Tan Tong Hai--PacMan on an endless marathon

Tan Tong Hai lies awake at night thinking about how to grow his business exponentially. The CEO and president of Pacific Internet recognizes that in the span of six years, the company has indeed built a strong consumer business and brand. Now, his task is to bring the Pacific Internet brand from the home to the office.
Written by Ariel Tam, Contributor
Tan Tong Hai

Tan Tong Hai lies awake at night thinking about how to grow his business exponentially. The CEO and president of pan-Asian Internet service provider (ISP), Pacific Internet, recognizes that in the span of six years, the company has indeed built a strong consumer business and brand. Now, his task is to bring the Pacific Internet brand from the home to the office.

Can you share with us the contributions you've made to the IT industry?
I've worked in the IT and telecommunications industry for more than 13 years--in an MNC (IBM), in an SME (IAS, a subsidiary of IBM), ISPs (StarHub Internet and Pacific Internet currently) and also startups (Asia Pacific Creation, Creation Street).

I helped IBM Singapore transform its image from being a mainframe box pusher to an Open Systems provider by setting up Open Systems Centers. I was then known as the "Open Systems Man." At IAS, I was known as the "Lotus Notes Man" to deliver Lotus Notes Systems Integration/Application Development Services to the SMEs.

At StarHub Internet, I helped to bring the Internet to the masses by introducing "free Internet" to Singapore. I was then known as the "Free Surf" man. At Creation Street, I helped designers, contractors and suppliers in the renovation industry to use the Internet to promote their businesses to win more contracts. I was then known as the "Reno man" or "Mr e-Phua Chu Kang" (named after a popular comedian contractor in a local TV series) …

Now at Pacific Internet, I hope I can be the "PacMan" that makes Internet fun for the consumers and work for the corporate customers.

What helps you to sustain your passion for your job?
Passion is beyond love…before you can develop the passion, you must believe in your company and know that everything thing you do is helping to craft the future and destiny of the company. The job as a CEO of a NASDAQ-listed company is a challenging one. If you don't deliver the results quarter by quarter, you are out. It is my belief in the company and my responsibilities to the shareholders, employees and family that keeps me going.

Which aspect(s) of the Asian culture do you think makes for a good or bad business edge in the global IT market?
"Guan-xi," or relationship. I'm a strong believer in partnering for growth. The good thing about "guan-xi" is that once it is established, it will allow us to forge partnerships quickly to grow the business. However, it is also the same relationships that makes it difficult for new entrants to enter the market … If you are the challenger to the established incumbent, you will think "guan-xi" is bad. If you are the incumbent with the "guan-xi," you will find it helpful as it acts as a "barrier to entry."

Is there anything you would have done differently if given the choice?
I would love to choose a profession that values me more the longer I'm in it. We all respect our senior teachers or lecturers in the colleges/polytechnics/universities. We also envy them as the industry that they are in is quite "recession-proof". On the contrary, the general trend in the IT industry is not to hire older staff. I thought it is sometimes unfair as we all studied very hard to enter engineering/computer science classes. When we are out working, we still have to continuously keep ourselves up to date so that the new technologies don't obsolete us. Technology is moving so fast that staying still is considered a regression. It is certainly not for the faint-hearted. I would consider teaching as one of my professional choice at the later part of my career.

What kind of mindset do you think is needed to survive in this digital age?
You need to have an open mindset and embrace change. The digital transformation will always spring us with surprises--just when we think we have grasped the technology, there will be another new technology that will make our current knowledge obsolete. We cannot get upset with these surprises; we need to accept that change is the only constant factor in the IT industry and embrace it.

We have more tools, better technology, but less time. What happened?
We let technology control our lives. All of us have 24 hours a day. If I don't plan my time and schedule my own appointments, someone else (like) my secretary will help to fill up my electronic calendar. We can never finish answering all our emails as I've realized that the more emails I answer, the more emails they will generate. We have to learn to know when to stop and not let technology control our lives. I don't think the amount of time we have available has really changed. What has changed is the way we use it. We don't have less time; we just have more choices.

Which gadget is on your most wanted list?
I was amongst the first few users to buy a Palm device when it was still manufactured by US Robotics (before 3Com now). I'm still an avid user of the Palm device. I want the next version of the Palm.

What is your most prized possession?
My "Mao Tze Tung" stamp from China which I bought from a stamp collector during my secondary school days (about 20 years ago). It was the most expensive stamp that I ever bought for about two dollars. I remembered that I've to save for several weeks before I could afford to buy it.

Which Web sites do you visit most often?
I subscribed to www.quote.com service so that every morning, I can receive an email telling me how my company stock is doing and how (it fares) against others. I also visit www.fastcompany.com to understand how some companies grow faster than others. My default home page is my company Web site www.pacific.net.sg .

What's your favorite Internet acronym?
It is not B2B, B2C, C2B or C2B2B. It is E2EB--Everything to Everybody.

Any relaxation techniques?
I play with my children; it makes me feel young. I also enjoy feeding and watching my koi fishes; they seem so carefree without worries. If time permits, I do enjoy a round of golf.
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