Education is often seen as a key factor in achieving success in life, with a strong emphasis on completing formal education. However, success is not always linear and the path to achieving it can take many different forms.
In Malaysia, there are many entrepreneurs who have shown that dropping out of school doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the road when it comes to achieving success. In fact, some of the country’s most successful business leaders have chosen to follow their own paths and pursue their passions outside of traditional education.
In this listicle, we’ll take a closer look at the stories of 5 Malaysian entrepreneurs who dropped out of school but still managed to achieve great success in their respective industries.
#1: Eric Cheng, University Dropout Becomes the Founder of CARSOME
For as long as he can remember, Eric Cheng’s goal was to always make money. As a college dropout, he felt lost and dived into any chance that promised cash. Eric first joined a multi-level marketing (MLM) scheme for 10 months, where he made enough to open his first business – Media Focus, a household magazine delivered straight-to-mailbox.
I dropped out of accounting in my second year of university before joining an MLM. I earned quite a bit of money there. I wanted to use that as capital to start my own business. – Eric Cheng, Carsome co-founder and Group CEO
Unfortunately, the company later closed after pushing out three bi-weekly issues and exhausting all its initial capital.
Looking for a new source of capital, Eric ventured into an unlikely path – World of Warcraft.
One of my friends told me about this game, World of Warcraft, where he earns RM1,000 every other day and it blew my mind. So I learned about gold farming. It was super dodgy though. – Eric Cheng, Carsome co-founder and Group CEO
Luck wasn’t on his side and that too fell through when the founding company of World of Warcraft, Blizzard Entertainment, lost a lawsuit and was forced to shut down operations immediately.
Despite these hardships, Eric continued pushing through even as he constantly found himself in and out of jobs and start-ups.
What he couldn’t shake, however, was the urge of starting his own successful business venture.
The whole entrepreneurial mindset has always been embedded in me and is reflected in my day-to-day approach to life. No matter what, it seems I always circled back towards starting my own venture. – Eric Cheng, Carsome co-founder and Group CEO
After careful calculations from his previous downfalls, Eric and his former colleague, Teoh Jiun Ee, took a leap of faith and founded Carsome in 2015. What started as a car comparison site turned into an integrated car e-commerce platform, the largest one in Southeast Asia.
We wanted to provide customer experiences instead of only information about the process itself. When it comes to the used car market, the process has always been very traditional. It’s funny how cars give you convenience but when it comes to selling or buying a car, it is far from convenient. I realized this was a problem that is marked by distrust within the industry itself. – Eric Cheng, Carsome co-founder and Group CEO
Despite having built an empire, Eric is on the continuous loop of growing and helping others.
In 2021, Carsome Academy was launched in Malaysia, and later on in Thailand and Indonesia in 2022. The academy is an emerging automotive technical institute in South-East Asia that aims to develop a generation of highly-skilled technicians.
Carsome Academy was founded to help meet the industry’s demand for skilled automotive talents whilst creating a positive social impact in local communities. – Jiun Ee Teoh, Carsome co-founder and Carsome Academy chief executive
Some of Carsome’s notable awards include Southeast Asia Disruptors Boom 21—Wild Digital(2021), Technopreneur of the Year—SME & Entrepreneurs Business Awards (2021), and the Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year—Ernst & Young (2020).
#2: Chiau Haw Choon, From School Dropout To Managing Director Of Chin Chin Group
Chiau Haw Choon recalls a life of rebel during his teen years after becoming a school dropout at just 13-years-old. His memories of gang involvement and sleeping on the floors of a police lockup for 5 days are fresh in mind.
When he was 17, Haw Choon was offered a second chance – to study English in Singapore for six months. He decided to take up the schooling offer at a secondary school, not to study but to have fun. Little did he know, the chapter would soon transform his life.
I looked at myself and I looked at all my friends. A typical Malaysian would have finished their secondary school by then, but I hadn’t. So I felt the need to start all over again. – Chiau Haw Choon, Managing Director Of Chin Chin Group
With the obvious feeling of being the odd one out, he was determined to push through with a lot of self-motivation.
