The Soy Sauce Towkay: The Story of Yeo Thian In, Founder of Yeo Hiap Seng Sauce Factory in Singapore. By Alfred Yeo Chee Heng. Singapore: Jmatrix Consulting Pte Ltd, 2010, 172pp.
Reviewed by Dr Ng Peh Cheng
Yeo Thian In began as an owner of a soy sauce factory but prospered to become the Towkay [boss] of a Singapore public listed company, Yeo Hiap Seng (YHS) famed for its worldwide distribution of soy sauce, canned foods and beverages.
From a marketplace worldview that emphasizes material profits, a budding entrepreneur or a struggling businessperson may ask, “What is the secret formula to copy behind his success?” On the other hand, a reader whose marketplace perspective is armed with a Christian worldview may desire to know, “To what extent Thian In’s faith in the Christian God makes a difference that has contributed to his success in business?”
The book is an aspiring account of the Towkay’s life and journey of living out the Christian faith through his business in the marketplace, that is, an intentional journey that spells out what it takes to make Business that is Christian. The author, Alfred Yeo, is the youngest son of the Towkay.
Yeo Kian Lian, father of Thian In, started YHS in China in 1901. A God-fearing man, he rooted the family business on strong Christian foundation where he drew Biblical principles that governed his business ethics. To Thian In, he was an exemplary ethical businessman,
My father conducted his business with integrity and served others with the spirit of Christ. He refused to profit at the customer’s expense. While there is the Profit motive, resorting to unscrupulous means to achieve it will ultimately end in failure (p. 10).
He was also an exemplary faithful church member who balanced his spirituality, family and work.
He was active in church, serving as the deacon in charge of the finance and accounts of the church. His loyalty and honesty earned him the trust and respect of church members (p.9 & chapter 2).
The elder Yeo penned his “testimony and exhorted his descendants to adhere to the Christian faith” in Chinese calligraphy and “every family in the extended Yeo family has a copy of it” (p. 73). What a legacy of eternal value he has left behind for Thian In’s generation and generations to come! Hence, growing up in a home environment characterized by sound Christian education, Thian In inherited the dispositions and habits of doing God’s business that propelled YHS in China and later in Singapore (1938).
YHS Singapore flourished under the Towkay’s leadership. His willingness to take risks to innovate won many “firsts” for the company (chapters 7-11). For example, they were the first to can “chicken curry, which was a hit with consumers” (p. 41) and “first in Asia to introduce soft drink cans with pull tabs (p. 46). His success was not through a One-Man-Operation (OMO) mode but participatory management style and communal spirit as evidenced in chapter fourteen. It describes how the “gritty band of Yeo brothers” contributed to the success of the company. Thian In recognized how the talents and gifts in each of his brothers could complement each other for the family business. It was a superb team leadership style because “when one individual does not have all the qualities, it is good to have a team which fills the gaps” (comment by Toh See Kiat, p. 150).
Success in doing God’s business did not depend solely on aptitudes. Attitudes and moral values to resist temptations and pitfalls in the marketplace are also essential ingredients. The close-knit Yeo brothers walked closely with the Lord and they walked their Christian faith: “Among them, no one was involved in polygamy, an ill that plagued many successful tycoons. Family members who took part in questionable activities like getting drunk or gambling were rebuked” (p. 96). And not forgetting that behind Thian In’s success was his wife, Tin Khim, highly regarded as the “Yeos’ Spiritual Pillar and Prayer Warrior (chapter 18).
Did Thian In share the Gospel with his employees? If so, how did he do it? He invited employees to church and respected their decisions to decIine (chapter 17). He witnessed “openly” through his character and manner of conducting his business, for example, “He started business management meeting with prayer, singing of hymns and sharing from the Bible” (pp. 106, 107). He heeded his father’s “Four Instructions” (pp. 14 & 15) on business and human resource management, such as “mixing with the employees, working and eating alongside them.” He even rewarded their “good performance with extra money from his own pocket” (pp. 105). Because he honoured his workers, they honoured him with great respect and endeared him as a boss with no airs about him (pp.106, 158).
At this juncture, some readers might argue that he should have been more vocal in witnessing to his employees.
Diligence described Thian In’s work attitude. He worked seven days a week but took time off on Sunday mornings to attend church. His oldest son commented, “I admire Father for his commitment to the business but I fault him for doing little by way of active service in the church” (pp. 98 & 106). Should there be a divide between serving God in the church and serving Him in the marketplace? The youngest son, the author, does not think so (p. 158).
YHS sailed through many tumultuous storms in its formation years to become a successful company. To the Towkay, the secret spiritual formula was, “We are what we are today because of the sustaining grace of God through every hardship and disaster over the years” (p. 107). Like his father, his desire was to pass this legacy to his descendents. Prior to his death, he penned a 28-page testimony recounting his life, beliefs and business testifying the Lord’s grace upon the Yeo family. He urged his “successive generations to remember God. My descendents should continue to walk in the ways of the Lord” (p. 113). Indeed, a strong echo of Joshua 1:8 and 24:14-15 for the readers’ meditation and reflection.
Today, the Yeo family no longer owns YHS. The reason according to Rev Alfred Yeo, the author and youngest son of Thian In, “because we forgot the call to unity and cooperation by our forebears” but, “God has done a healing work within the Yeo family. . . . Many of us are actively involved in Christian ministries or social work (pp. 157-8). It is heartening to know that Thian In’s legacy still lives on.
In keeping with his spiritual fervour for the Lord and work, Thian In actively involved pastors in his business affairs. On the occasion of the official opening of the factory in Bukit Timah, a Pastor was invited to give the message. His openness to declare his Christian beliefs is a challenge to believers engaging in businesses in the marketplace!
Is this practical in a multi-religious society like Singapore?
A Pastor was invited to witness and sign an agreement on the division of assets between the Yeo Brothers when the business expanded (chapter 6). Why? He wanted a “Christian emphasis to the agreement” to exhort “each family member to work in unity and cooperation with each other and to adhere to the Christian faith” (p. 34). To him, a legal witness alone would be incomplete.
Ponder on these 2 questions.
*Are our pastors actively involved in the marketplace-related affairs of their church members? If not, why?
*To what extent, can believers dialogue with their pastors about their marketplace-related issues and challenges?
The book is about Yeo Thian In and his Christian passion to make his soy sauce business Christian. In what ways, his entrepreneurial principles and practices are time-bound? And in what ways they remain relevant for today? A pastor-entrepreneur, a lawyer and 2 entrepreneurs shared their views and insights (chapter 23).
The book is a must read for any believer who shares the Towkay’s passion to choose a lifestyle of “Seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” and “being salt and light” in the marketplace. It is also a rich resource text for study and reflection on balancing wealth and Christian spiritual health.
|Pastors & lay people who are interested in the issues raised in the review, check our forthcoming conference, *”Towards a Shared Marketplace Theology”, 1-3 July @ Furama RiverFront Hotel.” Click http://bgst.edu.sg/conference-2010/ for more information.