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Retired accountant is 90, but don't count him out

Cecil Wong is independent director at 4 companies and still hits the greens

By Rachel Scully on 03 Jun 2013

Singapore Press Holdings Ltd


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Mr Cecil Wong is not slowing down, even at 90.


He is an independent director of four companies, a testament to his number-crunching skills that he brings to the boards on which he sits.


Not surprisingly, he hails from an illustrious family of accountants. His father, the late Mr Evan Wong, set up one of Singapore's first accounting firms, Evan Wong & Company, in 1926.


The Wong family's contributions to the industry will be commemorated in a book and a website, as part of the Institute of Certified Public Accountants of Singapore's 50th anniversary next month.


After several mergers, Evan Wong & Company is now part of audit giant Ernst & Young.


"I didn't know what I wanted to do when I grew up," said Mr Wong, who retired from his profession decades ago. "But my father offered me the option of joining his firm if I took on accounting."


"As I saw how much he had helped others, I knew I wanted to do the same," said the devout Christian, with a hint of nostalgia.


Both his eldest son and grandson have followed in his footsteps, extending the family line of accountants to four generations.


But Mr Wong was quick to note: "I did not pressure them to join the industry and gave them a free hand to choose their passion, as my father had allowed me to."


His tertiary education plans were disrupted in the 1940s because of World War II. It was during this time, when he was at Raffles College and Cambridge University, that he became friends with Singapore's founding fathers – former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, and Cabinet ministers Goh Keng Swee and Lim Kim San.


In 1953, after six years in London studying economics and law at Cambridge and working at an audit firm, Mr Wong returned to Singapore to helm his father's accountancy business.


One of the firm's biggest clients then was the founding Lee family of OCBC Bank, under the late Lee Kong Chian.


During the interview in the living room of his home, where he lives with his eldest son's family, Mr Wong reminisced about how his directorship roles came about.


"In the 1950s and 60s, most people would retire at about 50 years old," he said. "When it was time for me to think about retirement in the late 1960s, the trade unions often got into fights with employers over compensation and benefits.


"Eventually, the consensus was for companies to have an audit committee with independent directors. So, there was a demand for retiring audit-firm partners like myself to fill those positions."


From there on, he sat on the boards of many firms including long-forgotten Singapore Glass (now known as Parkway Holdings), retailer C K Tang, luxury brand Sincere Watch and property developer Bukit Sembawang Estates over the next few decades.


Today, Mr Wong is an independent director for locally listed Pan United and Venture Corporation, as well as two other privately owned businesses.


When contacted, Venture described Mr Wong as "a very active member of the board" who has a sound understanding of the context within which the group's business operates and provides "valuable input and comments".


"The company has benefited from the expertise and contributions of Mr Cecil Wong and expects to continue to receive much-valued contributions from him."


Mr Wong said he believed in allocating sufficient time and attention to fulfil his directorship responsibilities.


"I have never sat on more than eight boards at a time, otherwise I won't be able to do justice to the shareholders," he said.


On his fiduciary duties, Mr Wong said an independent director is responsible to four key stakeholders: shareholders, staff, clients and suppliers. As such, an independent director should help resolve any disagreements across the different parties to ensure the successful operations of a company, he added.


He said: "We cannot just criticise or find fault with how things work." Board members have it tougher now with the introduction of more regulations and corporate governance guidelines in recent years, he added.


When asked why he has yet to step down from his directorships, Mr Wong laughed and said: "The companies still want me on their board, and I know myself and my health. If I can't contribute, then of course I will retire."


Mr Wong spends his days reading the Bible, admiring nature, as well as exercising with his family.


The father of four hits the golf course about three times a week with his sons and daughter-in- law, even after undergoing a hip operation in October last year.


Mr Wong – who played competitive cricket and football in his youth – also has seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. He intends to fly to Perth in August to celebrate his great-granddaughter's birthday.


The only solemn moment of the interview was when he spoke about his late wife, who lost her battle with cancer in the 1960s.


"At that time I really felt at a loss, but it was my faith that gave me the strength to look after my family, and reminded me that we must stick together no matter what happened," said Mr Wong, who turns 91 in September.


"At my age, every day I have is a bonus and a reminder not to take things for granted, since everything comes from God."


Still can contribute


The companies still want me on their board, and I know myself and my health. If I can't contribute, then of course I will retire.

– Mr Cecil Wong, when asked why he has yet to retire

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