Sunday February 18, 2007
From cyber world to arena of politics
By JOCELINE TAN
Self-made millionaire Tony Pua is cute, likeable and was only 28 when he hit the headlines as a trailblazer and success story in the new economy. Now, seven years later, he is putting it all aside for politics – more specifically, opposition politics.
TONY Pua literally sprinted out of the lift with his notebook computer and a newspaper tucked under his arm. The self-made Internet millionaire looked incredibly boyish for a 35-year-old and has all the exuberance reminiscent of those advertisements for energy drinks.
“Not so young anymore, actually,” he said, dipping his head to show the shock of greying hair around his crown.
The road to success has apparently not been without sleepless nights and tonnes of worrying.
Pua is a well-known name in the e-commerce business where he has earned a dizzying string of inscriptions – dotcom success story, pioneer in e-business consulting and, perhaps the most satisfying of all, youngest founder-CEO to have listed a company in the Singapore Stock Exchange.
But it is the reason for his divestment that has drawn the limelight onto Pua again.
The Netpreneur is leaving the business world for the arena of politics – opposition politics to be exact, and with the DAP.
“I'm going in with my eyes wide open,” he said.
The decision surprised some of his friends and even a number of business partners and associates. There is no shortage of businessmen in politics but the reality is that very few truly successful ones go into opposition politics.
It does make him rather an exception.
So what did it take to persuade this Oxford graduate and Internet whiz kid to put it all aside for the hurly burly of opposition politics?
Pua has actually been inspired by the national leadership transition in 2003.
“There was a real hope for change in the air and I saw a determined group whom I believed wanted to make things better,” he said.
Like many people then, he was swept along by the euphoria of the 2004 general election and felt more hopeful for the future than he had ever been in his life. He even began to entertain the idea of being part of the change from within.
But, as they say, that is the trouble when expectations are way too high.
Pua said that disappointment crept in with the post-election Cabinet formation. But, he said, it was the Cabinet reshuffle of February 2006 with its overwhelming number of faces from the previous administration that truly dampened his hopes.
“I felt it would not be worth my while to change things from within. I hope there'll be people who are pro-establishment and who will continue to work from within but it's not going to be me.
“When things are not right, it's important to add a voice to sum up the issues and for constructive discussion so that people will know what's happening and push for remedy.
“I'm very realistic, I'm not talking about changing the system; if one can prevent the system from getting worse, that itself would be an achievement,” he said.
Pua had humble beginnings, which makes his success story even more poignant. The eldest of four siblings, he grew up on the outskirts of Batu Pahat where his father, a body-builder who happens to be a former Mr Asia and a two-time Mr Malaysia, ran a small poultry farm.
His father would drive him to school and Pua sometimes helped deliver eggs to the shops in town.
Pua left home when he was 13 to do his secondary schooling in Singapore on an Asean scholarship from the Singapore government. From there, it was on to Oxford where he read PPE (philosophy, politics and economics) at Keble College, Oxford University, on a Malaysian Tobacco Corporation scholarship.
He did well in his studies but he was too involved in extracurricular activities to be a straight A's student. He played a variety of games, enjoyed art and joined a string of societies from history and geography to the choir.
Even now, he is the sort of guy who reads fiction (Harry Potter books, Stephen King, Jeffrey Archer, Wilbur Smith), plays computer games to relax and has bought Victoria Secrets lingerie online for his wife.
Friends from his Oxford days remember his “rather socialist” views.
“He had strong political views. He was critical of the NEP and we were at opposite ends of the political spectrum,” said Omar Mustapha, a contemporary of Pua's at Oxford.
But Pua's sentiments were not unusual for many Chinese of his generation; the product of the sweat and tears of families who had to fall back on a combination of ingenuity and life savings to educate their children.
His own education experience has spawned an interest in education issues, hence the rather serious and intellectual blog (educationmalaysia) he has with his friend Ong Kian Ming.
Pua likes to say that his lawyer wife, who has a small practice specialising in intellectual property law, knew from day one that he would be going down the political road eventually.
Getting him has been a real coup for the DAP and a great deal of the courtship, it seemed, was done by DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng.
Pua made his first speaking appearance at a DAP forum about three months ago.
“I told Guan Eng, this (is the) kind of guy we should quickly recruit and groom,” said Selangor DAP politician Ronnie Liu. “Of course, Guan Eng was way ahead of me.”
Pua is clearly on the DAP line-up for the general election. Party people are also impressed that he has been willing to let go of a successful enterprise in the name of politics.
“When I heard he had sold his company, I thought it was a big sacrifice given that it will not be easy to go back to business after opposition politics. That's what I call biting the bullet,” said Liu.
Still, it is hard to see someone like Pua take to life as an opposition politician. Demonstrating at toll booths? Being handcuffed and taken to the lock-up?
“If one has to be taken to the lock-up, it should be for a worthwhile cause. You won't find me standing in front of an FRU truck, asking to be arrested. But if the cause is that of speaking the truth and if the authorities have to use harsh measures, I will have to face the consequences,” Pua said.
Even as early as 1999, when he had just started making the news as a boy wonder in the then new economy, his CV had listed his aspiration as: To contribute back to society.
Politics, he said, is one way of doing just that.