Cheng Tsang Man



Cheng Tsang Man (b. 10 October 1916, Fujian, China  d. 7 July 2013) is the founder of Singapore’s first flour mill, the Prima Group.1 He served as executive chairman of Prima for 37 years.2 During his time, the company grew from a single flour mill into a multi-national group with diversified interests.3 After retiring in 1998, Cheng stayed on with the group as Honorary Life President.4

Early life

Cheng was born in Yongchun in the Fujian province of China in 1916, the third child in his family.5 At the age of eight, he left China, accompanying an uncle to Makassar (now known as Ujung Pandang) in Indonesia.6 As Cheng did not have any formal education, he began working at a young age and led a life characterised by hard work, discipline and determination.7

While working as an assistant in a trading firm, the owner was so impressed by his performance that he asked Cheng to marry his daughter Wang Miao Ling.8 Cheng was 23 years old then.9 It was also at the trading firm that he began learning the ropes of trading and business management.10

By his late twenties, Cheng had started his own trading business. His firm soon flourished to the point where he was able to expand his business outside his home base of Makassar.11 In post-independence Indonesia in the 1950s, trading opportunities were readily available and Cheng established a successful business in the capital city of Jakarta.12

Relocating to Singapore

In the late 1950s, Cheng decided to seek a new base for his family and business in response to the growing anti-Chinese sentiments in Indonesia.13 He explored opportunities in Hong Kong but after two years, during which he did not find any projects to invest in, he began looking elsewhere.14

Cheng then met The Soe Soei, a businessman who had helped set up South Grand Textile in Singapore.15 He suggested to Cheng to invest in the textile and flour milling industries, and that Singapore was a viable base.16 This was because it had just embarked on an industrialisation programme and was offering attractive tax and other fiscal incentives to attract pioneer investors.17 In addition, Permanent Resident status would be offered to foreign investors.18 These factors persuaded Cheng to make Singapore his new base, and he set his sights to acquire the first mover advantage by setting up the first flour mill in Singapore.19

Setting up Prima

Initially, the authorities had reservations over Cheng due to his lack of experience in the flour mill industry. But Cheng was able to convince them using his 30 years’ of business experience, as well as his commitment and determination.20 As a result, Cheng was awarded the project to build Singapore's first flour mill.21

Cheng’s $10 million flour mill was registered in May 1961 and granted pioneer status two months later.22 Located at Keppel Road, it was called Prima which means “first” in Latin. The Chinese name is “Bai Ling Mai”, which literally means ”a hundred-year-old wheat”. This is to signify the company’s longevity on a solid foundation.23 The mill commenced operations after being officially opened on 18 August 1963 by then Minister for Finance Goh Keng Swee.24

Some of the early challenges Cheng faced in running Prima was the volatile industrial and labour climate.25 In fact, a few months after started operations, a labour strike broke out at Prima and some of its machineries were sabotaged. Fortunately, Cheng received help from the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) which stepped in to resolve the labour issue.26 In addition, Cheng had had to battle the perceptions that the locally milled flour produced by Prima was inferior to imported flour. Again, Cheng was able to confront this challenge with the help of Finance Minister Goh who paid personal visits to the flour mill and banned the import of flour until 1973. This gave Prima time to consolidate its operations.27 Indeed, between 1963 and 1965, Prima was able to increase its daily milling capacity from 230 tonnes to 700 tonnes.28

From the 1970s, Cheng began to diversify Prima into other areas including food manufacturing and services, restaurants, property management and even trading either through investments or acquisitions.29 Some of the more notable ventures include the setting up of Prima Tower Revolving Restaurant on the top of Prima’s flour mill in 1977, and the acquisition of Asian Food Services Pte Ltd in 1991.30 Renamed Prima Food Services Pte Ltd, this company is the owner of Confectionery Transformation Pte Ltd (renamed Prima Food Pte Ltd in 2000), which is responsible for the launch of the bakery and confectionery franchise PrimaDeli in 1992.31

Besides expanding locally, Cheng made headways overseas. The first overseas investment made by Prima was in PT Prima Indonesia in 1970.32 Located in Ujung Pandang, Cheng’s hometown in Indonesia, the flour mill commenced operations in 1973 with a daily milling capacity of 1,100 tonnes and a silo capacity of 40,000 tonnes. Thereafter, similar investments and joint ventures were made in mills in Sri Lanka, China, Malaysia, Australia and the United States.33

Within Prima, Cheng believed the importance of upgrading to keep up with market changes.34 This is reflected in how the company had improved its manufacturing process over the decades.35 For instance, in 1984, office automation was implemented to enhance the company’s management effectiveness and resource utilisation.36 This was followed by an exercise to modernise Prima’s flour milling operations two years later with the use of computers and high-tech machineries.37 In the same year, an in-house R&D unit, which was tasked to develop new products, was also created.38

