Reaping the whirlwind

Smart Investor,
Section: People,
22 September - 6 October 1997

Reaping the Whirlwind ( Lillian Too who studied at Harvard Business School and once headed a bank in Hong Kong, is now enjoying success with her books on feng shui. She tells Thusitha de Silva it is an art everyone can practice).

Among the first things Lillian Too makes clear is that she does not advice corporations on feng shui or Chinese geomancy. Too stresses that she is not the sort of proponent this ancient Chinese art who peddles her knowledge to companies - telling the owners where to locate a body of water or which direction the chairman’s desk must face - and charging a consultant fee for the advice. What she does, and has done with considerable success is write books about feng shui. In the cool, tranquil ambiance of her home in Pantai Hills, Kuala Lumpur, Too cuts a figure of someone who seems relaxed and at one with herself. Her life now is far removed from a few years ago, when she was very much a corporate person as the chief executive officer of the Grindlays Dao Heng Bank in Hong Kong. “when you are in corporate life, I think that sometimes you can get so carried away with the business of making money that you forget the spiritual side is very important too. I think I was hungry for spiritual sustenance when I was right at the top of my career. Now, in retirement, I very much pursue things spiritual,” she says.

Too points out however that feng shui is not one of those spiritual pursuits because it is an art based on something more tangible. She explains: “ feng shui is based on Chinese scientific principles. These are different from western science. All our meta-physical sciences are based on the balance of Yin and Yang. The harmony between the five elements, the cycles of production as well as the cycles of destruction.” While this sounds rather technical , Too maintains it is not. She describe one of her strengths as the ability to convey feng shui concepts into something that is more palatable to the lay reader.

Too first started writing books as a hobby when she retired from the corporate world because she wanted to do something that “was not to taxing”. Now one of her books, The complete Illustrated Guide to Feng Shui , published by Element Books, is an international bestseller. In October, Element will release a series of nine books on feng shui fundamentals written by her. When she started writing, Too says she had a pretty good idea of the route she wanted to take. It seems to be the same approach as that which made her a successful businesswoman. “ For me, the hallmark of a good writer is one whose can sell. I set out to write a commercial work, not a literary work. But I did not want to compromise and make it totally commercial. I wanted it to be something which I believed in,” she says. Among the topics she thought looked at before she hit on the subject of Chinese geomancy were those of positive thinking and creative visualization, which she describes as New Age and spiritual.

Feng shui, Too says, tells you there are energy lines within the atmosphere which can be manipulated, so to speak, to bring good luck. “What feng shui offers is the method that allows you to use certain formulas to ordinate your house, your offices, your doors or your furniture in certain direction ; as well as place certain objects at certain locations of the house which then enable you to capture the auspicious energy which brings you good luck.”

It is this sort of thing that has many people seeking out feng shui experts for advice. While she gets “ about 100 letters a week” requesting her assessment of the best feng shui for houses, offices, and shops, Too says that at present she is “too lazy” to do it “I don’t go and look at peoples offices and buildings. What I do is write my books and pass on my knowledge because I feel I am a very good communicator. I have the ability to simplify it without in any way losing its essence. “If you are interested in feng shui, make an effort, go and read something about it and think it through. Look at it as an additional management tool. Don’t expect people to do it for you. Do it yourself,” she says, expressing her distaste at seeing people chasing a quick fix to their problems.

Still, Too does not think that it is wrong that there are feng shui experts around who dispense advice to corporations as this is no different from getting accountants to come into companies to do the books or seeing a doctor after all attempts to avoid a cold fail. But she believes that feng shui is so much a “part and parcel” of people’s lives that they should learn about it and practice it themselves. Too stresses that it is not very smart to wait until you are really down on your luck before seeking out feng shui experts. She notes: “In cases that case you have to pay an arm and a leg for good feng shui.” But she adds that consulting on feng shui is “ so easy “ that she does not think the experts need “to charge outrageous sums of money to do it”.

Feng shui is a lot about how individuals interpret the signs that are around them and varied from one person to the next. “How do you assess a feng shui master? Let me tell you that a lot of fortune tellers are not very highly educated. So their interpretations of the five elements of yin and yang may not be so good. With my books I give you the theory, the case studies, all the underpinnings the fundamentals. You be the judge, you do it yourself and you know what you’ll do it really well,” she says confidently. Too has a twenty year-old daughter Jennifer whom she dotes upon. She hopes that Jennifer, who shortly starts her final year studying Economics at Cambridge University will join her in her business and put a bit more structure into her company, Konsep Lagenda Sdn. Bhd. “I’ll need her to get my company organized,” she says. If that happens, Too says she may consider consulting companies on feng shui but she does not seem particularly exited about the prospect.

An Investor Too

Too says that she has used feng shui to enhance her life for a long time, even when she was working. Holding such a senior position in the Grindlays Dao Heng Bank gave her access to the best proponents of the ancient art in China and Hong Kong which helped to hone her own knowledge. She is also good pals with Malaysia’s foremost feng shui master Yap Cheng Hai. But by concentrating on feng shui when you are is talking to Too, you tend to forget that she has years of experience working in the financial markets. She still invests in shares when she describes her views on the Malaysian stock market and other markets around the world, you are reminded that this is no novice investor talking. “Of course, I invest in stocks. I used to manage funds in my heyday. And when I retired, I continue to do it. I had two or three very big private clients who trusted me with their money and for a couple of years, I continued to manage it on a private basis and they did not do badly. At that time, I was very savvy with the markets,” she says. These include Wall Street as well as the stock markets in London, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore. She pulled out of Thailand about six months ago following a tip from some “very good friends” of hers, thus avoiding the recent turmoil in the Thai market.

Too says that she does not take on private clients anymore but instead manage her own funds. Asked for a rough estimate of the size, she replies with a squeal: “I’m not very rich. Now there are people who are billionaires, I feel very poor la, right now. I am very comfortable but I would not describe myself as fabulously wealthy.” She has a lot of admiration for Malaysian Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr Mahatir Mohamad but of late, she has gone bearish on the Malaysian Stock Market. Explains Too:”

I think it is wonderful what Dr Mahatir is doing (for Malaysia). He knows what he is talking about. But Dr Mahatir is only one man. If you go down the middle level, you wonder whether they understand what he wants. “I think it’s ridiculous that they wait for Dr Mahatir to make a small, small decisions. I used to run a corporation an I know that decisions must be made through all the levels of an organization. And small decisions must be made by people lower down. How can every small decision go to the top man? He just won’t have the time. This has led me to go a bit soft on the Malaysian stock market.” As far as Wall street goes, she believes that the spectacular ascent of the Dow is based on the strong economic fundamentals and the stocks she “loves” are the technology stocks.

“A lot of the technology that is driving the economies forward today, a lot of it is information and media-related ,” says Too. Asked for her sectors picks, she replies with the aplomb of a fund manager. Too says that in the next couple of years, investors would do well to focus on the high technology stocks in Singapore and Hong Kong. She also thnks media and communication stocks will take off as well and become “darling” of the regional markets just a Microsoft, Oracle and Sun Microsystems are on the Wall Street. Now , would you bet against a feng shui expert with her investment background?
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