Getting Back Up From Billion-Dollar Failures – Interview with Tan Sri Chan Ah Chye

We sat down with three prominent Asian leaders who shared personal and organizational challenges. Read this inspiring story of how one of them, a top property developer, found God in the midst of a financial crisis which changed his approach to work and life.

Dr John Ng, Moderator: 
Leadership has its struggles. Every leader faces failures and struggles in life. But yet in the midst of all the struggles and challenges, they found their anchors, values, and the character and habits that are centered on God.

I’d like to ask Tan Sri Chan Ah Chye to share how God has touched his life. He’s a fairly recent convert but the Lord has already transformed him so much.

Tan Sri Chan Ah Chye: 
Well, I came to the Lord about five years ago (2011). Before that, I was a very staunch Buddhist. In fact, I was chairman of various temple committees. I built one of the biggest Buddhist temples in the country.

We used to be one of the biggest developers in town. Because of certain changes and government regulations, some of our projects stopped and we encountered cash flow problems. By the end of 2005, the whole company was facing dire financial challenges. We could not pay the bank or creditors. At that time, we owed 3.5 billion and the construction of 13,000 already sold houses were on the verge of being put on halt. We were at a crossroad; we did not know what to do. In fact, we appointed a financial advisor and he recommended that the only solution was to put the company under Section 176. In America, they call it Chapter 11 – protection from creditors. Not a bad idea before I knew the Lord. Not a bad idea to release all the burdens to others, just walk away, accepting that we had 13,000 already sold houses incomplete. If we were going to do that, those houses would only be done in 10-15 years time and the purchasers would only get their houses then. And most probably they would have to top up their purchase price. Just imagine if there are four people to a house, there would be 50,000 people hating you for the rest of your life. We definitely didn’t want to do that.

We just did not know what to do. It was at this darkest hour of our lives that we took a cruise to Western Europe. We were heavily burdened and there was no joy in the tour at all. That was before we came to St Petersburg. As part of the tour, we visited St Isaac Cathedral. Not a very big church. And when we went inside the church, as we looked at the cross, we found that the statue of Jesus from the cross seemed to be staring at us, really staring you know? And at that moment, we suddenly found a sense of peace in our hearts, the peace that transcended all understanding. We didn’t know how it came about, we just felt it. And suddenly we had the urge to stop thinking of our problems. We felt as though someone was telling us, “Child, not to worry, it’s alright, it’s ok, things will turn out to be fine.” So the whole day, we did nothing, we did not take part in other tours, we just sat in the church and stared at the cross. At that point of time, we found our Savior Jesus and began our walk with God.
So it was during this difficult time that we found the Lord. And the most difficult time of our lives was to decide whether we wanted to let the company go or to struggle on. If not for the fact that we found the Lord, we would have let the company go. Just walk away, easy isn’t it? After all, it’s a public company.

But we had this moral obligation. There were 13,000 houses to be completed. We began to apply biblical principles to every one of our situations. First, we went to the bank with humility that we didn’t previously have. We reflected and thought of how we ended up like that. We were proud and wanted to show everyone we were the biggest developer in town and we began to buy things we did not need, with money we did not have, just to impress people. That was why we ended up in trouble. We were greedy. In fact, we read in Luke 12:15, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” After that, we decided to sell a lot of our properties without considering our pride, our image. Within three to four years, we sold about 9 million dollars worth of assets. And we went to our bankers with humility. In the yesteryears we were proud. We owed people a lot of money but we did not even go and see them. We adopted the attitude that said, “We owed you so much money, if we die, you will also die!” And so we refused to see them. As a result, we became the bankers’ nightmare. Really! And they were very angry with us but we were firm with that attitude.

But after we came to the Lord, we went to them in humility and with that we came out with a win-win solution; with a financial restructuring and solved one billion worth of our problems with the bank. Then we followed Hebrew 12:14 – “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.” So we made peace with people.

We also owed the government 690 million dollars but they also owed us some obligations like approvals, so we adopted the attitude that said, “If you want to sue me, I’ll counter sue you!” Because of that, the government became angry with us and froze all our development plans, making our situation worse! But when we came to the Lord, we realized that only a fool is quick to anger. So we approached them again with a win-win solution. Told the government we did not have money to repay the debt, but we have a lot of assets. We could use our assets to pay our debts. But our lands were all charged to the bank, with no free title so it was difficult to use them as repayment. But because we made peace and became friends with them, we were able to find ways that helped us sell 689 million worth of assets to them.

This verse described our walk with the Lord: “Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut 8:2-3). We find that with this Scripture, the Lord is trying to test us, humble us, and teach us. Of course our walk with God will strengthen us. And we have been using the Word of God to apply to every situation in solving our financial and business problems ever since.

Dr Ng: 
Besides God, who were the people who were your support and help during your crisis?

Tan Sri Chan Ah Chye: 
We have a company prayer group to draw close to God. From Monday to Friday, from 8-9am, we have corporate prayers. Every Tuesday, we have Bible study and every Wednesday we have a 1.5 hour of worship during lunch time. Every Friday we have fellowship. We try to soak the company with the Word of God. We also have our fellowship group, with about 15-20 of our senior staff, that prays together. When we come across situations that seem to have no solution, we pray very hard and miracles happen. My other source of support is my pastor. When I have a problem that I don’t have an answer, I will go to my pastor and ask him what he thinks. Sometimes my question is too difficult for people to answer. So we pray. That’s how we could overcome a lot of our issues.

Dr Ng: 
You also told me your wife is the prayer warrior.

Tan Sri Chan Ah Chye: 
Yes, she wakes up at 5am everyday to spend quiet time with the Lord. Every time when I yearn for a discerning ear to hear from the Lord, I will just ask her if she has any word from God. So normally, you find that I hear the Word of God from my wife. And there is a lot of time that I do receive the Word of God from her.

Dr Ng: 
How do you feel the presence of God during a crisis?

Tan Sri Chan Ah Chye: 
We applied the Word of God to all the issues we are confronted with. But not every time it works. At times when we reach a stone wall, we rest in the Lord, we surrender everything to him. That’s where we see miracles in life. Every morning we do not pray to God to help us to solve this or that but we pray that we may come to him, surrender our situations to him, and ask that his will be done. And it takes awhile. But miracles happen. That’s how we find his presence. And going back to the Scripture, to find where the presence of God is in us, see Job 23:10…God is always with us! When he tests you, there is a beginning and there is an end. So whatever problem we are having, the presence of God is with us. And our problems will never be with us forever, we need to look beyond and if you can do that, you will know that the grace of God is enough to get us moving on and to sustain us.

Dr Ng: 
What is one advice you have for us?

Tan Sri Chan Ah Chye: 
Apply the Word of God. At times, even when we have applied everything from the Bible and nothing seems to work, we just have to live by faith. Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” And if you can live by faith in every circumstance, and if you live by what is unseen rather than those seen, and if you are prepared to surrender every situation to the Lord after applying everything in the Word that is applicable, I think you will be ready to let go of every situation you are in. Hebrews 12:1 says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”

If you want to walk with the Lord, sometimes you have to let go. Letting go is not always a bad thing. When God closes one door, he always opens another door for you. If you are able to live by faith, there is nothing to lose, nothing to prove, nothing to hide, and you will find yourselves in the strongest position in life. And you will find the grace of God there and miracles will happen.

The New International Version Bible has been referenced.

This interview was transcribed from a moderated leadership dialogue at the Eagles Leadership Conference 2011.