It Changed My Life

Albert Pang rises above degenerating eye condition to excel in business, build family

Albert Pang rises above degenerating eye condition to excel in business, build a family

Mr Albert Pang stands, a welcoming figure, in the middle of his bright and cheery office at High Street Centre.

"This place used to be a carpark but it was converted into offices. We've got sunlight, fresh air, water and fish here," he says, referring to the Soho (small office home office) set-up and the roof garden outside, complete with shady green nooks and shallow pools teeming with carp.

Unfortunately, the executive director of AP Management Consultants - which provides insurance, underwriting, accounting and management services for the shipping industry - is not able to fully appreciate his surroundings.

The 65-year-old is almost blind; he can see only outlines of people standing in front of him in bright light.

When he was 15, he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (RP), an incurable genetic condition that causes retinal degeneration and eventual vision loss.

The eye doctor who treated him then advised him to learn to use his hands and pick up a skill to make a living. He preferred using his brains instead.


Mr Albert Pang, 65, reckoned he would have about 25 years to make something of his life after being diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, which causes gradual vision loss, at 15. He has exceeded that estimate. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Fast forward 50 years.

In that time, Mr Pang managed to scale the corporate ladder, get married, put three children through overseas university education and start a business.

Friendly and humorous, Mr Pang is the eldest of six children.

His late father worked as a clerk in a telephone company; his mother was a housewife.

His life, he says, could have turned out differently if not for the death of his grandfather who was killed by shrapnel during World War II.

The latter was the eldest of 24 children. When he died, the shophouse and business of his father - a stevedore who became a prosperous fruit trader - went to his brothers. His sisters, and his widowed wife, got nothing.

Mr Pang says: "I was the eldest grandson. If my grandfather had not died, I could have inherited a shop and a business," he jokes, breaking into a guffaw.

Instead, the former student of St Joseph's Institution grew up, first in a small rented room in Geylang, and later, in a three-room flat in Redhill.

He was a boisterous young fellow who loved basketball and cycling everywhere.

He realised something was amiss with his eyesight when he was about 15 and could not see clearly at night.

One evening, while cycling home from his cousin's home in Newton, he got hit by a low-hanging tree branch along Scotts Road.

"I didn't see the branch. It hit me on the chest and threw me to the ground. I was bruised all over," he says. "Before that, I also banged into my uncle one evening after dinner."

The mishaps worried his father because four of his paternal uncles and aunts were visually impaired.

He took his son to see the late Arthur Lim, one of Singapore's pioneering eye doctors, at the Singapore General Hospital.

Mr Pang recalls: "The doctor examined me and said: 'I hate to tell you this but you have RP. For your future, I think you'd better learn to do something with your hands.

"He also said it was hereditary and there was no cure. My father even offered his eyes for a transplant but the doctor said it would not help."

The diagnosis left him shocked, and angry.

"At first, I was very angry with my parents. Why did my mother give birth to me with this sort of problem? But I realised it was not their fault," he says. Two of his younger siblings also have the condition.

Because one of his granduncles lost his sight gradually and became legally blind only at 40, he reckoned he still had 25 years to make something of his life.

MAKING GOOD USE OF ASSETS

I use my ears, my brain and my memory. My memory is very good. It helps that I love shipping. Sea water runs in my blood.

MR ALBERT PANG, on how he carved out a successful career in the shipping industry.

"I wanted to be married and to have children. I wanted to be able to find a source of income for my wife and my children for at least 20 years," he says, adding that he started taking a lot of Vitamin A and cod liver oil, hoping he could keep the disease at bay.

After completing his O levels, he worked briefly as a salesman for a diamond merchant in Chinatown. Through the recommendation of a relative, he later became an audit clerk with accounting firm Cooper Brothers & Co.

Six months into his job, he started studying for his Association Of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) qualifications.

"I failed it six times," he says with a sigh. "First of all, I didn't have money to buy notes for the exams. And when I did, they arrived only when my exams were over."

By then, he had met Ms Monica Chia, who later became his wife, at a party thrown by one of his cousins.


Albert Pang is married to Madam Monica Chia, and the couple have three children and four grandchildren. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ALBERT PANG

"She knew about my condition right from the start," he says.

The couple courted for three years before they parted ways.

"She was afraid that if she had children, they would also get RP," he says.

