When I heard the news, my first instinct was to text you. This is a bad joke to start the year with, and a quick reply from you would have got that out of the way. We had half a dozen unfinished conversations. I did promise to give you more notice before my next trip to Kuala Lumpur, so that we can do a more relaxed dinner. So, I did text you, and it was true. You were no more.
I have always never feared death. We all die. We should all be sorry for the futility of life instead, if all we do is prepare for death. It was a value I shared with you. Your own parents died just more than a year ago, and it left you emotionally drained. But this time, what death did was cruel, it was wrong, it was a mistake. It needed to be corrected.
I hardly saw you, maybe once or twice a year. But the familiarity, the kindness you gave me was something I could count on. In fact, I erred into taking it for granted. A text message or a short email, even if it was our staff talking to each other, we both always knew where the other was coming from. In a business that was increasingly global, I could be in Singapore one day, and then Beijing or Dubai or Lagos or San Francisco the next, it was the firm friendship with a handful of people we are familiar with that gave me a sense of knowing where we are and who we are.
Our 1970s, English-speaking, middle-class, Malaysian, Christian heritage was our tribal identity in a transient world. It was a very portable identity, something we could readily share with so many others, because it was never ethnic and always universal. It had at its core, decency and trust and a belief in the best about others. It was also the identity with which we recognised each other, whether we were in a coffee shop at the Grand Hyatt in Hong Kong or at the IMF Conference in Washington DC. So it was, that even as many things would change in the Malaysian banking industry, you were my steadfast reference point. Even if you were retired, as you kept threatening to do, you were still the friend I would go to understand everything else, understand everybody else.
Being the executive director of the Association of Banks, Malaysia was probably the hardest job in the industry. They did not give you the status of the governor of the central bank, but all the edicts of the central banks found their way to your table first before your member banks even discussed how to handle them. Then when they did, it was back to you to sort out the work. It was never easy managing between eight CEOs of the main banks, and then the other banks as well. All of them had to regionalise in order to stay alive. There was never a moment when all the CEOs of your member banks were in the country on the same day.
I can only imagine that the IFRS9 working papers and the KYC status reports are still on your table, unaware that you are not coming back. Between mortality and work, all the work in the world looks like a sick joke. All the work in the banking industry is a sick joke. A parody on life. Somewhere in the ether space, the regulators of this world decided that all the banks in the world will be able to flag every single transaction for fraud, money laundering and tax evasion. Really? And that every night, thousands of clueless bank employees will have to spend the best part of their adult life pretending that this fiction was worth supporting. That the more data the computer software people are able to churn out, the longer the nights and more the information that the industry will be able to track and that the more meaning all of this will generate.
The truth is that this is an industry that has lost its plot. If it exists to make an entrepreuer successful, or build a home for a newly wed, or finance an education, or remit money that reaches the correct person safely, then maybe living and dying in the banking industry is worth it. Then there will be grateful people who will thank us for the lives we have created. The people at your funeral on Tuesday are mostly going to be men and women still struggling in the monstrosity that we have created. I am sure many owe you a sense of gratitude, but it will not be because of the banking industry, but despite it.
Many of us in the banking industry have only ourselves to blame for what it has become and for remaining in it. Banking attracts the clueless general degree holder, whose only claim to skill is often based on staying on the job long enough. Sure, the universities today teach banking, but not the part that makes it relevant to society, just the cocky attitude, and an addiction to gambling other people’s money in a game they call risk management.
Then the industry grows on us. We sit on tons of payment float that then becomes a source of income that we cannot let go, even when new business models become obvious. We won’t learn something new, nor give up the old. We are not there to serve the customer, we are there to serve ourselves. So it is that when it comes time to change, it we who plead with the regulator to hide behind licences and even more regulation, creating even more useless work for ourselves that nobody is thankful for. Only if death makes us come to terms with the fact that we have done nothing to make others cry for us. It doesn’t. In fact, the foolish agenda is globalised, and we are supposed to support a so-called “global” trend that makes us believe we are creating what?
Meilin, against this background, you were not one of us. Your genius was that you were able to pick and choose what made sense. Who you wanted to be kind to. There are not many people like you in the banking industry. Talented. Kind, Benevolent. Giving. Sharp. Very sharp. That is why your leaving like this is a matter of great sorrow. You did not take from the banking industry. You gave to it. You gave to it your exuberant personality. Your love for life. Your love for people. Your trust. Your amazing organisational skill. Your understanding of everything technical without becoming caught in it. Your understanding of the plot. Everything that is alien to this damn bloody industry.
The thing that BNM Governor Muhammad, and Zeti before him, and Farid and Nazir and Azlan Zainol and every CEO in Malaysia’s financial services industry should bemoan most of all is that they lost a leader’s dream team. If any one of them had a dream of creating a winning institution that could lift off its current malaise and become a trusted builder of society, you were that dreamer’s best friend. They should have reserved you for their best initiatives and given the mundane to others. But they could not tell one for the other, it was difficult, there was so much happening. Every change in job that you made in your career was to give your energies to a leader who you could believe in, who could create a meaningful future. You would listen to all ideas, and then process them inside your happy little head, and then decide for yourself if you were going to support that person. Not the idea, the person. The only giveaway was that wicked little smile, but when you did the job was as good as done.
I would just ask them to make sure that when the history of the Asian banking industry in this period is written, your name will not be just as a footnote as the executive director who “supported” the banks. You did not “support” them. You dragged them by the nose ring. You forced them to keep to deadlines. You smiled, you laughed, you teased, you flirted, you gave concessions until you got things done. Not just in Malaysia, but across the region. Whatever regionalisation was achieved in Asia, it benefited from the charm you trickled on it. This industry did not deserve you.
What can we give back in memory of you? Yes, I promise not to take anybody else for granted the way I did your irresistible personality, thinking that the exuberance and life you exuded guaranteed that you were going to be around longer than all the rest of us put together. I am sorry I was not as much a friend to you as you were to me, putting everything aside and making time for me every time I visited. Making what must have been huge detours to accommodate me, but doing it so effortlessly, it strikes me only now. Suddenly, these are the things about you that plays huge inside my head. That you did these things for me, as I am sure you have for so many others who mourn your loss now. I always knew I owed you a debt of friendship, but I always thought I could pay it back at any time.
Meilin, I’d rather be sitting having coffee with you this morning instead of writing this terrible obituary. In fact, I am afraid to stop writing because that’s when I will realise that you are not here anymore to read this rant. You are more alive to me today than you ever were. That’s what makes it so difficult.
There’s the future of an entire industry to think about. Then there are the specific institutions, and then the thousands of people who work in them. Nothing matters as much as the one person who puts a smile on our face and tears in our eyes, as you now do for so many of us. Thousands of us. No, not goodbye.
Chuah Meilin, executive director, Association of Banks Malaysia, 10Sept1961 – 6Jan2017