I still remember, on the first day of school I looked around and realised I was the eldest. Not in my class, mind you, but the entire school. That was a very difficult time for me. Everyone would look at me funny and tease me—students and teachers alike. I still couldn’t get used to it during the first year and skipped school often. But then I thought to myself, ‘You’ve already started Secondary One, you might as well finish it. You need to. – Chiau Haw Choon, Managing Director Of Chin Chin Group
He then left for Melbourne to study finance and marketing. When he came back to Malaysia, Haw Choon’s father fell ill and that’s when he unexpectedly took over the family business – Chin Chin Group, a then hardware shop and later on cement trading compony founded by his grandfather.
I didn’t expect to take over the family business. The only experience I had was being part of a gang. -Chiau Haw Choon, Managing Director Of Chin Chin Group
Today, the company has flourished to more than what it was at the beginning, having expanded into innovative building materials, solar construction businesses, modular construction businesses and property development.
With such a strong demand for our products, we now have two local plants, one in Johor and one in Kuala Lumpur. So, the fact that we transformed the industry really excites me. – Chiau Haw Choon, Managing Director Of Chin Chin Group
In 2017, Haw Choon was awarded the prestigious EY Entrepreneur Of The Year award. The recognition surprised him as he looked back at his life and thought about the journey he has gone through thus far.
I wouldn’t have thought that a school dropout would have been able to transform the country’s building industry, let alone win the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2017, but there you go. It really isn’t too late to make a change in life, and one should never be afraid to make a mistake. Never allow failure to bring you down. Failure, to me, is part of the process. The more mistakes you make and learn from, the better you can be. – Chiau Haw Choon, Managing Director Of Chin Chin Group
#3: Tan Sri Datuk Tiong Su Kouk, A Young Fishmonger Turned Successful Businessman
Tan Sri Datuk Tiong Su Kouk founded CCK Consolidated Holdings Berhad – among Sarawak’s largest producers of frozen seafood. But before his blessings reigned in, Su Kuok was meant to learn what hard work and resilience meant from a young age.
As an 8-year-old boy, Tiong Su Kouk was already a rubber tapper.
At just 14 years old, Su Kouk was chosen to run the family’s fish stall, out of 8 other siblings. But with this came a greater sacrifice – his education.
I have asked: ‘Why I should be the one quitting school?’. But I guess at some point in life, we have to make sacrifices. – Tan Sri Datuk Tiong Su Kouk
He decided that the risk, although scary at the time, could be his way out of poverty for himself and his family. With a capital of RM3.40 from his father, he set out to be a fishmonger and turned out to be the youngest one at the Sibu wet market in 1957.
To reap a bountiful harvest, Su Kuok hustled by putting in 16-hour days for 12 years in the wet market. Today, there are over 60 CCK outlets across Malaysia.
He also gives back by contributing to Christian ministries such as the Tiong Kung Chuan Ting Chuo Kiew Methodist Theological Education Fund (named after his parents), and has set up a tertiary education fund named ‘Datuk Tiong Su Kouk and Datin Wong Bak Hee Tertiary Education Fund’ under Sibu Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
#4: Dato Seri Khor Teng Tong, Once Evicted, Now Owns Property Development Group
Dato Seri Khor Teng Tong founded Hunza Properties, a prominent real estate business in Penang with numerous residential and commercial properties under its belt.
Hunza had many successful properties built such as Gurney Paragon – a famous shopping mall in Penang and is currently working on several developments such as the Penang International Commercial City (PICC) project and the Muze at PICC.
Ironically, the founder of this development group was twice evicted (along with his family), from their home when he was just a young boy.
Two times, I remember the landowners chasing us out, in the kampung, then the fishing village. I was about eight or nine. In my mind and heart, I was thinking, we are so poor and they’re still chasing us. My mother died when I was five and my father sacrificed a lot for us. – Datuk Seri Khor Teng Tong, Founder of Hunza Properties
However, Teng Tong was determined to break the cycle of poverty and wasn’t afraid to try, which gave him experience in the seafood business. After selling marine products in local towns, Khor started Syarikat Soon Seng Fisheries when he was 16. Soon after, he started to export frozen seafood and opened Soon Seng Frozen Foods Sdn Bhd, providing 3,000 job opportunities in Perak.
Assuming that he was a learned businessman, on the contrary, Khor ventured into every business clueless and without prior business knowledge.
