Leadership has its ups and downs, and some of the dips can be extremely painful. Successful leaders need to be tenacious, and Raja Singham is a man with tenacity by the bucket load.
Raja is the founder and managing director of Brickfields Asia College (BAC), which began in 1991 and was fuelled by the passion for teaching espoused by both Raja and his wife, Meera Mahendran.
BAC is a leading law school, with around 5,000 students studying from a range of 200 degree programmes in partnership with over 25 universities from the United Kingdom. Thanks to the forward-thinking leadership of Raja, BAC delivers a holistic education designed to encourage students to think beyond their specific field – something he believes is key to ensuring a successful future.
The early years
After completing his studies in Law, Raja was drawn back to teaching and, as a 24-year-old, set up the college with his own savings of RM60,000 and 12 students. Thanks to the word-of-mouth of those students, the college saw 200 students registering for the opening classes.
Speaking to Leaderonomics chief executive officer and AmBank CEO BizChat host, Roshan Thiran, Raja explained that he wanted to set up a college that provided high-quality, affordable education with qualified teachers at the helm.
Watch this exclusive interview between Roshan Thiran and Raja:
He said, “In the 1980s, we were like a cowboy town. The guys who were teaching had no proper paper qualifications; it was all sorts of fellows just running around… it was bad. You don’t start a business just because you want to make a lot of money – you go into business because you’re passionate about it.
“For me, education is something that’s in my heart. So when you go and do something because you like what you do, that passion can be felt. It gets harder as you grow bigger, but people can still feel your energy.”
Challenge vs opportunity
As BAC was performing well, Raja had plans to expand the number of student intake, but was told by authorities that he first needed additional space before a licence could be approved. Despite following the advice and investing RM3.5 mil in a second building, he was frustrated by the news that a licence wouldn’t automatically be granted upon the purchase and renovation of the building.
As a result, in 1995, he sold 70% of BAC to a listed company for RM10 mil and, after watching the dot.com boom, decided to go into the information technology (IT) industry, setting up the hugely successful Corporate Network, which was the biggest business information database in Asia.
Working alongside major names such as Bloomberg, Reuters and Dow Jones, Corporate Network was involved in building business information databases and providing services such as IT solutions, multimedia and design, website development and training.
Facing the storms
In 1997, the company was devastated by the Asian Financial Crisis, losing a staggering RM25 mil in just a matter of days. The knock-on effects also dealt some heavy blows as contracts were lost and customers cancelled or were unable to pay for jobs.
In the aftermath of the financial crisis, Raja returned to BAC to help run it, only to discover that the Education Ministry were looking to close it down along with 20 other colleges and universities for supposed breaches of legislation.
However, the belligerent businessman wasn’t about to give up without a fight. Raja said, “When they came to us I said, ‘If you close this down, I’ll sue you.’ I actually showed them the law, which they had not read and, after they’d realised their mistake, they actually called us in and gave us a fresh new licence.”
Be unpredictable and disruptive
In leadership, Raja believes that organisations have to stay relevant in order to keep their competitive edge. During the AmBank CEO BizChat session, he relayed the importance of branding to a captivated audience, reminding them that if a company’s branding doesn’t inspire “top-of-mind-presence”, then the company exists only as a commodity.
He also believes that organisations should never look to their own industry or competitors for ideas on how to grow, advising that the best way to be disruptive is to look for lessons that can be applied to the organisation from leading companies in other fields.
Take risks and diversify
Raja also spoke passionately about the need to diversify within business and not simply fixate on one area – an approach that’s bound to backfire, as seen in the examples of Kodak, Nokia and Blockbuster. Above all, leaders should not be afraid to fail, but be willing to take risks. In that way, the competition will find it difficult to anticipate or disrupt your future successes.
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“The thing in life is this: you shouldn’t be afraid to fail, and that is one of the things we don’t teach our students. You can’t tell people not to fail, but the question is how to get the lessons from failure.”
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“I had set up in the 1990s an IT company, web design company, multimedia company, and stores. We were learning things. Fast forward to now, we have our own media company. We do all our own advertising: what you see on television, what you see in the cinemas, on the billboards – it’s our own company.
“We have our own property company and our own publications company. No other school has an ecosystem of this sort. Everyone else is in education. But there were lessons we learnt from back then which makes us very unpredictable, because most of the time, we also don’t know what we’re going to do!”