[Isshōkenmei] Apple Vacations, off to a great start (11)

By Lee San

The travel agency licence of Apple Holidays was only for it to run domestic and inbound travel businesses. I mentioned this before, and my purpose of bringing up this matter again is to remind newcomers to this line that during the initial stage of your career building, when you are about to sow your seed, you have to be doubly sure that you have chosen the right sapling to go with the soil. Once it has taken root and you suddenly realize something is not quite right, fixing things up could be extremely taxing and unrewarding.

January 2017, President Trump put up his new administrative team, but this guy always fumbled with putting things together. Sure enough this had very much to do with his character. Because of that, when he left office in January 2021, he had to sadly step down in solitude, as few were still by his side.

To people who are trying to build their own careers, Trump did teach us that we have to walk the right path from the very start. Actually no one will remind you of anything, nor is there any example you can follow. You just have to observe and learn as you go, which is the normal practice, especially for a business with minimal start-up capital, or when some specific permits are required. We have to keep learning, humbly.

Travel agency licences in Malaysia can be divided into three main categories: 1. Ticketing; 2. Domestic and inbound; and 3. Ticketing, domestic, inbound and outbound (which we call class “A” licence). You are only allowed to do what is permitted for your category, which is absolutely logical. Isn’t it?

Of course, the requirements and cost of applying for any of these licences are not low. To control the number of “A” licences issued, the tourist ministry will freeze the application from time to time. The most convenient way is, of course, to get one from the market, which typically costs between RM10K and RM200K each.

In short, the money that I had at the beginning only allowed me to apply for the second category of licence, although my dream was to eventually have the one-stop “A” licence so that when a customer visited Apple, he or she could purchase any travel-related products and services from us, including peripherals such as travel insurance, luggage bags, roaming WiFi etc. So by now you should realize why I was so insistent on the licence thing. I was insistent on getting myself a complete birth cert. That was my single biggest responsibility. I was just waiting for the opportunity!

Thank God my persistence paid off. I later came to know two wonderful men who became absolutely important in my business: Boss Khoo and Kent Chow, both in early 1997.

Since the very beginning, Apple has been lucky enough to have the timely assistance from some truly wonderful people.

Throughout the 1980s and 90s, many Chinese Malaysians went overseas to work illegally, first in Western countries before they began to take heed of the government’s Look East policy.

From what I know, there were as many as 30,000 migrant workers from Malaysia all across Japan in the late 80s and 90s. You could say that almost the entire youth population of a village had traveled overseas to work. You could see Malaysians walking all over Shin-Okubo in Tokyo. Nonetheless, we have to admit that these people had helped bring in the much needed foreign exchange earnings to lift our country’s GDP. A Malaysian migrant worker I met in Japan, for instance, invested in three shophouses in her hometown up north!

And Khoo was the man who had helped countless young Malaysians fulfill their dreams of working in Japan and the West. Notably, Khoo was also one of the supporters during my nine months in ANA. But, he never took advantage of me nor exploited my weaknesses. All the B2B “travelers” he passed to me were in possession of valid Japan visas, although many eventually opted to overstay in Japan.

I had on several occasions told Khoo about our position. Understanding ANA’s dilemma, he stopped sending customers to us. The weird thing is, we seemed to know each other’s troubles and started to become good friends!

Soon afterwards, he happened to learn about the big and small troubles I came across during the past one year, including Apple’s licence issue. One day, he took the initiative to approach me, and before we finished our cups of tea, we came to an agreement: he offered to transfer his agency’s “A” licence to me for only RM100,000, payable in ten installments.

That came as a big shock to me. I once said: Everything is a good thing! And I must add that since the very start I believed that we must learn humbly from people, and that probably explains why Boss Khoo was so appreciative of me.

Now it looked like I would have very busy days ahead!

April 15, 1997, Khoo’s travel agency licence No KKKP-2253, along with the Sdn Bhd suffix, was transferred to my company which was subsequently renamed Apple Vacations & Convention Sdn Bhd.

20 months after returning from Japan in mid-1995, we finally had our own “A” licence. I had my dream fulfilled. As for the shareholders, there are still the same bunch of people: Alice Lim, Koh San and me Lee San, plus Kent Chow who joined me from another company.

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.)


Lee San
Apple Vacations


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