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Interview with Khoo Kheng-Hor


When you're someone who has written over 20 books on business management, such as the best-selling "Sun Tzu & Management," you tend to worry about running out of material. But not when you are Khoo Kheng-Hor. For example, in true Art of War form, his last book was a novel because he wanted to challenge himself.

A self-described hermit, his signature phrase "to suntzunize" may very well become everyday business terminology. We will certainly try to sprinkle the word throughout!

After some 20 years campaigning on the corporate battlefield, Khoo Kheng-Hor finally hung up his sword in 1999 at the age of 43, to live a serene life in the mountains. But because he is a sought-after speaker for seminars and conferences, he still travels five to 10 days each month to speak on Sun Tzu's strategies for numerous corporations and agencies. Mr. Khoo's client list reads like the Asian yellow pages. members have frequently requested for more information about Khoo Kheng-Hor. Fortunately, our figurative climb up the mountain to see the sage was fruitful; he was kind enough to spend some time and shared his knowledge with us. It is therefore a privilege and an honor to include him among the top authors and scholars of Sun Tzu we have interviewed. Read, learn, and enjoy.

To learn more about Khoo Kheng-Hor, go to Do you remember the first time you heard about Sun Tzu? What was it about his book that made you want to learn more?

Khoo: It was in 1980 after I started work as a personnel officer. As I had problems with bosses, colleagues, employees, unionists, labor officers, etc., I would now and then grouse about them to my Taiwan-born wife. One day, she handed me some notes which I later found out was her translation of Sun Tzu's Art of War from Chinese to English (I am English-educated).

Reading through the notes, a phrase -- "A wise general considers both the advantages and disadvantages opened to him. When considering the advantages, he makes his plan feasible; when considering the disadvantages, he finds ways to extricate himself from the difficulties..." -- caught my eye. It dawned on me that I was wasting my time in futile complaining when I ought to constructively seek out the advantages of any seemingly bad situation to turn it to my gain instead. I read on and found many more solutions, and as the saying goes, the rest is history. You have been a journalist, police officer, and business executive. How has Sun Tzu's Art of War helped you in your professional career?

Khoo: I began as a journalist but ended up a business executive, with exposures in HR, sales and marketing, general management, working with local corporations and MNCs of various industries in both Malaysia and Singapore. In 1997, I was appointed an honorary Assistant Superintendent of Police due to my being a consultant-trainer to the Singapore Police Force. Throughout my professional career, Sun Tzu's Art of War has been an indispensable guide.

Take for example, this underlying principle I go by: "The good commander seeks virtues and goes about disciplining himself according to the laws so as to affect control over his success." The virtues are wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage and discipline which are in essence, Sun Tzu's formula for success. Discipline is the ultimate since without this virtue, the rest are mere words. I try as hard as possible to discipline myself to lead by example at all times through these five virtues, and such has stood me well throughout my professional career. You now consult, lecture, and write books on Sun Tzu and the application of his strategies to personal development and business management. Please share with our readers one or two extraordinary stories you heard or experienced where The Art of War contributed to a person or company's success.

Khoo: Since September 2004, I ran three seminars for senior officers of the Royal Malaysian Police Force. Recently, after a new-born baby was abducted from the Sungei Petani Hospital, police speedily found the infant who was reunited with his parents whose sorrows turn quickly back to joy. As Assistant Commissioner Law Hong Soon who is the commander for the district subsequently told me, "I remember your call to put ourselves in the other person's shoes when you were explaining Sun Tzu's virtue of benevolence, and I was thus able to feel the anguish of the parents whose baby was abducted. After talking to my guys, everyone was in empathy with the parents and so we left no stone unturned in our investigation. It was most rewarding for us to see the parents holding their child after the DNA tests confirmed the baby was theirs."

