Ooi Boon Hoe is clear what his chief role is.

By his early thirties, he had successfully crossed over from the public to the private sector, first working as a corporate finance professional with DBS, then in the management of a locally listed company. 

“I was only significant to myself, and pride would be the biggest emotion.” 

On what drove him, Ooi, who is 53 this year, says: “I was only significant to myself, and pride would be the biggest emotion. It crept in so subtly that I didn’t even realise.” 

Reckoning came when his toddler daughter took ill and was scheduled for a major operation. He was then 35 years old, and at his wits’ end.

His older brother, a believer, asked his church to pray and his pastor to visit.

“The people who bothered to pray for me were the Christians and nobody else.

“I thought something is going on, because I never bothered about anybody before,” Ooi recalls. “Why are these people bothering to pray even when they don’t even know me?

“And they didn’t want anything from me either.” 

By the time the pastor visited him, Ooi was already getting his head stuck in the Bible. “The pastor asked where had I started reading.

“It’s a book, right? So, I told him I started from the first page of Genesis.

“He said, ‘Please read the New Testament instead, and begin with the Gospels.’ Then he said, ‘I will come back a week later and by then God would have spoken to you.’

“I thought, ‘Choon, boh (for real)?’ ”

Purpose redefined

Still, Ooi obeyed because reading the Word brought “inspiration and comfort” in his turmoil.

It took persevering till the last gospel before his “great awakening” began with John 9:1-12, where Jesus chanced upon a man born blind and was asked if the fault lay with him or his parents.

“Everybody has been created for a purpose, even if it is just for a moment in time.” 

“The answer Jesus gave struck me: The man was born blind just for the purpose for a healing to take place so that God will be glorified.

“The fundamental truth that everybody has been created for a purpose, even if it is just for a moment in time, hit me like a tonne of bricks.

“Then I thought, ‘Surely, I must have a purpose too!’

“I realised that purpose is more than self-gratification. I learnt it must be about our Great Commission, to bring Christ to others. And that purpose must also frame my professional life as well.

“From that point on, I started to adopt a deliberate way of behaving, of being guided and of not being shy about who my ultimate leader is.”

 Ooi Boon Hoe, Jurong Port

“To get people to continue to trust us is a function of delivering. The more you demonstrate that you can deliver, the more trust is engendered; the positive reinforcement continues” – Ooi (second from left at the opening ceremony of Jurong Port Tank Terminals in 2019).

Other-worldly prayer

By then, Ooi was the Chief Operating Officer at Portek International, a locally listed port operating company. 

“I’m not sure what’s going on between you and your God, but it seems to be working out, so keep it up.” 

When the company was making its maiden investment in Algeria, Ooi proffered a piece advice to his late CEO, Larry Lam. “I said, ‘Larry, don’t worry, I prayed about it and, you know, it’ll be fine.’ I even quoted Matthew 18:18.

“My CEO must have thought I was speaking Martian to him. Honestly, I felt a little silly after that.

“But later, with all my espousing about faith and God, my CEO said to me one day: ‘I’m not sure what’s going on between you and your God, but whatever it is, it seems to be working out, so keep it up.’ ” 

Ooi Boon Hoe, Jurong Port

Ooi spearheaded the joint venture between Jurong Port and Oiltanking, launching Jurong Port Tank Terminals in 2017.

Ooi spent almost a decade with the company before Portek became a takeover target. That news made business headlines in 2011.

“I got a call from a regional port operator who offered $1.20 for our shares, which – for the life of us – were trading at 30 to 40 cents.

“Everyone got excited. I just started praying: ‘God, whatever You decide, You just guide me to do the right thing.’ ” 

“Everyone got excited. I just started praying: ‘God, whatever You decide, You just guide me to do the right thing.’ ” 

A week later, an even larger company, Mitsui, made a counter offer. This time, even the markets sat up and took notice.

Behind closed doors, Portek was deliberating its options.

“My logic was that to preserve jobs in the company, it was better not to merge with another port operator. If you get acquired by a chap who wants you as a vehicle to expand, you can still keep your people.”

However, the company owner felt the first bid was a more assured bet. Ooi was left to deliver the news to the Japanese. 

“I was hesitant. My financial consultant advised, ‘Just ask for a price so high that he will back off on his own.’

“I called back and asked: ‘Can you do $1.50?’ He said, ‘Okay. I’ll fly down tomorrow!’ We finally closed at $1.40 and that was still pretty decent.”

