Breaking new grounds
The inspiring life journey of Tan Sri Dr Ngau Boon Keat in persevering through hardship, and pioneering the transformation of the oil and gas industry through DIALOG
An image of a towering bamboo forest hangs in the lobby of DIALOG Tower, regal and resplendent. The soft green leaves are an odd contrast against the cold granite stone walls, with patterns resembling the seismic conditions of oil reservoirs deep underground. Bamboo however, has a special significance for Tan Sri Ngau Boon Keat, the Chairman of DIALOG Group. “As a group we are very strong, we can face the storm. And we are very flexible, so once the storm is out, we go up again,” he explains over tea in his office on the 16th floor. “In business, we want to make sure we can face all the storms. Whether it is sunny, raining or during the typhoon, we should survive.”
Ngau co-founded Dialog in 1984 with two other partners, starting out as an oil-and-gas services provider. Today it is a multi-billion ringgit company specialising in storage tank terminals, engineering and technical services for upstream and downstream. DIALOG’s latest project is the ambitious deep-water oil-services hub in Johor, the sprawling Pengerang Deepwater Terminal. Touted as Asia’s version of Rotterdam Port, the megaproject was the brainchild of Ngau himself, a by-product of his long career in the oil and gas sector.
Tan Sri Dr Ngau shares the humble beginnings of his journey. He began his career in 1972 as a Refinery Engineer with Mobil Singapore Pte Ltd. He worked at PETRONAS from 1975 to 1980 where he held various positions from Production Engineer to Engineering Manager. He has more than 44 years of working experience in both upstream and downstream of the oil, gas and petrochemical industry.
“I started work in Singapore in 1972, and I saw them build all the refineries,” Ngau reminisces. “Singapore became the third largest refining and petrochemical centre in the world. After many years in the oil industry, I realised that Malaysia is a net exporter for oil and gas, but not a major value processing country. Meaning we don’t add value to that petroleum produced. Why? Why can’t we do it?”
“Rotterdam developed over a few hundred years to be the world’s biggest petroleum and petrochemical port,” he enthuses. “So if we have the same conditions, why can’t we do it? Pengerang is a natural harbour. It’s sheltered from the monsoons, it has very deep water, and it’s near the international shipping lane near Singapore’s petrochemical refineries.”
From the start, his grand plan was wrought with many challenges, the first of which was the Johor state administration itself. It took a full year for Ngau to convince then Menteri Besar, Tan Sri Ghani Othman, after which he received full support.
Tan Sri Dr Ngau’s achievements are not only recognised in charts and figures, but also amongst his peers across many industries. In November 2013 he was named the EY Entrepreneur of the Year (2013) Malaysia.
Once the state signed on, the next task was to secure federal backing. In 2009, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak formed PEMANDU, which promptly began hunting for private sector-driven projects that will help grow the 12 priority sectors’ high-value contribution to the economy to propel Malaysia into a high income nation. For such a large project, dozens of government departments had to be on board for the 20-thousand-acre project to even begin. “PEMANDU was the tipping point. Without them, the project would not see the light of day.” The Economic Transformation Programme (ETP) Lab that took place in 2010 brought together all the relevant federal ministries and agencies to ensure that high-value, high impact projects like Pengerang Deepwater Terminal are realised.
The Malaysian Government eventually invested in RM275 million to kick-start the deep-water port. Securing big players like Petronas to invest in Pengerang was a huge challenge, as commodity prices remain low. Unfazed, Ngau insists these hard times will come to pass. His determination and grit are hardly surprising, considering his early childhood during one of the most tumultuous times in history. Born in China in 1948, he dodged World War II by several years, but witnessed the rise of the Communist Party, and the foundation of the People’s Republic of China. Those were harsh years for a child of ten.
“I saw a lot of suffering when the communists took over the country,” Ngau remembers. “A lot of people who were well-to-do and the upper class were tortured. My family was classified as ‘landlord’, and we were tortured.”
Ngau’s mother then fled to Hong Kong. “I remember hunger. When you really don’t have food, you eat broken rice with the leaves from trees in order not to starve,” he says.
Migrating to Malaya in 1959, he had to contend with the shock of moving to a newly independent nation, the alien culture and language in Kuala Lumpur. “Initially they (school children) were laughing, making jokes about how I spoke Mandarin,” he concedes. “but the more they laughed, the more I learned.” He would go on to earn a Bachelor’s Degree in mechanical engineering from Canterbury University in Christchurch, New Zealand, and an Honorary Doctorate in Engineering.
Without a doubt, it is this lifelong hunger for knowledge that fuels his drive to succeed. In his own words, “I am still learning, everyday. You never stop.”
DIALOG is a devoted supporter of the MyKasih Foundation, a Not-For-Profit Organisation set up by Tan Sri Dr Ngau and his wife, Puan Sri Jean Ngau to feed and educate economically-challenged Malaysian households through food aid, student bursaries, academic scholarships and training programmes. Here, 97 Orang Asli student beneficiaries of the ‘Love My School’ bursary scheme in Sekolah Kebangsaan Penderas Pahang received Back-To-School items such as school bags, school uniforms, shoes and socks, sports attire and stationery.
Inspired by his childhood hardship, Tan Sri Dr. Ngau and his wife, Puan Sri Jean, founded the MyKasih Foundation in 2009. A welfare organisation aimed at alleviating poverty, MyKasih runs unique welfare programmes that leverage an efficient cashless payment system, developed by DIALOG’s subsidiary company, ePetrol, to drive welfare distribution to the underprivileged, with transparency and governance. MyKasih has helped over 230,000 families in Malaysia and has recently expanded its programmes to a neighbouring country.
His principles and values in life are clearly embodied in the DIALOG Group. Today, the company has a market capitalisation in excess of RM8 billion, and an expanding presence in 9 countries worldwide. The company’s growth is embodied in the image of bamboo on his wall, a hard-fought tale of strength, resilience and endurance.