Heroes of PhilanthropyBrian Mertens, 03.05.10, 02:20 PM EST
Forbes Asia Magazine dated March 15, 2010
Malaysian Ananda Krishnan develops his country's talent behind the scenes.
''Krishnan is contributing to the nation, building a pool of talented, skilled Malaysians.''
Krishnan has, in turn, long made a point of returning the philanthropic favor. In 1985 he helped the Live Aid rock concert project that raised some $240 million around the world for African famine relief. Since that time the publicity-phobic tycoon has donated tens of millions to education, the arts, sports and humanitarian causes in Malaysia through his privately owned holding company, Usaha Tegas, and its three main listed subsidiaries: cell phone operator Maxis; satellite TV and entertainment company Astro All Asia Networks; and Tanjong, which is active in gaming, power generation and property.
Developing talent is the main focus, through university scholarships, school programs and other support. There are Internet boot camps for rural high schoolers, funds for equestrian sports and Malaysia's Olympic athletes, even stipends for local children studying Indian classical dance and music. But tagging a dollar figure on Krishnan's philanthropy is difficult; Usaha Tegas releases little information, and government figures on giving are unavailable. But by many accounts the 71-year-old, through his private and listed companies, is among Malaysia's biggest givers. "Krishnan is contributing to the nation, building a pool of talented, skilled Malaysians, including ones who will be able to manage the new kinds of companies he has established," says Josie Fernandez, the founding director of Philanthropy Asia, a research and advocacy group in Kuala Lumpur. "If you look at Astro, for example, initially he brought in a lot of foreign talent, Australians and others. Now we see they are being replaced by Malaysians."
One recent donation went to help orphaned and underprivileged girls gain vocational skills. According to Philanthropy Asia, Krishnan contributed in 2008 to the opening of the Montfort Girls Centre, a counterpart to Selangor's Montfort Boys Town, which was established in 1959 by the Brothers of St. Gabriel, a Catholic order. The $2 million complex includes a dormitory and training center where girls can learn baking, computer repair, graphic design and other vocations. Two wings were named in memory of Krishnan's mother and grandmother. (Asked for an interview, a Montfort official said through an intermediary that Krishnan had requested that the center not respond to media inquiries.) "I think Krishnan's giving has been progressive in that he's donated to a women's cause like this, which has not been a popular form of giving in Malaysia," says Fernandez. "It's for girls who are not academically inclined but who need vocational skills. It's giving opportunities to those who would never have them, not just to the gifted who would find opportunities anyway."
Krishnan's focus on learning is significant because the Malaysian government began in 1996 to shift toward greater reliance on the private sector to fund higher education. Usaha Tegas has channeled much of its giving through three foundations, each directed toward one of Malaysia's three main ethnic groups. It began with the Malaysia Community Education Foundation, which benefits Malaysians of South Asian descent. Usaha Tegas companies gave it $8 million in the early 1990s, according to a company press release. One of its programs is Project Ilham, which helps underprivileged but high-achieving graduates of Malaysia's more than 500 Tamil Schools, the primary schools established under British rule that today educate children of half the ethnic Indian populace. The project assists these pupils to continue to excel during their later studies at non-Tamil secondary schools, where language and cultural differences have sometimes hindered their performance. Krishnan himself is of Tamil descent; his grandfather was a Sri Lankan who came to Malaysia to work as a colonial official.
In 2003 Usaha Tegas founded Harapan Nusantara, an education fund focused on Malays, using 300 million shares of Maxis, worth $26 million at the time, and endowing it with another $26 million in cash contributed by Astro, Maxis and Tanjong. Since 2004 the fund has sponsored 100 students a year to attend twinning programs at private Malaysian universities, which are curriculums run together with universities abroad. Harapan Nusantara got another $1.3 million that year to send Malay managers to attend executive programs at Harvard Business School.For philanthropy directed toward ethnic Chinese groups, Usaha Tegas started the Yu Cai Education Foundation in 2003 with a grant of $6.6 million. That year the foundation spent $1.3 million to set up a Chinese traditional studies department at Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman, a private university with campuses in Petaling Jaya and elsewhere.
Of the three operating companies, only Tanjong provides figures on annual giving, which was $6.2 million for the year ended Jan. 31, 2009, including $4.1 million for education, especially undergraduate scholarships in Malaysia. Other funds went to 20 Malaysian health care groups focused on life-threatening diseases and to other groups.Satellite broadcaster Astro has aimed its philanthropy at industry education and the arts. Since 2006 it's awarded annual scholarships ranging from $2,300 to $44,000 to Malaysian media-and-broadcasting students, coupled with offers of job placements at the company or its affiliates. A special undergraduate scholarship targets students in the performing arts and humanities. The company also sponsors short courses in screen writing, acting and directing for 48 students a year. Other Astro programs offer awards for Malaysian makers of short films, grants for theater groups and dance troupes, and funds for advancing craftsmanship in batik textiles.
Cell phone operator Maxis stands out for technology training. The company sent 18 high-achieving candidates from 2005 to 2009 for full-ride scholarships covering postgraduate studies at Harvard, Oxford and other universities abroad. Its undergraduate scholarships were offered to 38 Malaysians to study at home or abroad last year. Candidates studying abroad, who received up to $44,000 a year, were required to join Maxis after graduation. Maxis has invested more than $14 million in the program since 2005.
A series of Maxis programs addresses Malaysia's digital divide by promoting it and communications technology skills among youngsters upcountry through activities such as the Maxis Cyberkids Camp. The five-day program shows 13- and 14-year-olds and their teachers how to better use computers and the Internet, and then to spread their skills to classmates after they get back to school. This and other programs have reached more than 8,200 schoolchildren and teachers from more than 1,300 schools across the nation since 2002, according to Maxis. "Krishnan's foundations cut across ethnic and religious lines, which is very important for Malaysia," says Fernandez, noting that most givers focus on a single group. "He's more pluralistic in his approach."