I knew nothing. I didn’t know about foreign exchange. English also I could not speak. – Datuk Seri Khor Teng Tong, Founder of Hunza Properties
Determined to succeed, he was committed to learning about food processing, freezers, marketing, and shipping materials – everything there was to know about running a food export business. Every night after work in Perak, Khor would drive to Penang island to visit suppliers, in hopes to close a sale.
His perseverance paid off, as these companies conducted their businesses both locally and internationally.
I was young and daring. I could do things fast and would drive my car to every corner to find whatever I needed. – Datuk Seri Khor Teng Tong, Founder of Hunza Properties
When Khor made the official move to Penang in 1979 for the sake of his children’s education, he longed to work closer to home. This was when his interest in property development was piqued. The then 36-year-old family man had to learn from the ground up. Although he faced a rough start, the entrepreneurial spirit in him never gave up.
To be honest, we did not build good houses for people when we started. We faced lots of difficulties. It was only after we came to Penang island in the 1980s and knew more about the business that we began building quality houses. – Datuk Seri Khor Teng Tong, Founder of Hunza Properties
Over the decades, Khor has built a legacy with Hunza Properties. To date, Khor has built over 10,000 units of houses, shophouses, condominiums, medium-cost apartments, and low-cost flats in his career as a property developer. He has also bagged an award at the World Chinese Economic Summit 2017, honouring those who have contributed significantly in their respective work sectors. Collectively, Hunza Properties received numerous awards over the years, which is a testament to its success.
His struggles never became excuses, and today Teng Tong has secured a steady future for his family. He also vows to never experience the treatment he received coming from a poor family and thus never turned a blind eye to the poor communities.
For the 500 families who had to relocate due to the PICC project, they received a free unit each, along with discounts if a second unit was needed.
We gave them one free unit for every house. If a large family wanted a second unit, we offered them discounts. – Datuk Seri Khor Teng Tong, Founder of Hunza Properties
#5: Tan Sri Vincent Tan, An Office Clerk Turned Multi-Millionaire
Your coffee cravings from Starbucks and the desire to savour a doughnut from Krispy Kreme have two things in common – they’re owned by Berjaya Corporation Berhad, one of Malaysia’s largest conglomerates with diversified interests in retail, gaming and lottery management, property development, hospitality and media.
The mastermind behind Berjaya is Vincent Tan, who couldn’t afford to continue his education and went on to work as an office clerk and later on an insurance agent for AIA. His diligence brought him to greater heights and Tan was soon promoted to manager (at just 21 years old!).
Even then, he dreamed of achieving more – which was when he bought the McDonald’s franchise in 1982. This foreshadowed the other successes that awaited Tan. Having dabbled in countless business decisions, he learned the ins and outs of surviving and thriving as he climbed higher.
Everything I have learnt, I have learnt from experience. But, I thank my father for giving me education – life education. – Vincent Tan
Although Tan never got the chance to pursue his education, he believes in the power of education and even founded Berjaya University College and Berjaya TVET College.
You must still get a university degree because it is very important. – Vincent Tan
Tan’s successes have only inspired him to give back, knowing what it feels like to have nothing. He launched Better Malaysia Foundation which supports various community and charitable causes which include educational programmes, medical and health causes and humanitarian aid.
I have found my purpose in life. It is to make more money and then give more than half of it away. – Vincent Tan
Explore Our Sources
- Carsome. (2021). Eric Cheng’s Road to Success: Failures, Hard Times & Discovering Carsome. Link.
- Nicholas, K. (2023). Carsome Academy plans to improve TVET offerings. Link.
- Tatler Asia. (2023). Link.
- Kathlyn Dsouza. (2018). This man went from gangster to CEO. Link.
- Tang, R. 9 Successful And Wealthy Malaysians Who Came From Humble Beginnings. Link.
- Borneo Post. (2017). Tiong builds his business empire with only RM3.40. Link.
- T.G. Ean. (2021). Hunza Properties’ Datuk Seri Khor Teng Tong lifts family out of poverty by transitioning from selling seafood to developing property. Options. Link.
- D. Tan. (2018). Recognized Achievement. The Star. Link.
- Melizarani, T. (2015). Tips from a business titan.Link.