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Uphill task to run for President, but believer in second chances is undeterred

SINGAPORE — After his textile merchant father died when he was 15, Mr Mohamed Salleh Marican watched his mother fret about family finances.

Mr Marican and his wife, Madam Sapiyah Abu Bakar, submitting his application forms for the upcoming Presidential Elections at the Elections Department building on Wednesday (Aug 23). Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY

Mr Marican and his wife, Madam Sapiyah Abu Bakar, submitting his application forms for the upcoming Presidential Elections at the Elections Department building on Wednesday (Aug 23). Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY

SINGAPORE — After his textile merchant father died when he was 15, Mr Mohamed Salleh Marican watched his mother fret about family finances.

Although his father left a substantial inheritance, his mother doubled down to raise six children herself. She sold her jewellery, moved the family from their Woo Mon Chew Road bungalow to a smaller terrace house in Jalan Selamat and urged the children to save what they could.

The experience opened Mr Marican’s eyes to the plight of single mothers, most who might be less fortunate than his mother.

Since 1992, the chief executive of Second Chance Properties has donated S$22,222 yearly to the Tabung Amal Aidilfitri Trust Fund to help the needy.

On top of that, he donates about S$200,000 a year to Malay-Muslim organisations such as the PPIS (Persatuan Pemudi Islam Singapura), a non-profit that helps improve the lives of women and their families. With a recent contribution to Project Smile, which helps underprivileged Indian women, his charity has also extended beyond the Malay community.

Two is the favourite number of Mr Marican, 67, who has rebounded from setbacks to head a listed company after dropping out of school before his A Levels, and who now wants to become the Republic’s second Malay president.

He signalled his intention in June to contest in next month’s Presidential Election. If elected, he wants to use the influence and power of the position to raise more funds for charities.

“Smaller charities, especially, they are doing good work and have committed and altruistic people but they face difficulty in raising money,” he said.

“The role of the President is to unite the nation. It’s not just about uniting people of different races and religions. It is also about helping those who have fallen through the cracks. If you leave them behind, how can you say that the nation is united? So, I want to help charities so they can help Singaporeans.”

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UPS AND DOWNS

Born in 1949 in a Joo Chiat shophouse, Mr Marican is the third of six siblings – he has two elder sisters and three younger brothers. His father, Kadir Marican, was from Pondicherry, India, while his mother, Salmah Mar’ie, came from Malaysian Borneo.

His childhood friends include former Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Zainul Abidin Rasheed, who grew up in a Malay village within walking distance from Mr Marican’s home.

Mr Marican displayed an entrepreneurial streak from as young as 8. Instead of his mother paying someone to deliver bread to their home, the young boy asked to take over the role and, on the way to the bread shop, collected discarded rubber bands which he resold to friends.

During the school holidays, he hung out at his father’s textiles and tailoring shop. “He made me sit on a stool outside his shop to pull in customers,” recalled Mr Marican.

The eagerness to go into business later caused him to neglect his studies and drop out of Victoria School without completing the GCE A Levels, “as I knew I couldn’t pass the exam”.

He has chosen to view the episode positively. “It was the first time I learnt to cut my losses. I knew I couldn’t pass, so, why bother? I saved costs because I don’t have to pay the exam fee,” he quipped.

After National Service, Mr Marican set up a menswear tailoring shop called M Salleh Enterprise at Peninsula Shopping Centre in 1974. It was loss-making and he sold it, later buying it back at a lower price. He renamed it Second Chance Tailor in 1977 to signify his second attempt at starting his own business.

At the height of success, Mr Marican had 25 stores across Singapore and Malaysia. But between 1989 and 1992, poor sales forced him to close down most of the stores.

He started First Lady in 1992, selling women’s clothing. A year later, he established Golden Chance, which sells jewellery. Both stores, located in Tanjong Katong Complex, are still operating.

With the business performing well, Mr Marican listed his firm on the Singapore Exchange in 1997 – the first Malay-owned company to do so. The company now derives most of its income from renting out its commercial properties.

Framed newspaper articles about him adorn the walls of his office on the fourth floor of Tanjong Katong Complex, while trophies line the shelves. The 2012 Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year award is particularly special, for it recognises him as one of the country’s top entrepreneurs, said Mr Marican, who picked up financial knowledge from books and also enjoys reading up on history.

His mother had tried to dissuade him from going into business after witnessing his father’s struggles, but told him how proud she was of his success a few years before her death in 2007 at the age of 82. “It gave me a sense of pride,” said Mr Marican with a tinge of sadness.

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NO WATCH, BUT ALWAYS ON TIME

The choice to focus on his business led him to turn down invitations to join the Workers’ Party in 1984 and the People’s Action Party in 1990. The lack of past affiliation to any political party reflects how he will make decisions independently if he is elected president, said Mr Marican, who has also pledged to donate his presidential salary to charity.

He first contemplated running for the presidency in 2015, feeling that “it was time to think of doing something more meaningful”.

The businessman, who does not wear a watch but who is “never late for meetings or events”, said: “I’m at a point where I’m ready to do this. People have different aspirations at different stages of their lives where they want to do something meaningful. Some want to climb mountains and others want to pursue further education. For me, it was time to do more for society.”

His wife of 43 years, Mdm Sapiyah Abu Bakar, 65, was worried about the family’s loss of privacy and took ten days to convince, he said.

Their four children, aged 30 to 42, are supportive of his decision to contest. The older two are housewives, while his third is studying for her Masters in computing in New York. His youngest child, a son, is managing the company’s operations in Malaysia.

The decision to contest also marked a milestone of sorts for Mr Marican three months ago – he bought his first mobile phone, an iPhone 7, to deal with issues related to his campaign. Acquainting himself with the gadget has been smooth going so far: “It seems quite easy to use. My children and wife taught me how to use the apps.” Family members and friends would previously reach him on his office phone.

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AGAINST THE ODDS AGAIN?

Mr Marican knows his presidential ambition will be an uphill task. Former Malay Members of Parliament who support his decision to contest have told him as much, he said.

Changes to the elected presidency that were passed in Parliament last November raised the bar for private sector candidates. Among other requirements, they must have served as chief executive of a company with at least S$500 million in shareholders’ equity for at least three years, a threshold which Mr Marican’s company does not meet. His firm had equity of between S$254.3 million and S$263.25 million over the last three financial years. The Presidential Elections Committee, however, has the discretion to certify that a candidate who does not automatically meet the criteria can stand for election.

When Mr Marican announced his plans to contest, he was slammed by some members of the public for his lack of fluency in Malay. He is taking classes to brush up his language abilities, and remains unfazed by criticism that he is not “Malay enough”.

“I’m a businessman, I’m used to criticism,” he said.

He acknowledged that fellow aspirant, former Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob, is the “top contender”, but said he preferred to let voters decide on polling day, should there be a contest. Marine sector boss Farid Khan Kaim Khan, chairman of Bourbon Offshore Asia Pacific, has also thrown his hat into the ring.

What if he does not receive the certificate of eligibility to contest? “I think I will be disappointed. But then again, I’ve faced so many disappointments in my life, especially dealing with my business,” said Mr Marican. “I’m confident I will get the certificate but if not, then I just have to move on. I’ll deal with this when I cross the bridge.”

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