Like ACP Law and his officers, I have also found it most rewarding when I found my words touching both individuals and corporations to enable them to become more successful. For example, Phoenix-Contact (SEA) Pte Ltd's Managing Director Seet Cher Hung who got me to "suntzunize" his management team two years in a row, has this to say: "Your Sun Tzu's seminars have influenced my people so much that we not only quote Sun Tzu's words to one another during meetings but have also applied the strategies to get us profitably through recent tough years." He shared with me the company's reward schemes and HR practices which help to attract and keep good employees who, in turn, would go the extra mile for customers and so, attract and keep great customers. What do you think is one of Sun Tzu's most misunderstood concepts? In other words, what concept do you usually have to spend the most time on to explain to your clients?

Khoo: Many people have judged Sun Tzu's book by its cover and so grossly misunderstood the Art of War to be a treatise about "fighting, fighting and more fighting". It is only after one has seriously read the book that one shall realize the essence of the book is found in these words: "Fighting to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the supreme skill. The supreme skill is to win without fighting."

For more on this "win without fighting" strategy, readers can watch out for my next book, Win Without Fighting, which should be released within this year. What is one piece of advice you would give to someone starting out in management, and one piece of advice to someone like a CEO who has reached the pinnacle of his or her career?

Khoo: For the guy starting out in management, I would say: "There is no shortcut to success. Seek out the tough bosses or customers because it is through serving such demanding persons that you will know there will be no one whom you will thereafter be unable to handle. Likewise, volunteer to take on the tough project because if you do well, you will impress; should you fail, you will learn from your mistakes. It is experiences gained under such circumstances that will stand the person well as they enable him or her to climb the corporate ladder."

In the case of the seasoned CEO, as I have cautioned in my book, Sun Tzu: The Keeper of CEO's Conscience: "Don't become prey to 'arrogance' which is the root of all CEO's problems. It is easy at that lofty level to feel somewhat smug to start thinking one is the greatest since he or she is after all, the CEO, and so no longer incline to listen to others, especially those perceived to be at lower rungs than where the CEO is perched. Or worse, the CEO begins to seek out sycophants who would flatter his or her ego or pander to every one of the CEO's whims." One book you wrote we thought was quite fascinating was "Singapore : Sun Tzu in Perspective." As you mentioned, Singapore started in 1965 with hardly any natural resources, except for its people. Today, it is among the most developed nations in the world. What concepts from Sun Tzu did Singapore employ to succeed in such a dramatic fashion? Might this be a lesson for other developing nations like Vietnam or various countries in Africa?

Khoo: Though many countries could benefit from most of Sun Tzu words, the most salient I could think of in this case would be: "By Moral Law, I mean that which causes the people to be in total accord with their ruler so that they will follow him in life and unto death without fear for their lives and undaunted by any peril." Singapore 's leaders apply this through giving their people the national pledge: "We, the citizens of Singapore pledge ourselves as one united people regardless of race, language or religion to build a democratic society based on justice and equality so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation." After that, they faithfully match their words with action. That requires lots of discipline to prove they truly meant what they said. As a result of exemplary leadership, the people have since become one with their leaders. You recently finished "Taikor," your first fictional work. Please tell us more about it.

Khoo: After 24 business and management books, I decided to write Taikor purely to amuse myself and to prove I too am capable of telling stories. It is a historical saga spanning six decades from pre-war British-ruled Malaya and the Japanese invasion, to the country's Independence and birth as Malaysia , and the Emergency to counter Communist's attempt to destabilize the new government.

It tells the story via the life of Ya Loong who, after his father's death, migrated with his family from South Thailand to Penang, his childhood living with his widowed mother who later remarries, and his banishment as a youngster by his stepfather to war-torn Shanghai . After his return, he survives the Japanese Occupation to emerge as a taikor - a respectful term meaning big brother which is also used for a gang leader - in Penang 's chaotic underworld. Years later, he decides to break clean from his involvement in triad activities to rebuild a new life for himself and his family.

From the encouraging reviews, I am now working on a sequel, to be called Snakes and Ladders.

[End of interview]

You may want to purchase two of Mr. Khoo's recommended books below.

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