But Mr Pang did not give up on her. "I'd call her and write to her. I knew she was the right person. She had all the qualities of a good wife and mother," he says.

They got together again two years later when Mr Pang recommended Madam Chia - then a clerk working in the Ministry of Environment - a job as a secretary with Danish design and jewellery store Georg Jensen.

"The job required her to do a bit of accounting. She said she didn't know accounting so I offered to teach her," he says, adding that she became so good at her job that she eventually became general manager of Georg Jensen in Singapore.

Mr Pang left Coopers after nearly five years. Although he had lost his night vision by then, he could still cope at work with special glasses and contact lenses.

After stints as an internal auditor and assistant accountant in the shipping and publishing industries, he got a lucky break and landed the position of accountant - even though he did not have the professional qualifications - with shipping company Orient Lloyd in 1975.

"The financial controller liked that I had audit and industrial experience. He said he had confidence in me because I was trained by Coopers. The group accountant was not happy but the financial controller hired me," he says, grinning.

Although he drew a good salary, he also felt pressured because the assistant accountant was on the verge of getting her ACCA qualifications.

After 18 months, he decided he had to do something drastic: head for London and complete his ACCA in two years.

"I was already married then, with an eight-month-old daughter," he says. "But I told my wife I had to resign and get my professional qualifications."

He took out all his savings, sold his speakers and amplifier as well as his wife's diamond earrings to cobble together $10,000 and left for London on Dec 31, 1976.

Together with his brother-in-law who left with him to study law, he rented a bedsitter in Queensway.

He didn't have an easy time.

"It was the middle of winter and I did not have enough warm clothes. When I left for school in the morning, it was dark. When school finished, it was dark. I couldn't see. It was a wonder I never fell and never got into any major accidents," he says.

Half a year into his course, he received a letter from his wife telling him that their application for an HDB flat in Telok Blangah had been approved.

The next month, he returned to Singapore; he had to start work again so that they could finance and furnish their new home. Not long after, a former boss sought him out to help him start a shipping business Marco Shipping Co.


Albert Pang rose through the ranks at Marco Shipping Co over nearly 19 years. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ALBERT PANG

He grew with the company. From finance manager, Mr Pang - who finally became a certified accountant in 1979 - rose through the ranks to become finance director and eventually, managing director.

Among other things, the company oversaw the technical and crewing requirements of a fleet of vessels, including mother ships, crude oil tankers and semi-submersible splash vessels for a Norwegian shipping corporation as well as other tanker owners.

Mr Pang stayed with Marco for nearly 19 years before leaving in 1996. During this time, he also helped to turn around a technically bankrupt Indonesian packaging company owned by a Norwegian investment group before selling it to a Singapore conglomerate.

He spent another decade in the offshore oil and gas industry as general manager of the Nortrans Shipping and Offshore group as well as Prosafe Offshore.

Mr Pang's achievements are nothing short of extraordinary, especially since his eyesight started deteriorating rapidly when he hit 45.

"I use my ears, my brain and my memory. My memory is very good. It helps that I love shipping. Sea water runs in my blood," says the adroit user of computer and smartphone software for the visually handicapped.

His other asset? Intuition.

"It's my third eye. Even though I have a handicap, I also have a special gift. I know how to hire good people," says the chirpy man whose three children, aged between 37 and 41, are finance and economics graduates from Australian universities. All three are healthy and have not been diagnosed with RP.

In 2006, he decided to focus his attention on AP Management Consultants, which he founded in 1990. The company now has six staff including his youngest son Ian, an accountancy graduate from Monash University, who joined him as a director in 2007.

His disability has not been an issue with his principals and clients.

"My principals know of my background in shipping. They know I don't give up easily and would always find solutions for their problems."

His son Ian says that although his old man needs help getting around, he is sharp as a tack at work and has an impressive network of contacts.

"My father is very good at his work. It is his experience. He knows how to handle all sorts of people: bankers, lawyers, surveyors, government officials to tax accountants. He knows how to get them moving."

When he is not at work, Mr Pang enjoys spending time with his four grandchildren, aged between one and four.

He also loves his music, and e-mails me a long list of his favourite artists and albums - Abba, Everly Brothers, Pavarotti, Teresa Teng - after the interview.

The resentment over his lot in life is long gone, he says.

"You do not give up easily. You must be determined, and you must work hard," he says. "And make hay while the sun shines."