12/09/2021
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[Isshōkenmei] The visible apparitions in my early career (6)

By Lee San

After I got admitted to Tokyo International University, I moved to Saitama prefecture. However, the place I worked every day was in Setagaya ward. It was a trading-restaurant-travel company. My job was: everything.

My boss Vasan was a Japanese Thai of Chinese descent who used to be a very well known Thai language tour guide and the “tai ko” of Thai restaurant business in Japan.

There was a time Vasan purposely made a transit in KL on the way back to Japan from Thailand, and wanted me to fly back from Tokyo to meet him there, together with his ex-colleague (in KL) Sanni Unfortunately I didn’t keep a picture of the three of us together.

Vasan was an outspoken man who had never attempted to conceal his feelings. On the day of our meeting, he easily promised to offer financial assistance to Sanni to start a travel agency specializing in outbound tours that to Japan and was supposed to be jointly manager by me and Sanni.

Sure enough I was overjoyed to accept the task, being able to learn how to do business from these two industrial “giants”. I was then thinking: “Boss Vasan really knows what I want. Perhaps this company will be transferred to me when I go back to Malaysia to start my business one day!”

Apparently I was too naive. They later talked about the investment capital, and it was agreed that Vasan would settle the balance sum.

With my buddy Kohsan working part-time at Vasan’s Thai restaurant in Tokyo in 1992.

Nevertheless, Vasan later only came up with 20% of the investment money, and no more after that. This really put me in a dilemma.

As I was in Tokyo. Sanni kept pressurizing me for the money, while Vasan was trying to evade the problem.

As a matter of fact, Vasan’s money was largely controlled by his Japanese wife. You should know that in a Japanese family, the man hardly has any private savings at his disposal. But the thing is, Vasan often tried to brag about his generosity. Of course, Sanni didn’t know about the situation as it was our responsibility to save the boss’ face.

After a discussion with Kohsan, we decided to privately provide some cash flow to Sanni first, but we never knew that such a move could bring out some unexpected ramifications much later. Back then we told Sanni specifically that the money was wholly provided by us in person, and not from Vasan! But to save Vasan’s face, we never told him what we did. So, at the request of Sanni we remitted RM30,000 from Tokyo (the remittance was made in my name, with a receipt) into his personal bank account.

You might ask why I did it from my own money to his savings account. The answer was: I trusted Sanni and knew he needed the money urgently. Moreover, I also took into consideration the KL company would be a stepping stone that I would very much need when I went back later, and that an opportunity to start my own business was hard to come by and I should not give up half way on such a rare chance!

I said it before that I always thought it was the Tokyo boss’ fault that their previous joint venture did not work. Sanni appeared to me a very experienced and sincere businessman who was willing to help the new guys in this business. Because of that, I had since the very beginning recognized the importance of this “stepping stone”.

Moreover, the B2C travel business in my career “masterplan” would require large sums of capital and expertise, and Sanni was an expert in this line and therefore made a perfect role model for me to emulate. As such, we were willing to pump in the money in private, remitting RM30,000 after the first tranche of RM30,000. Remember, that was RM60,000, a whole lot of money 25 years ago!

Vasan was very unhappy after learning about it. He told Sanni the money remitted by me was misappropriated company money! Back then, Sanni had something else in his head, trying to be nice to both sides. It took me several years to learn that the squabble between us actually benefited a third party. That said, I was not the guy trying to defend myself, but was more inclined to let the matter rest as I knew I had not done anything wrong.

Unfortunately my boss Vasan grew increasingly suspicious of me and Kohsan. I had no choice but to propose to him: since you’re no longer able to finance the KL business, why not let us take over?He didn’t agree nor disagree. In the end, both Kohsan and I decided to leave his company. While Kohsan continued to stay in Tokyo, I took the RM60,000 receipt with me and went back to KL, trying to work with Sanni again.

With Kohsan at the University of Tokyo in 1992.

Sanni nevertheless was not a simple guy. I discovered after a few months that I had remained a “probational shareholder” all this while (9 months) without taking a single cent of salary!

As if that’s not enough, he kept grumbling that the money was not enough for the company. I was forced to raise 30k after another 30k, and was told again to bank into his personal account, for the sake of accounting, he said.

This thing lasted for nine moths until one day the company financial controller Alice Lim (an old colleague of Sanni) told me secretly that firstly, only one item on the accounts was recorded as coming from Leesan, while the rest was specified as inputs from Sanni Secondly, Leesan’s name was not in the company’s registration and I was therefore not a company director. And thirdly, the designation on my business card was non-existent!

I felt a deep pang inside me. All those tour guides in Japan who had trusted me so much and had helped me raise the money, would see their hard earned money going down the drain. What an AHO (Japanese for idiot) I was! I was totally unfit to do my own business!

So, you might guess that after one big round I would end up with nothing at all? Not quite actually!

Up till this point, I have to agree that anything we experience, be it good or bad, could be a valuable lesson learned. I did gain something from this blunder. Perhaps I should put myself in other people’s shoes: they might have their reasons for doing this?

Somehow in the midst of this misfortune I came to know a couple of true friends and mentors who lit up my path ahead, and inspired me to forge ahead fearlessly.

More in the Isshōkenmei series

(Lee San is Founder and Group Executive Chairman of Apple Vacations. He has traveled to 132 countries, six continents, and enjoys sharing his travel stories and insights. He has also authored five books.)

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