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How Receiving Turned Into Giving

Getting a scholarship changed the life of Tan Chin Hwee


In 1991, Tan Chin Hwee was awarded a scholarship from the Chua Chor Teck Memorial Fund. To say that it changed the 19-year-old’s life, will be an understatement. 

“The preference was for giving it to engineers, but I had applied for Accountancy at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU). Even though I was an outlier, they took a bet on me,” recalls Tan, who grew up in a one-room apartment in Toa Payoh.

Whoever made that decision must be patting him or herself on the back. After all today, at only 46, Tan is already the Asia Pacific CEO of Trafigura Group, one of the world's largest commodity trading companies.

Prior to this, he was at Apollo Asset Management where he had been responsible for setting up its Asian operations. Along the way, he picked up the Best Asia Hedge Fund Manager award by The Asset magazine.

Professional accomplishment aside, he has dedicated his life to giving back, spurred by the scholarship he was awarded earlier on, “In my life, I was given a lot of chances by different people, so I owe it to them to help others.”

He sits on the board of trustees for NTU, is on the Monetary Authority of Singapore's Finance Centre Advisory Panel, and is also involved in the board of Singapore Press Holdings.

At the community level, Tan set up the Premmies Fund in 2009 within the KK Hospital Health Fund, with the objective of relieving the financial burdens of parents with premature babies.

He is working closely with the NTU management team in championing the inclusion of a social work element, and introduced internships for students from the vocational college Institute of Technical Education.

On a personal level, Tan started a group that distributed food and necessities to one-bedroom flats in Toa Payoh and Woodlands. The group had grown in the past seven years. He is also involved with Care Community Social Service.

But nowhere is he more engaged than in the act of mentoring. He has lost track of the number of mentees he has accumulated over the years, whom he has picked up at different junctures of his life.

“Recently, a mother handwrote a long letter to me to give her 30-year-old son a chance. I said ok. Why not right? It is just a few hours of my time and for the mother to do this

without letting the son knows is a reminder of how life is truly larger than what it seems,” he points out.

What makes the process worthwhile, Tan shares, is that his mentees have kept in touch with him. On his birthday, he will receive gifts from them that “get better every year because they earn more money”. 

“That they are now part of my life is one signal of how much influence I have in theirs. It is easier to make money than change lives,” he says.

While it is easy to be lured by the glitz and glamour of the finance industry, Tan often reminds himself that the rest of the world is not like that. “It is important to remember where we are in this world. The pressure I have on myself is not in investments, but to invest in promoting the right values in others – this is the greatest return I can get.”