Ooi Boon Hoe, Jurong Port

Ambassador of good news: Ooi went on-the-record with local media about Jurong Port’s strategic vision.

The deal was reported to have garnered the highest acquisition premium at the time. Ooi laughs: “All the while I prayed for guidance because I didn’t know what to do!”

Never would the Ooi of old have made such an open confession. He is a different man, for the faith journey that began with his daughter’s illness. She is none the worse for it at 17, and the family attends Church of the Holy Cross.

“When I look back, I was desperately seeking God’s help then. Trust me, He hears you (James 5:16).”

The work of transformation

Ooi is now into his sixth year with Jurong Port, which he helms. He first joined in 2014, taking on the task of transforming it into a next-generation multi-purpose port.

Such an overhaul is major by any management book, but by the Good Book it can be another matter. “It’s by God’s grace,” Ooi reassures.

“It’s hard for me to tell you that I had it all mapped out. I was also guided by Romans 8:28 – ‘all things’ in the verse includes the people around me. Everybody adds to the picture.”

Ooi Boon Hoe, Jurong Port

“I believe there is a greater level of good that can come out of constructive engagement: It sustains profitability and engenders trust for a long term plan to succeed,” says Ooi, seen here with his team celebrating the Excellence in Manpower Training & Development Award that Jurong Port received in 2019.

The team’s hard work has paid off with the industry’s flagship accolade: Jurong Port was declared Port/Terminal Operator of the Year by Lloyd’s List Asia Pacific Awards (APAC) 2018.

“That’s where having Christ at work helps. You seek Him first, the rest will be sorted out.” 

“That’s where having Christ at work helps. You seek Him first, the rest will be sorted out (Matthew 6:33). God has blest me by giving me a good bunch of people.”

On his part, he applies the “Golden Rule” in Matthew 7:12 to every relationship he has.

“It’s like not giving sugar even when your child wants it. Doing to others means putting yourself in the other person’s shoes with what you know, not what he or she knows.

“And with that knowledge, then applying what you think should be best done to yourself if you were in that person’s shoes. It’s not easy, but it does make sense.”

Ooi Boon Hoe, Jurong Port

“To me, it is important to run your business according to His precepts. And the main precept is the Golden Rule. You’re able to execute when there’s goodwill and trust, because you don’t have an agenda,” Ooi shares.

Observing it has made him friends, even in the unlikely scenario of joint venture (JV) discussions, which are generally viewed as win-lose situations. He shares one encounter: “I had revised the terms and the JV partner asked me why the change? I told him so that it will work better for him.

“That changed the entire complexion of the discussion. In fact, the entire relationship changed, so much so that it developed trust.  

“There were people around me and I knew that if I prayed, the word would get out.”

“It’s really quite counter-intuitive, this Golden Rule thing, but you must first be willing to step out and trust God and the results are amazing.”

Malice or ill-intent could just as easily change the dynamics but “it hasn’t happened to me yet”. 

He reflects: “Let’s say if it did, what would I do? Turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:38). Keep heaping coals of kindness, possibly. You just go about your actions in best faith. That’s all you can do.

“Then people may say, ‘Hey, why you’ve got no safety net?’ God lah! He’s watching over everything, I just move according to His will and word.”

This reporter’s eyes widen in amazement, and he quickly adds: “Say – easy lah!” and laughs: “It’s been okay, so far.”

Ooi Boon Hoe, Jurong Port

Ooi credits his team for Jurong Port’s successes: “God has blest me with a good bunch of people.”

“I’m very clear in my role; it’s also my purpose to glorify God, and that can happen only if I confess and praise Him.

“I remember when I first started, I visited an employee who was ill. In my mind, I was thinking, ‘Should I pray for the patient?’ There were people around me and I knew that if I did, the word would get out that this CEO prayed for someone.

“I did it with the specific intention that my colleague will get better, but also knowing full well that people will talk.”

And of course they did.

“But when they identify me as a disciple, it also imposes discipline on me. It’s like ‘Hey, watch it, ah! You say you’re His disciple, so don’t sia suay (disgrace) God!”

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About the author

Karen Tan

Karen was a producer at Asia Business News (Singapore), Bloomberg News and CNBC Asia. She subsequently joined the Far East Organisation to oversee corporate social responsibility. Karen is now Associate Editor at Salt&Light.