Mr and Mrs Teo Kim Leng

With a smile, philanthropist and shipping business leader Mr Teo Kim Leng shared the secret that took him from running a one-person barbershop to founding a multimillion-dollar company.

“We need to serve others,” Mr Teo shared, imparting the same words of wisdom to his children who are now running his successful shipbuilding business. “Let’s give others a little extra, even if it means we earn a little less.”

Congruent with his spirit of service is his heart for giving. This year, in celebration of his 90th birthday, the veteran established the Mr and Mrs Teo Kim Leng Bursary at the National University of Singapore.

 “I didn’t have the opportunity to enjoy an education in my younger days. So, I want to give these students the chance to learn,” said Mr Teo.

The philanthropist has a soft spot for financially disadvantaged students due to his humble beginnings.

At the tender age of 16, he bore the burden as the sole breadwinner of his family of three when his father passed on.

Driven to take his family out of poverty, he worked hard at the trade his father left behind – a small hairdressing business.

But providing for his family alone was not enough. He wanted to do more for his community.

Mr Teo Kim Leng

He contested and was elected as an assemblyman in Singapore’s first Legislative Assembly in post-war Singapore.  He put half of his earnings back into the community.  Together with other pioneering leaders, he set the foundation of our nation and served the Pasir Panjang community as their representative Member of Parliament for five years.

But a simple invitation from a fellow assemblyman to start a joint venture was his break into the shipbuilding business.

With the grit and wit of an entrepreneur, Mr Teo journeyed the rocky road running a start-up in the early 1970s, suffering much loss and only earning some profits. “At that time, I didn’t know how to build a ship. I knew nothing about wiring, casting or how to read a blueprint,” he said.

But this entrepreneur-turned-business leader grew his business into a successful multimillion-dollar company through a potent mix of opportunity, a strong network, a spirit of service and a ton of tenacity.

Even while building his business, Mr Teo remains a leader that has everyone else’s interest at heart. Every year, Mr Teo dedicates a portion of his earnings to supporting those in need in the community.

Looking back at his experience, he hopes that with the boost of financial aid, the recipients of his newly established bursary can follow in his footsteps to forge their path to success and make their own meaningful contributions to society in the future.

“Study hard. I don’t need any repayment. Instead, pay it forward to the community and nation,” he said, urging the bursary recipients to contribute to nation-building and to serve and care for the people, just as he did.

“Education is important in nurturing talents for the country. The students of today are the future pillars of our nation,” he concluded, holding high hopes for the bursary recipients. “For all you know, they might be the next president or prime minister.”