This post was written by Chad Merchant
MANY EAST MALAYSIANS MAKE THE LEAP ACROSS THE SEA TO THE CAPITAL, BUT SARAWAKIAN ABEL NELSON NANG IS SOMETHING OF A SUCCESS STORY. EDITOR CHAD MERCHANT HEARS THE STORY OF HIS JOURNEY FROM BORNEO BOYHOOD TO BIG CITY LIFE.
Sometimes – probably more often than not – people who go on to become industry leaders, whether in business, science, or entertainment, don’t necessarily hail from the acknowledged big-city centres in which they make their global splash. Consider the famous actor who comes not from Los Angeles, but from a small town nobody’s heard of. Or a successful K-pop singer, who grew up in a rural community far from the energy and thrill of Seoul. These people, and so many others like them, have talents and ambitions that are simply too great to be contained by the towns in which they are raised.
Though Abel Nelson Nang, 38, isn’t performing in sold-out concerts or starring in the latest Hollywood blockbuster, his story is entertaining in its own right, and weaves a similar tale: a Malaysian success story who found his way from his home village near Miri, Sarawak, across the South China Sea to Kuala Lumpur, where he now lives and works as the Corporate Director of Marketing and Communications for Berjaya Hotels and Resorts, under the umbrella of the Berjaya Group, one of Malaysia’s most well-known companies.
As the second of five children growing up in Miri, the competitive fires that still fuel Abel’s drive and ambition were stoked early on. “My elder brother is two years older than me,” he reminisces, “and I was always trying to outdo him, trying to be better.” The next sibling in the line, another brother, is ten years Abel’s junior, so that inevitable sense of sibling rivalry was, for the most part, confined to the two eldest boys.
Abel is a true East Malaysian, a mix of Iban and Kiput, and truly proud of his heritage. When asked about the language spoken in his household growing up, Abel responds, “Oh, it was mostly Iban and English. My father taught English and insisted on it being spoken properly. He would always correct us or even laughingly scold us when we misspoke.” He goes on: “In fact, he was the Headmaster of my school when I was a boy.” He rolls his eyes and laughs. “You can imagine how that was for me! We also moved around a lot, it seemed… every few years.”
It was the nature of his father’s job that ultimately led to what Abel characterizes as a fierce sense of independence. The family moved away, but as a boy in standard six – about 12 years old – Abel was left behind and stayed with his grandparents. He recounted the innumerable 45-minute walks to and from school and the process of learning to fend for himself, as he was often alone. “Honestly, I felt abandoned,” Abel recalls, “but in retrospect, some of my fondest childhood memories were with my grandparents in that longhouse.” He speaks of their unrelenting strictness and the importance they placed on discipline and hard work. “Oh, there was no playing. In most of the longhouses, the children would race up and down the length of the porch. Not at my grandparents’ house.”
OVER TO THE PENINSULA
Years later, Abel crossed the sea to attend Universiti Putra Malaysia and it was perhaps those years spent in and around Kuala Lumpur that started altering his path. He graduated with a degree in Science (forestry and wood technology), then lingered, ostensibly to do research, but Abel tips his hand here: “Really, I think I just wanted to stay here in the city a bit longer.” Home and family continued to beckon, however, and a year after graduating, he moved back to Sarawak, back to Miri. It didn’t take long before the exposure to KL and the wider world started colouring his perception of his home. “Oh, I still loved it, of course,” Abel insists, “but by that point, Miri was really just too small for my ambition.”
Finding a job was no problem given his family’s involvement in the timber industry. Abel spent the next three years working in Sarawak in the coastal town of Bintulu. In his role overseeing quality control, Abel worked with quite a few labourers from nearby Indonesia and went out of his way to teach them English. “I made a point to teach them a word a day,” he recounts, “and by the end of my time there, the workers spoke better English than many locals.” Abel also saw the value early on in treating subordinates fairly, and, sympathetic to the Indonesian workers who often worked 12-hour days only to sleep on a pitiful pad, spent his own money to buy them new mattresses. “They were hard workers and it made sense that a good night’s sleep would benefit both employee and employer.” Abel’s generosity, coupled with his no-nonsense business approach, quite understandably earned him an enviable swell of goodwill and loyalty from these workers, many of whom are still in touch with him today.
In time, Abel decided to leave Bintulu and return to his family’s home in Miri, and there he found work for a time in administration with a shipping company. It was in 2000, however, that he got what might be considered his “big break.” He joined the Australian-based Curtin University Sarawak at its Miri campus as a student relations officer and his hard work and skills earned him the Vice Chancellor’s Award for Excellence for his efforts. Over time, Abel shifted from student services into public relations, and it was here that he found his niche.
But five years on and once again, he felt constrained, thinking there were surely bigger challenges, better opportunities. Miri, he felt, was not where his future was to be found.
A DOSE OF HOSPITALITY
In 2006, Abel heeded the city’s clarion call and returned to Kuala Lumpur, working a short-term contract job in telecom promotions before finding a rewarding job as PR Manager with the Melia Group. Two years there, then another two years with Crowne Plaza as a Marketing and Communications Manager, and Abel had gotten his feet adequately wet in the hospitality industry. He still looks back on those jobs fondly and with a clear sense of gratitude: “I learned so much, and worked with great people. It was just a fantastic introduction for me into this line of work.”
It’s a line of work to which Abel has taken to remarkably well. He left Crowne Plaza to join Berjaya Times Square Hotel, Kuala Lumpur as its Director of Marketing and Communications, and handled the job so capably that within six months, the company promoted him to the position of Corporate Director, expanding his responsibility from one property to the entire Berjaya Hotels and Resorts group. And, in what can only be called a running theme in his career, Abel has risen to the task.
“Of course my parents are proud of me,” he admits, “and they see me on TV often doing interviews or in the newspapers and magazines, but they still want me back in Miri, I think.” Abel was raised Catholic, so he says that he tries to go back home at least once a year, either for Christmas or the Iban harvest celebration of Gawai Dayak, which is held in June. Once a year seems inadequate for someone who loves his hometown, holds fast to his heritage, and lives only a short flight away… and Abel agrees: “I should do better.”
WHERE THE HEART IS
There’s clearly a bond that still exists between the boy who grew up in small-town Sarawak and the man who lives in big-city KL today. Abel talks proudly of his hometown, noting how much it’s grown, buoyed largely by the nascent oil and gas industry. Though it was
unquestionably Malaysia’s first oil town, Miri was only accorded full city status by Malaysia’s federal government in 2005. Beyond the petroleum industry (there’s even a petroleum museum), Abel points out the stunning natural resources of his hometown. “There are so many caves,” he explains. “And four national parks are nearby, including Gunung Mulu, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as well. We have great beaches, the diving off the coast is excellent, and really, if you’re a nature lover, Miri is just paradise.” He also raves about the rich culture and fascinating heritage of his native land, particularly that of the Iban people. It’s clear that Abel has not forsaken his roots as he reaches higher and higher in the corporate world. “No matter what I experience in KL – and I love living here – I’ll never forget where I came from. It’s coloured my life philosophy so much, and it’s really summed up in an Iban saying, Anang jai enggau urang. It means ‘never do bad upon others.’” He pauses. “I look back at my own life and hope that I can be an inspiration to other young Sarawakians that nothing is impossible if we are passionate and determined. I like the responsibility of being an example to other people there, because to me, Miri will always be home.”
Source: Senses of Malaysia Sept-Oct 2012
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