Theory of a software genius
The seventh child of a butcher, Goh, 60, doesn’t yearn for honorifics or invitations to rub shoulders with the rich and famous in the country.
“Do you think people will want to talk to me? They find me torturous. People may respect you but won’t want to spend the whole night talking about this,” he tellsStarBizWeek.
He is referring to his passion for mathematics, and his avidity for math and philosophy was apparent in the two-hour interview.
But that alone didn’t make Goh, the founder and major shareholder of Singapore-listed Silverlake Axis Ltd and, the ninth richest Malaysian according to Forbes, the man he is today. Software firm Silverlake Axis’ shares are at an all-time high, valuing Goh’s 66.3% stake in the company at S$2.1bil (RM5.67bil). Goh is group executive chairman of Silverlake Axis.
Growing up with 10 siblings in a kampung taught Goh about preserverance and hardship. After studying in a Chinese-medium school, Goh then went to an English-medium school in Kampung Kastam where he had to pick up English quickly.
“What did I do? In those days, the Chinese-English dictionaries cost RM2. So I did odd jobs and then I saved enough money to buy a dictionary,” he recalls.
After winning an English literature prize in his second year in school, Goh says he found mathematics easy and used to go to Chulia Street in Penang to pick up books on the subject.
“I still remember an Indian mathematics teacher who used to cane everyone except me. There was an occasion where I was reading a book while he was teaching, and he asked if I could give him some face,” he says.
An upbringing in a kampung in Penang made Goh learn about earning his keep.
Born with an intellect that shone through from a young age allowed Goh to not only sail through his pursuit of education but also made him realise that there was more to be done to fulfil his dream.
“Kampung mentality doesn’t chase after things. Life was simple but you start dreaming. You look up at the stars and ask what is happening there,” he says.
Obtaining a scholarship, Goh went to the University of Tokyo for his tertiary education. Not knowing any Japanese, he learnt the language, thanks to similarities with the Chinese characters, in a year and saw him complete his degree in engineering at the University of Tokyo in 1980.
“I did my first two years in one year. I did 53 of the 56 units in the first year and left the last three units for the following year. I didn’t know what to do, so I went to the discos,” he says.
“During that one-year period, I spent a lot of time reading everything. I used to read everything, but over time I realised that a lot of things are quite predictable.”
The next phase of his life, after working for Mitsubishi, found him at IBM Malaysia where he worked until 1989. He quickly rose through the ranks at IBM to a step below the country head. It was at IBM when he started working with banks, sowing the seeds for the next phase of his career.
“It’s true I went up very fast, most likely the fastest. Then I start getting bored. I was one-level below running the Malaysian operations but obviously it was about time to go. I was at this level for 2½ years. I was in charge of the banking sector and the manufacturing segment before that,” he says.
Quitting a job that was paying him a salary that was enough to buy a bungalow within a year didn’t make Goh all that nervous.
“I was actually lost about what I want to do. You see, kampung people don’t like power. We like to relax, no agenda,” he says.
Founding Silverlake Axis
Being a success is a result of a confluence of factors. Being good at something is essential as is luck. So is being in the right place and at the right time.
“It was the right place at the right time. I joined IBM and that was the right place. If I had stayed in my kampung, maybe today I will be cooking satay. But that will be quite goodsatay.”
The right time Goh was referring to was a period when banks in South-East Asia was ready to modernise. Needing a new computing platform to grow their business, Goh latched onto that opportunity and launched Silverlake Axis in 1989.
The going was tough in the early years but eventually, Silverlake Axis tasted success.
Today, it has about a 40% market share of the banking platforms of banks in South-East Asia. Of the top 10 banking groups in South-East Asia, six are customers of Silverlake Axis.
“After pointing out the problems of banking and resolving them, the banks bought it.”
Despite listing in Singapore and finding success in the republic, Goh says Malaysia is where he intends to list his company.
“In fact, for 10 years, nobody wanted to invest. The first 10 years of the company is when you always think of getting somebody in to fund the company so that you can work on what you like,” he says.
“But at that time, nobody knew what the heck I was talking about. Now, I doubt anyone really understands.”
Although Silverlake Axis is known for its banking platforms, Goh says its products are more than just for banking. The company has grown in recent years by making acquisitions of other companies to expand its offering to customers.
“It’s not just about providing services to the banking industry. In fact, most people still think that I work on banking,” he says.
Goh says while its products are more familiar to the banking industry in South-East Asia, they are not in other countries.
“In South-East Asia, we are recognised for our core banking, but in other parts of the world we are recognised as an advanced software developer that develops game theorectic software,” he says. “We are in airlines, retail, stockbroking, insurance, investment funds and in many industries.”
The next phase
On Tuesday, Goh met with management of Silverlake Axis where he spoke about the next phase for the software-based group.
To prepare for the three-hour presentation, Goh says he spent three months to pen his ideas and the end result was 50 pages of complex ideas.
“About three months ago, I decided to call all my work Game Theory. Game Theory is somewhere between economy, science, mathematics and even chemistry,” he says.
The Game Theory he developed is called the Goh (Mathematical Intelligence) Game Theory. In its essence, it uses mathematics to predict what businesses need and he believes his work will cut through many industries and services.
He say the Goh (MI) Game Theory is a step beyond the Nash Equilbrium, and a lot of the top mathematicians are working on that idea.
“There are so many places where that can be applied to but it will take some time for people to appreciate that theory,” he says.
“We are deep into it and that’s why we are famous in Japan and China and, Australia. We don’t want to go into core banking in those areas. The game theoretic business is coming and we are probably No. 1 in that in this world. I dare to say that.”
The boundaries of his thinking on Game Theory find their way into golf, one of his pleasures in life.
“Even mathematics is a game. You can consolidate all this into game theory.” His handicap is eight and he is trying to reach scratch.
Golf, he says, is a game just like the economy.
“Golf is a thinking game, it’s a game in which when you believe the ball is going left, it goes right. It’s a game that always proves that you’re wrong,” he says.
“Like I said, golf is a lot about knowing yourself. I have an eight because there are certain things that I don’t know about myself. But you know that eventually you’ll know more about yourself. You know that you can actually reach scratch. I’ve been playing close to 30 years. It’s also good exercise.”
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