Book Review: Local books worth reading

This article first appeared in Wealth, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on July 26, 2021 - August 01, 2021.
Book Review: Local books worth reading
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The grass is always greener on the other side. At least it is for me, when it comes to book selections. 

I tend to look out for books written by foreigners. After all, A Promised Land by Barack Obama is more appealing than A Doctor in the House by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, and A Random Walk Down Wall Street by Burton Malkiel trumps all the investment books written by local authors. In Liar’s Poker and Flash Boys, Michael Lewis recounts tales of colourful characters, market history, dynamics and technology that are not seen in Malaysia.

However, I also remind myself to pick up books by local authors. The peninsula, however small it is, is home. 

The two local books I finished recently exceeded my expectations. A Lone Traveller of a Thousand Mountains (Qian Shan Wo Du Xing) by Cold Eye (Fong Siling) and Malaysia’s Pioneering Stockbroker by Tan Sri Tengku Noor Zakiah are decent reads. Both autobiographies are well written, colourful and genuine. 

I heard about Cold Eye when I was in secondary school. A friend of mine, whose dad is an insurance agent, was a bit of an outlier. He ventured into the stock market much earlier than the rest of us. He talked fervently about the KLCI and a mobile application called KLSE Screener. He mentioned Cold Eye, with much respect, as the ultimate guru of investing.

The name Cold Eye had stuck in my mind since. I only learnt he was the editor-in-chief of Nanyang Siang Pau in 1990 when I read the book. He was in The Malaysia Book of Records for possessing the largest collection of company annual reports — he had amassed more than 10,000 copies over 30 years — and was employed by Tan Sri Vincent Tan to identify investment opportunities in Southeast Asia and China.

Bear in mind that the book is an autobiography and does not delve into stock picking and analysis. But it is a good read as it emphasises the importance of diligence, a value that would help investors profit from the market. 

Contrary to common belief, Cold Eye believes that constant reading and analysis, rather than trading market tips and news, are key to becoming a good investor. The ability to understand investment theories and companies’ annual reports is vital. Methods on how to value a company are crucial, which can also be acquired through reading. 

In 1971, when companies’ information was hard to come by, Cold Eye paid RM1,200 a year to a brokerage firm to subscribe to companies’ annual reports. At the time, his monthly salary was only RM600. The subscription price gradually increased to RM2,400 and RM3,600 in the 1980s and 1990s, but he continued to pay for the service until 2002, when annual reports were made freely accessible via the internet. He kept those printed annual reports in a room and he read all of them. 

The truly interesting part of the book is perhaps his childhood and journey to success. Hailing from Sungai Rotan, a tiny village in Perak, Cold Eye does not shy away from telling stories of poverty when he was a kid. 

For instance, how his mom would collect buckets of human faeces from public toilets each morning to use them as fertiliser on the farm. Or that he once volunteered to participate in a funeral procession by lifting a wooden signboard with the name of a deity on it — The Lady of Golden Flower — in exchange for one ringgit. He was mocked by the adults in the town for a long time after that.

At over 80 years old, he has never forgotten the look in his mom’s eyes when he returned home one day with the ladies’ fingers he had failed to sell by the street. 

Cold Eye candidly shares how his fear of poverty in those days drove him to achieve great things in life, including becoming a successful investor. Unfortunately, this book is only available in Chinese at the time of writing.

Another book, Malaysia’s Pioneering Stockbroker, is a warm and lovely read. Noor Zakiah’s grandfather was the last Malay ruler of Patani (today a southern province of Thailand) and is connected to the Kelantan royal family. Her journey in life is very different from that of Cold Eye.

The book started with the “red flood”, known as the worst flood that befell Kelantan in 1926. With a tinge of humour, Noor Zakiah recounts how she was nearly left alone in the house by her parents during the flood when they were rushing off in a speedboat with her siblings. Her father rushed back to the house with a parang and cut her off from the sarung that hung from a beam. 

Flipping from page to page, I was attracted by the character of her father, Tengku Ismail, who was a capable estate manager and entrepreneur. I was moved by the interactions between him and other people, which showed that a harmonious multi-racial society had indeed existed a century ago. But mostly, I was surprised by how Noor Zakiah spent the first half of her life — not in the financial industry, but as an owner of a dress shop. Coronet was its name and it sold the skirts, dresses and cheongsams she designed in the 1940s. 

When Coronet closed in 1957 in Kelantan, Silver & Silk — a shop that sold handicraft items — was established in the Merlin Hotel in Kuala Lumpur. Today, it is known as the Concorde Hotel, located along Jalan Sultan Ismail. It was from here that Noor Zakiah built her connections with foreign businessmen, sold Rosenthal dinnerware to Bank Negara Malaysia, met her second husband and made her way into the stockbroking business in the 1960s.

It was only when I was halfway through the book that I found out the reason she did not spend her earlier life in the financial industry. She is over 90 years old today, which means that the industry had yet to take shape in those days.

The book, peppered with heartfelt stories from beginning to end, was a pleasurable read. But frankly, I was a little surprised by how thin the book is — only 128 pages — and the lack of narrative on the financial industry. It does not give details on how Kenanga has grown to where it is today and the challenges that it has faced and overcome. 

The difference between Cold Eye and Noor Zakiah is glaring. One was born into a poor family while the other was of a royal bloodline. One a Chinese and the other a Malay. But they are also similar in many ways. Both are Malaysians who seized the opportunities presented to them by the nascent financial industry in the early days and became successful in their own way. 

Their books are about money and wealth. But mostly, the stories are about the journey of life and the people they hold dear. Investors can sometimes be so fixated on returns and performance. They should not forget about their journeys, the passing of time and the people they love.