Retirement and contributions to education
In June 1998, Cheng retired as executive chairman of Prima Group.39 Under his stewardship, Prima had grown from a single flour mill to an industrial group that was generating over S$145 million in revenue.40 After stepping down, Cheng was made Honorary Life President of Prima.41

The following year, the board of directors decided to pay a gratuity of S$3 million to Cheng for his contributions to building up the group.42 Cheng instructed that the money should go instead to education. As a result, the board split the sum evenly between the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and the Singapore Management University (SMU).43 In recognition of the donation, each university decided to establish a Cheng Tsang Man professorial chair.44 At NTU, this position is known as Cheng Tsang Man Professorship in Energy, while in SMU, it is Cheng Tsang Man Professorship in Accountancy.45 Since they were created, both positions had attracted many experts and scholars in the respective fields. Many lectures and seminars were also held.46

Cheng passed away on 7 July 2013, leaving behind six children, 12 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.47 Cheng’s wife had passed away earlier in 2003.48



Author

Alvin Chua



References
1. Prima Group. (n.d.). The Founder. Retrieved 2016, March 10, from Prima Group website: http://www.prima.com.sg/abt_us/founder.htm; Zaccheus, M. (2013, July 12). Prima founder 'worked hard, cared for staff'. The Straits Times, p. 9; Zaccheus, M. (2013, July 10). Prima Group founder Cheng Tsang Man dies at age 97. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Prima Group. (n.d.). The Founder. Retrieved 2016, March 10, from Prima Group website: http://www.prima.com.sg/abt_us/founder.htm
3. Prima Group. (n.d.). The Founder. Retrieved 2016, March 10, from Prima Group website: http://www.prima.com.sg/abt_us/founder.htm
4. Prima Group. (n.d.). The Founder. Retrieved 2016, March 10, from Prima Group website: http://www.prima.com.sg/abt_us/founder.htm
5. Prima Group. (n.d.). The Founder. Retrieved 2016, March 10, from Prima Group website: http://www.prima.com.sg/abt_us/founder.htm
6. Prima Group. (n.d.). The Founder. Retrieved 2016, March 10, from Prima Group website: http://www.prima.com.sg/abt_us/founder.htm
7. Prima Group. (n.d.). The Founder. Retrieved 2016, March 10, from Prima Group website: http://www.prima.com.sg/abt_us/founder.htm
8. Zaccheus, M. (2013, July 12). Prima founder 'worked hard, cared for staff'. The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Zaccheus, M. (2013, July 12). Prima founder 'worked hard, cared for staff'. The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Prima Group. (n.d.). The Founder. Retrieved 2016, March 10, from Prima Group website: http://www.prima.com.sg/abt_us/founder.htm
11. Prima Group. (n.d.). The Founder. Retrieved 2016, March 10, from Prima Group website: http://www.prima.com.sg/abt_us/founder.htm
12. Prima Group. (n.d.). The Founder. Retrieved 2016, March 10, from Prima Group website: http://www.prima.com.sg/abt_us/founder.htm
13. Cheng, T. M. (2009). Why Prima came to Singapore. Petir. May/June, p. 33. (Call no.: RSING 329.95957 P)
14. Cheng, T. M. (2009). Why Prima came to Singapore. Petir. May/June, p. 33. (Call no.: RSING 329.95957 P)
15. Cheng, T. M. (2009). Why Prima came to Singapore. Petir. May/June, p. 33. (Call no.: RSING 329.95957 P)
16. Cheng, T. M. (2009). Why Prima came to Singapore. Petir. May/June, p. 33. (Call no.: RSING 329.95957 P)
17. Cheng, T. M. (2009). Why Prima came to Singapore. Petir. May/June, p. 33. (Call no.: RSING 329.95957 P).
18. Cheng, T. M. (2009). Why Prima came to Singapore. Petir. May/June, p. 33. (Call no.: RSING 329.95957 P)
19. Cheng, T. M. (2009). Why Prima came to Singapore. Petir. May/June, p. 33. (Call no.: RSING 329.95957 P)
20. Prima Group. (n.d.). The Founder. Retrieved 2016, March 10, from Prima Group website: http://www.prima.com.sg/abt_us/founder.htm
21. Prima Group. (n.d.). The Founder. Retrieved 2016, March 10, from Prima Group website: http://www.prima.com.sg/abt_us/founder.htm
22. Feroa, R. (1963, August 17). Industrialisation brings $10 mil. flour mill to S’pore. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Prima Group. (n.d.). History. Retrieved from Prima Group website: http://www.prima.com.sg/abt_us/contents.htm; Prima Group. (n.d.). Contact. Retrieved from Prima Group website: http://www.prima.com.sg/contact/contact.htm
