Kelvin McCulloch, CEO, Buckerfield’s

The Malaysian Tea Merchant

My Career in Asia

By Kelvin McCulloch

Throughout 1998 I commuted from Singapore to Malaysia and spent each work week in Kuala Lumpur helping KPMG Malaysia preparing consulting proposals.

In Malaysia, I stayed many weeks in a downtown hotel in Kuala Lumpur. In the evenings after work, I explored the area around the hotel starting with the Shopping Mall across the street. Each Friday I flew home from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore for the weekend.

What happened to me in the Mall in Kuala Lumpur and everything I report in this article is true.

Before Kuala Lumpur

The years 1997 and 1998 were tumultuous times in Asia, particularly in Jakarta where there was widespread violence and political unrest. The press reported ‘race riots’, there was burning, looting, murder, beatings, shootings, rape, mob violence, mob justice, mob rule.

I was there during the violence, before I started commuting to Kuala Lumpur. I saw mob rule in action -it’s what happens when Government fails completely.

The Kuala Lumpur assignment was going to be a bit of a vacation compared to Jakarta. In Jakarta, I used to have to lay down in the back seat of a black Volvo limousine with black smoked out windows to travel from the Jakarta International Airport to my hotel, past rows and rows of armed soldiers facing huge crowds of angry protesters all along the way.

The Mall in Kuala Lumpur

In Kuala Lumpur, I used to go to the Mall across the street from my hotel in the evenings.

The second floor of the Mall was completely open except for a mezzanine that was built out to a depth of about 20 feet from the perimeter walls. The mezzanine area extended around the entire upper deck of the Mall in the shape of a ‘U’. You entered the area at the top left of the ‘U’ and you had to walk around the entire ‘U’ to get to the other end of the store where the proprietor sat.

The area was filled with Asian tea wares like little Yixing tea pots from China, fragrant tea cups and tea trays from Taiwan, all commonly used articles which are prized in Asia.

And there was tea everywhere, bags, boxes, canisters, bulk, all for sale from China, Taiwan, Malaysia and who knows where else.

The tea merchant sat at the very farthest corner of the ‘U’. You had to walk all around the entire ‘U’ past all of his wares to get to him. He could see you coming the entire way, but you couldn’t walk directly to him, you had to walk around the ‘U’.

I don’t remember if it was on my first visit or after several visits that I ventured up to the tea table where the tea merchant sat, several sets of tea things at the ready to serve samples of tea the ancient Chinese way. I did wind up having tea with him and enjoying conversations with him, many times.

My first tea tasting was most enjoyable. The tea merchant’s skill in manipulating his tea things to produce perfect samples of several varieties of Chinese tea was unmatched. He was most interesting to talk to, being quite fluent in English with a strong Singaporean accent.

After the first visit, I tried to visit the tea merchant every time I went to Malaysia.

The Singaporean Politician in Malaysia

As I said earlier, I was surprised at how well the tea merchant spoke. He had a great command of the English language, with a distinctive Singaporean accent. He was very well informed and cordial. Our conversation moved away from ‘tea’ to other topics like our backgrounds, why I was in Singapore and why he was in Malaysia.

At one point during one of our conversations, the tea merchant turned to me and asked:

‘Do you know that in Singapore, the Government can drive you out of the country by suing you, then by settling the lawsuits against you in their favour, then by suing you again and again until they take everything you own and leave you with millions of dollars of unpaid debt, bankrupt and facing years of imprisonment’?

No, I said, I didn’t know that.

And he said:

‘That is what happened to me. That is why I am here, I had to leave my country. The government drove out me. Did you know that such a thing could happen in Singapore?’

No, I said, I did not.

Then he gleefully explained, ‘But here in Malaysia I enjoy complete freedom of speech about Singapore…and I have my tea shop where I can exercise my freedom of speech all day long, every day, with anyone who cares to come to my shop. I just can’t go back to Singapore ever again.’

Mr. Tang Leang Hong, MP

The name of my tea merchant was Tang Leang Hong.

Mr. Tang was a Singaporean lawyer and Member of Parliament who fled to Malaysia in 1998. He was one of two elected politicians comprising the Official Opposition in the Singapore Parliament in 1997.

Unfortunately, the ruling party had become infuriated with Mr. Tang and wanted him out, out of Parliament, out of the country, along with his fellow Parliamentarian and Opposition member, Francis Seow.

