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Global vision, Asia ties

Thus a new career was launched in the tiny city-state that has become an international banking and finance powerhouse.
Global Vision

Dedication to cultural preservation is a Tai family legacy, a gift to Jack Tai and his siblings from parents who relocated halfway around the world and insisted their New York City-born children attend daily Chinese school. Keeping a firm hold on one’s cultural heritage was part of a set of values centered on personal and family honor. “We were taught to conduct ourselves to bring distinction to the family,” says Tai. “That, of course, led to a strong sense of self-respect, self-confidence, and ambition.”

His parents showed by their example that sheer dedication and plain hard work come before achievement. And notwithstanding their very limited means, they were charitable, sharing such good fortune as they had with the church and with relatives back in China.

Jack and his wife, Kay—a Skidmore College graduate who also serves her alma mater as trustee—likewise set an example of hard work and generosity for their children, Catherine and Michael. Freed of the first generation’s vocational pressures, they have explored broader options in their college educations. Yet like their father, both seem comfortable weaving strong cultural traditions into their lives even as their horizons expand. Tai notes with great pride that without any parental pressure both children decided to study Chinese.

“We haven’t placed limitations on what our children should pursue,” says Tai, “but we have insisted that they be leaders, rather than followers, in whatever they chose to pursue.” That means knowing something well, and then having the confidence to take thoughtful risks. “Life doesn’t value processors,” he believes. “Life rewards leaders and entrepreneurs.”
Tai’s first word to describe Singapore is intimacy. Yet while the nation is small—a population of 4 million on an island smaller than the borough of Queens—its aspirations are large, and it offers one of the world’s top business environments. Information technology in Singapore defines the cutting edge: you can buy stocks and register your car at ATM machines. It’s an optimal location for 21st-century banking.

Tai is every bit the 21st-century banker. As CFO Asia noted in February 2001, “Jackson Tai may not have invented the Internet, but he has certainly embraced it.” DBS is a recognized leader in e-commerce and online investor relations. It has also received annual awards for good governance, full and timely disclosure, and accountability to stakeholders, all of which, says Tai, “lie at the heart of being world-class.”

The metamorphosis of what began in 1968 as a development financing institution into a world-class bank has gathered speed under Tai’s leadership. With acquisitions such as Dao Heng Bank, DBS has diversified its services, increased market share, and extended its reach through much of Asia. Outside of Japan and Australia, DBS is now the third largest bank in Asia, behind only Hong Kong Shanghai Bank (HSBC) and Standard Chartered Bank. But those two banks are headquartered in the United Kingdom—a distant time zone. DBS is making its mark as a major Asian bank headquartered in Asia.

That Asian focus doesn’t translate into parochialism when it comes to personnel. The bank has been noteworthy for extensive recruitment of international talent. What better way to build an enterprise into the position of global business player?

Diversity of talent, Tai says, is just as critical to building a leading university, one that prepares students to “compete across boundaries.” As a Rensselaer trustee, he is in a good position to advocate a broad international perspective in student recruitment as well as the curriculum, and he likes what he hears from President Shirley Ann Jackson.

“Dr. Jackson is an internationalist,” says Tai. “She has great peripheral vision, and she is bringing a great sense of excellence to Rensselaer. If we are excellent, we have great relevance, on a national and international scale.”

A global vision is key to success in today’s economy, says Tai. “The best schools, organizations, and companies have a diversity of people and experiences. The best teachers and the best captains of industry have lived overseas. The best have a borderless frame of reference.”

Tai’s own borderless frame of reference coexists comfortably with a commitment to his Asian heritage. He is active on the Committee of 100, a New York-based nonprofit group of influential Chinese-Americans advocating fair treatment of Asians in America. During the Clinton presidency, he was appointed to a 17-member White House Commission on United States-Pacific Trade and Investment Policy. And since his San Francisco days, he has served as a commissioner of the Asian Art Museum, which, he says, “has one of the best collections of Asian art in the U.S.” He is also on the boards of the Smithsonian Institution and the San Francisco Symphony, and is a director of the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore.

Jack Tai’s love of the arts was nourished at Rensselaer, where he played timpani in the orchestra, and it has followed him wherever he has gone since then. So, too, has his belief that success comes to those who take risks, have a point of view, and “bring something to the table.” That applies in any culture. “Whatever country you are in,” says Tai, “people will accept you as long as you are seen to add value.”

His hope for his two children is that all of the family’s travel has “extended their peripheral vision, so that they are not anchored by local boundaries or narrow interests.” They need only look to their father to see where such a borderless frame of reference can lead.

Kathryn Gallien is a freelance writer in Saratoga Springs.



Rensselaer Magazine: March 2002
President's View Your Mail From the Archives Hawk Talk Class Notes Features
Front Page At Rensselaer Milestones
In Memoriam Making a Difference Staying Connected
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