24. Cheng, T. M. (2009). Why Prima came to Singapore. Petir. May/June, p. 33. (Call no.: RSING 329.95957 P)
25. Cheng, T. M. (2009). Why Prima came to Singapore. Petir. May/June, p. 33. (Call no.: RSING 329.95957 P)
26. Cheng, T. M. (2009). Why Prima came to Singapore. Petir. May/June, p. 33. (Call no.: RSING 329.95957 P)
27. Cheng, T. M. (2009). Why Prima came to Singapore. Petir. May/June, p. 33. (Call no.: RSING 329.95957 P)
28. Prima Group. (n.d.). Milestones. Retrieved 2016, March 10, from Prima Group website: http://www.prima.com.sg/abt_us/abt_us.htm
29. Prima Group. (n.d.). Milestones. Retrieved 2016, March 10, from Prima Group website: http://www.prima.com.sg/abt_us/abt_us.htm; Lee, B. (2003, May 22). Prima founder in bid to take firm privateThe Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
30. Prima Group. (n.d.). Milestones. Retrieved 2016, March 10, from Prima Group website: http://www.prima.com.sg/abt_us/abt_us.htm
31. Prima Group. (n.d.). Milestones. Retrieved 2016, March 10, from Prima Group website: http://www.prima.com.sg/abt_us/abt_us.htm
32. Prima Group. (n.d.). Milestones. Retrieved 2016, March 10, from Prima Group website: http://www.prima.com.sg/abt_us/abt_us.htm
33. Prima Group. (n.d.). Milestones. Retrieved 2016, March 10, from Prima Group website: http://www.prima.com.sg/abt_us/abt_us.htm
34. Cheng, T. M. (2009). Why Prima came to Singapore. Petir. May/June, p. 33. (Call no.: RSING 329.95957 P).
35. Prima Group. (n.d.). Milestones. Retrieved 2016, March 10, from Prima Group website: http://www.prima.com.sg/abt_us/abt_us.htm
36. Prima Group. (n.d.). Milestones. Retrieved 2016, March 10, from Prima Group website: http://www.prima.com.sg/abt_us/abt_us.htm
37. Prima Group. (n.d.). Milestones. Retrieved 2016, March 10, from Prima Group website: http://www.prima.com.sg/abt_us/abt_us.htm
38. Prima Group. (n.d.). Milestones. Retrieved 2016, March 10, from Prima Group website: http://www.prima.com.sg/abt_us/abt_us.htm
39. Prima chairman to retire. (1998, June 3). The Straits Times, p. 57. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
40. Prima Group. (n.d.). Financial Highlights- Prima Group's 5-year tabulation 1998 to 2002. Retrieved 2016, March 10, from Prima Group website: http://www.prima.com.sg/investor_rel/investor_rel.htm
41. Prima chairman to retire. (1998, June 3). The Straits Times, p. 57. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
42. Nirmala, M. (1999, October 12). He gave $3m for educationThe Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
43. Nirmala, M. (1999, October 12). He gave $3m for educationThe Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
44. Nirmala, M. (1999, October 12). He gave $3m for educationThe Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
45. Nanyang Technological University. (n.d.). Cheng Tsang Man Professorship in Energy. Retrieved from 2016, March 10, Nanyang Technological University website: http://coe.ntu.edu.sg/aboutus/people/Pages/ChengTsangMan.aspx
; Singapore Management University. (2013, September 17). Remembering the late Mr Cheng Tsang Man. Retrieved 2016, March 10, from Singapore Management University website: http://www.smu.edu.sg/news/2013/07/10/remembering-late-mr-cheng-tsang-man
46. Nanyang Technological University. (n.d.). Cheng Tsang Man Professorship in Energy. Retrieved from 2016, March 10, Nanyang Technological University website: http://coe.ntu.edu.sg/aboutus/people/Pages/ChengTsangMan.aspx
; Singapore Management University. (2013, September 17). Remembering the late Mr Cheng Tsang Man. Retrieved 2016, March 10, from Singapore Management University website: http://www.smu.edu.sg/news/2013/07/10/remembering-late-mr-cheng-tsang-man
47. Zaccheus, M. (2013, July 12). Prima founder 'worked hard, cared for staff'. The Straits Times, p. 9; Zaccheus, M. (2013, July 10). Prima Group founder Cheng Tsang Man dies at age 97. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
48. Wang Miao Ling @ Ong Biao Nio. (2003, July 6). The Straits Times, p. 45. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



The information in this article is valid as at 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustic or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

 

Subject
Industrialists--Singapore--Biography
Flour industry--Singapore
Personalities
Cheng, Tsang Man, 1916-
Personalities>>Biographies
Food industry and trade--Singapore
Business, finance and industry>>Industry>>Manufacturing industries>>Food, beverages and tobacco