To this end, ruling party filed lawsuits against Tang complaining of ‘defamation’. Every time Mr. Tang complained, they would file another defamation suit, and another, and another.

Then they arranged to have the lawsuits settled in their favour by the Court which, in Singapore, always favored the government. The cases were settled without trial and without proper evidence. Lee went on to file bankruptcy charges against Mr. Tang and his wife as soon as the lawsuits were settled.

Bankrupt, facing possible jail time and worried for the worse, Mr. Tang the Parliamentarian fled to Malaysia where he became Mr. Tang the tea merchant. His colleague Francis Seow fled to the United States, never to return.

Francis Seow wrote of Mr. Tang in his recent biography entitled Escape from Paradise:

“The lawyer and Workers’ Party politician (Tang Leang Hong) fled Singapore, citing death threats after losing a bid for Parliament in 1997. He was sued for $2.9 million after he accused ruling party members of lying.

Ruling party members sued Tang for damages in the Singapore High Court and were awarded a record S$8.08 million (US$5.6 million) in damages. Tang has fled from Singapore.”

On Feb. 13, 1998, Mr. Tang issued a Press Statement about his situation (tangtalk.com/pres0213.htm).

In the statement, he cited the following legal principle:

It is a fundamental principle of law as well as a matter of public policy: That no one shall be allowed to retain any benefit of an order of Court obtained by deceitful misrepresentation.

What About British Columbia? Could this situation arise here? Has it arisen already?

What if we had a public policy that stated:

No one shall be allowed to retain any benefit of any Regulation of the BC Government if that Regulation is obtained or administered by deceitful misrepresentation.

Would it have any effect? Would we be better off if we had such a policy and the statutory authority to back it up?

We have no such laws now. What we have is what Mr. Tang had, a disbelief that such a thing could ever happen until it does.

Mr. Tang Leang Hong and Mr. Francis Seow were Singaporean Parliamentarians who were hounded out of their country by a ruling party that used deceptive misinformation to get rid of its opponents. In history, Seow and Tang will be remembered as examples of how the power of the state, even a democratic state, can be twisted using deceptive misinformation to no good, even to the destruction of someone’s life.

It was a great honor to have been able to enjoy tea with Mr. Tang Leang Hong so many times in Malaysia. I will not soon forget the lessons he taught or the tea he made.

In my opinion, we need to embrace the principle behind deceptive misinformation in British Columbia by incorporating certain statutory limitations into our financial management and accountability mechanisms for the Province.

Secondly, in my opinion, I believe the courts in British Columbia would uphold this principle in looking at the several hundred MMBC contracts that the Government forced on private businesses using ‘deceptive misrepresentation’. The deception was that despite what the Regulation said, no one was ever supposed to get an approval for an actual ‘Extended Producer Responsibility Plan’ and no one ever did, as follows:

  • no plans have ever been approved in four years
  • everyone caught by the Regulation knows very well that it is absolutely impossible to put together a plan that meets the criteria in the Regulation
  • no one is ever going to get an approved ‘Extended Producer Responsibility Plan’ because if you approve one, then you have to approve others, then more and more until MMBC’s approved ‘Stewardship Plan’ is completely undermined, i.e. no contracts, no money.

So no one is actually taking responsibility for any packaging and paper in BC, just MMBC. MMBC is responsible for everything to do with Blue Box packaging and paper. Everyone had to sign their contract to make it possible MMBC. The Regulation was worded in such a manner that everyone had to sign on. The Auditor General even congratulated the Government for ‘bringing 500 companies to compliance’ (sign MMBC contracts) and told the Government to go and get some more!?

Unquestionably deceptive. People wre never supposed to have an Extended Producer Responsibility Plan, they were always supposed to sign MMBC’s contract.

So to the extent that the Government forced BC companies to sign MMBC contracts, and the above principle of deceptive misinformation would be applied by the Courts, it is entirely possible that there are a very large number of MMBC contracts that aren’t actually valid or binding and we may have a rather large problem on our hands.

In that regard, my company will continue to test the situation. If the Government tries to force us to sign the MMBC contract, we will go the full route to the final court of competent jurisdiction to determine whether Mr. Tang’s legal principle, or some other legal principle applies in this country.

Remember, ‘no business was or is required to sign on with MMBC.’

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