Teh’s passing marks end of a Malaysian era
The death of Teh Hong Piow, the founder of Malaysia’s Public Bank, marks the end of a distinguished banking life.
Teh Hong Piow had been in Malaysian banking longer than there has been a Malaysia.
He started out in Singapore – again, before that was a sovereign nation – and built a career at OCBC and Malayan Banking before deciding to found his own enterprise. Public Bank opened its doors in Kuala Lumpur on August 6, 1966, and he remained as chairman emeritus until the end. He was 92.
Along the way, a startling cult of personality built up around him. In the 2000s, journalists from Euromoney, Asiamoney and our peers would often find ourselves invited to the bank’s annual events in which Teh would arrive, flanked by a small army of attendants and performers, to the accompaniment of a song that had been written about him.
He would then be seated on a throne of sorts, often with the mortified journalist sitting next to him. Pewter gifts were bestowed. On one occasion, its meaning opaque to us to this day, we were presented onstage with a vacuum cleaner.
But he deserved acclaim: the bank he built became a watchword for prudent, well-run conservatism and has won Euromoney’s best bank award in Malaysia on numerous occasions. He was once told by the then central bank governor Tun Ismail Ali: “If you want to be a banker, be a banker and nothing else.” He told Euromoney that this message of focus struck a chord, and he always lived by it.
His passing raises questions about the bank’s future ownership, since he was – through his private investment vehicle Consolidated Teh Holdings – the largest shareholder, with a 21.6% stake in the bank. Teh was one of only three people in the country to be permitted to own more than 10% of a financial institution, having grandfathered his existing stake when the Financial Services Act changed the law; the stake will therefore have to be split when it is passed on.
He was proud of his work. He told us in 2019: “It was an exhilarating adventure from the beginning.”