Friends, associates of shipping magnate Frank Tsao remember his contributions to Singapore

Frank Tsao died in Singapore on August 12 at the age of 94. — Handout via TODAY
Frank Tsao died in Singapore on August 12 at the age of 94. — Handout via TODAY

SINGAPORE, Aug 15 — He was “a giant of a man” who played a huge role in helping Singapore become the international maritime hub it is today.

That is how friends and associates of Frank Tsao remember the shipping magnate who died in Singapore on August 12 at the age of 94.

A statement from the Tsao family said that he died “peacefully with family members around him”.

Tributes have poured in for Tsao, who was one of a group of Hong Kong tycoons who came together in the 1980s to develop Suntec City. He also established the Centre for Maritime Studies at the National University of Singapore and served as its first chairman.

But it was in the shipping industry that Tsao left his mark.

He was the first shipping company owner to move some of his fleet under IMC (International Maritime Carriers) Group from its base in Hong Kong to Singapore following the launch of what was known as the Approved International Shipping Enterprise Scheme (AIS) in 1991.

The scheme incentivised foreign shipping companies to move their operations to the city-state with tax rebates.

Before this, Singapore's shipping industry was still nascent, with only about 30 small, locally-owned shipping companies. Now it is the base for more than 130 major shipping companies.

Former civil servant David Chin, 74, who was tasked with developing Singapore's maritime scene, told TODAY that Tsao's inputs to the AIS were a "tremendous help".

“When I was developing AIS, he asked me to come to his office in Hong Kong, where he got all his staff to talk to me. I squatted in his office in Hong Kong for two weeks to understand the running of a shipping company and drafted out the scheme,” said Chin, who was then the deputy chief executive officer and director of trading and services of the Trade Development Board — the predecessor of Enterprise Singapore.

Chin, who is now a retiree, also said that Tsao helped shape the scheme in a way which not only incentivised his own company to move to Singapore, but other shipping firms from Norway, Japan and Germany as well.

‘A great loss for the shipping industry’

Caroline Yang, president of the Singapore Shipping Association, said that Tsao was “a giant of a man, and one of the forerunners of Asian shipping”.

Managing director of local shipping company Pacific International Lines, SS Teo, mourned Tsao’s death as “truly a great loss for the shipping industry”.

Beyond Singapore, Teo said Tsao often worked to lobby for the interests of shipping owners in Asia.

An industry that was dominated by European companies after the second world war, Teo said Tsao’s lobbying efforts helped raise the status of Asian shipping, such that it now controls over 50 per cent of the world’s freight.

“Traditionally, we are not so outspoken and proactive in the drafting of international maritime conventions He was a great advocate that Asia shipowners be more proactive and contribute to world shipping by giving constructive views,” said


One of Tsao’s striking qualities, Teo remembers, was his huge attention to detail.

Whenever Teo paid him a visit at his home or office, Tsao always had a piece of paper with all the points that he wanted to discuss.

His no-nonsense attitude towards business was also another trait that Ricky Sim, who worked with him for 18 years at Suntec Investment, remembers.

“When you do any presentation, you cannot fool him, you cannot tell cock-and-bull story. You will be found out,” said the 66-year-old who runs his own business advisory firm.

“He goes into every detail. He wants visibility studies, he wants R&D, he wants financials, he wants to make sure everything is in great detail before we launch a project.”

Despite his old age, Tsao never really stopped working, according to those who worked closely with him before.

Sim said the tycoon was someone who worked “day and night” even when he was 85 years old.

“In spite of his advanced age, he was very passionate about developing the maritime sector. You can see the enthusiasm in him,” said Chin.

In recognition of Tsao’s contributions to Singapore, he was awarded the Honorary Citizen Award by the Government in 2008, the highest honour given to non-Singaporeans.

Tsao is survived by his four children. His wife Maisie Chow Tsao died in Dec 2014. — TODAY

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