Wong Fong Fui

Born into a poor family that worked on a rubber plantation in Johor, Malaysia, Wong became a tree tapper at age 7. "Life was tough—all I saw every day was rubber trees and mosquitoes. My early objective was to escape it and live in the city," Wong says. He taught himself English by buying a dictionary and studying ten words a day. He woke up at 5 a.m. each morning to listen to the BBC on the radio. He was accepted into a secondary school after he wrote an essay, "My Story." An excerpt: "I tap rubber trees. I see rubber trees in the morning. I see rubber trees in the evening. I see rubber trees every day, day in, day out. Rubber trees, rubber trees. I hate rubber trees."

After graduating from high school Wong went to Australia with his family's life savings to study chemical engineering at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. He says he worked for Esso in Malaysia before moving to England to work for Ralph M. Parsons, an American company that specializes in infrastructure projects.

That's where he met his wife, a Singaporean citizen. They got married and moved back to Singapore in 1973. (He became a citizen in 1986.) Wong started a chemical engineering outfit. He says he showed up at the offices of Indonesian oil and gas companies like a door-to-door salesman to win business. Indonesia was a bigger market for chemical engineering than Singapore, with more industrial companies in need of his services. "I was willing to take risks because I had nothing to lose," he says. After eight years, Wong says he made enough money, "by my humble standard," to retire at age 40.1

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