The Francis Yeoh Interview

He was fed Mozart as a child. At 46 now, Tan Sri Francis Yeoh makes no hesitation in investing RM25 million of his listed infrastructure company YTL Corporation into the construction of a performing arts centre that will eventually feed everyone more beautiful music. And theatre. And dance and other performing arts.

Ensconced in his English style leather armchairs in the penthouse of the YTL building, dominating the YTL empire of power stations, water treatment plants and hotels, Yeoh explains how he has always enjoyed music, particularly opera. Not that he thinks he has a particularly sophisticated taste: “Puccini and Verdi are like Andrew Lloyd Weber, the tunes are melodic and easy to remember. La Boheme is still a hit.”

As managing director of a company with a market capitalisation of 6.8 billion, and a turn over last year of 3.8 billion, he is, according to the YTL web-site “one of the world’s greatest business leaders of the modern era.”  And befitting the captain of industry persona, Francis Yeoh has also established himself as one of Malaysia’s most generous patrons of the arts. It has been sponsoring the Penang-YTL Arts Festival since 2000, and Yeoh was president of the Kuala Lumpur Symphony Orchestra for five years. Also, YTL-owned hotels and department stores along Kuala Lumpur’s Jalan Bukit Bintang regularly invite musicians to perform outside, while the YTL­owned Express Rail from KL Sentral to the airport announce arts shows on the screens in the train.

But it is opera, the artform revered by some as the ultimate in “high culture,” which is his passion. He has all the collections of all the great tenors. Every year he has a concert celebration in various places, televised live in Malaysia, with seats offered to the public by ballot. In 2003, after taking over the British Wessex Water, he invited Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti to sing in Bath to an audience of 50,000 people, “as a thanksgiving to God, and to the community at large.”

To Yeoh, opera is a metaphor for life; it deals with passion and sins, presenting the conflicts that appear sometimes between a man’s duties and his passion for his country, or a woman. “It is centralised on God,” says the born again Christian. “I’m a mere steward of God’s will, I’m a willing pencil. I claim nothing in my success, although I do work very, very hard.”

In spite of his business achievements, the highlight in his life was when he hosted a concert on YTL’s private island of Pangkor Laut with guest singer Luciano Pavarotti in 1993. “It was like a dream come true: my own island, and Pavarotti.” Surely a statement that few in the world are privileged to make. A year after inviting Pavarotti, Yeoh even tried inviting Andrea Bocelli, a singer notoriously difficult to woo. Bocelli nearly accepted, for a rather large sum of money, but refused when Yeoh asked him for all the recording rights of the concert. A project Yeoh wishes to see materialise is a fusion of Chinese and Western opera: singers and composers out there, send in your proposals!

The directors of The Actors Studio, Faridah Merican and Joe Hasham, knew to send him their proposals when they lost their theatre space to floods in 2003 and were looking for an alternative space. Merican explained how they approached Yeah while at the same time “whispering in the ear of YABhg. Datin Paduka Seri Endon Mahmood,” wife of the then deputy Prime Minister, who offered her own patronage to the project, and worked to include the Ministry of Arts, Culture and Heritage.

This was a service to society Yeoh could not refuse. He offered RM25 million which will cover the cost of the building, the software, and a budget for the first few years of operations.

Yeah claims he expects no commercial benefits from his investment: he just wanted to allow artists to thrive. However it can’t be bad for a company that works closely with the government for contracts and policy discussions to be in partnership with the Prime Minister’s wife.

Also, the performing arts centre is located at the heart of an area of Kuala Lumpur that is undergoing a major facelift, Sentul. Although it is now perceived as a poor, crime ridden area, YTL has a 10 year master plan to build on an old golf course, and to create, off the KTM line, a high end gated community, as well as a commercial area. “The KL PAC is crucial to avoid alienation from existing residents,” says landscape architect Carolyn Lau. “It will be a meeting point for people of all classes of society.” Also, the arts centre will naturally create a buzz for the new residents that restaurants and shops alone wouldn’t.”

When it opens (after December this year), Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre will represent a milestone for performing arts as it will offer badly needed performance spaces as well as an arts academy, with a 500-seat proscenium theatre, a 200-seat experimental theatre, 10 rehearsal studios, a resource centre, a bookshop, a performing arts academy as well as a set construction workshop.

Yeoh expects to keep a very light hands-on operation. “I don’t want it to be a YTL thing. It is a community project.” Indeed, YTL is only one of the partners, with The Actors Studio running the KL PAC.

He obviously has all the confidence in The Actors Studio team. He doesn’t spare compliments on its directors Faridah Merican and Joe Hasham: “what I love about them is how they could thrive in such bad conditions. Their story is operatic! That tells us we will be successful.”

However he does have some ideas on the programming: “I would like to bring in some London West End plays.” He also plans to coax other corporations into supporting local and foreign shows, by buying 10% of the seats, for instance.

For artists who wonder whether the combination of business and politics in the running committee will influence the type of shows run at the KL PAC, Yeoh did give his definition of the arts as “an eagerness for truth, […] with the power to develop human potential.” Racial diversity and integration are themes that should not be avoided, he believes, on the contrary he sees in them the richness of Malaysian arts. “I think the Ministry of Arts and Culture realises this, this important integration of our races.”

He is less certain about political satire, though. “Vulgarity and unnecessary bias about politics are no good. I think artists can reflect signs of the times, but should not delve in politics.”

When asked whether he would consider sponsoring a Kuala Lumpur Arts Festival, he retorts, “this is the festival!”

First Published: 30.06.2004 on Kakiseni

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