HOESSEIN ENAS, Artist Self-portrait Reading the Quran, 1990, oil and pastel on canvas, 112 × 76 cm. Courtesy Ilham Gallery, Kuala Lumpur. 

Quiet Inspiration

Tun Daim Zainuddin

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

Tun Daim Zainuddin is known as an economics whiz. Bankers, tycoons, politicians and the press recognize him as the mastermind who extracted Malaysia from economic turmoil in the 1980s and again in the 1990s. But few people know about his zeal for art.

When I arrived at Tun Daim’s Ilham Tower, an elegant 275-meter-tall high-rise designed by Norman Foster in the heart of Kuala Lumpur’s commercial district, the building that houses his public art gallery, I first encountered a horde of primary-school students. They were enthusiastically discussing portraits of ordinary people and important figures from Malaysian society with their teachers. After they streamed out, I wondered when Tun Daim would appear. Lo and behold, he was already there, looking like a self-assured patriarch, in a short-sleeved, pale-mint shirt, wrinkled khakis and brown, velcro-strapped sandals. He had been quietly observing the students’ delight in the most unassuming way.

Characterized by business observers as restrained yet fiercely shrewd as an economist and businessman, Tun Daim is best known as former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s chief economic troubleshooter (1984–91, 1999–2001) and the key architect of “Malaysia Inc.” Before his political appointment, the self-made Tun Daim had earned a significant fortune in real estate and finance. His prior fame is one reason why Tun Daim prefers to remain under the radar of many art-market punters. Even his wealth is a matter of speculation, although in 2004, the Far Eastern Economic Review described him as “One of Asia’s Richest Men.” He speaks in a nearly inaudible whisper, and I heard about his collection of more than 1,000 pieces with my hands cupped to my ears.

Tun Daim, now 76, was exposed to art through his classmates at Sultan Abdul Hamid College—one of the oldest government English schools in Malaysia. Some of his friends, such as Ahmad Khalid Yusof and Ismail Zain, went on to become canonical figures in Malaysian modern art history. It was only when he went off to study law in London, in 1957, that Tun Daim was gifted his first painting—which unfortunately he misplaced.

He started buying art during his travels around Southeast Asia as a young lawyer and then financier. “I wanted to witness the fall of Saigon, so I went there in 1975 and bought one or two paintings.” At home, some of the artworks he acquired were by childhood friends whose careers he wanted to nurture. “I realized I could help them by buying the paintings. They were very cheap back then, maybe five US dollars apiece.” Works by some of the artists that he collected quite extensively, such as Ibrahim Hussein and Syed Ahmad Jamal, today go for tens of thousands.

By 1970, the successful young lawyer was trying his hand as an entrepreneur. After a few initial business failures, in salt mining in Kuala Selangor and plastic manufacturing, Tun Daim’s fortunes turned upward as a property developer in Kuala Lumpur and later as a bank investor. He sold his personal stakes in these businesses when he was appointed Minister of Finance in 1984. During Tun Daim’s time in government, he slashed the public debt and relaxed investment rules for banks and businessmen.

As he continued to travel he began assembling a substantial collection. He explained, “My only indulgence is looking at art. When I travel I always say, ‘Let’s go to galleries.’” He went on to recall: “I was in Istanbul about 10 or 15 years ago, and bought a painting by a princess from Jordan.” The artist was Fahrelnissa Zeid (1901–1991), a Turkish modernist painter who married a member of the Jordanian royal family. “I liked her self-portraits and I paid about USD 50,000 for one. A few years later a museum from Jordan offered me half a million for it. I refused, because I like it. These are my souvenirs.” He never sells any of his “memories,” and also admits that there is no focus to his collection, maintaining, “I buy what I like.”

It was after he stepped down as finance minister that he shifted to collecting international art. Outside the Ilham Tower are two of Ai Weiwei’s bronze sculptures, entitled Divina Proportione (2015), and eight large steel “stupas” by Thai female artist Pinaree Sanpitak. The collection also includes paintings by MF Husain, Marc Chagall, Joan Miró, as well as a large display of modern African art.

After his second tenure as finance minister, Tun Daim returned to banking in 2001 with the Swiss-based International Commercial Bank Group (ICB)—which he has since sold—and he invested heavily in banks throughout Africa and Eastern Europe. He fondly remembers his time in Africa: “I believe I have the largest collection of modern African art. There’s so much art to see in Africa, but in West Africa, the best art is in Ghana, and, in the east, in Kenya. South Africa is obvious and in the north it’s Morocco.” Though he reluctantly stopped traveling to Africa three years ago because of his age, he added, “The prices have jumped so much. When Christie’s and Sotheby’s come in, the values change.”

When asked if anyone in his family passed on their love of art to him, Tun Daim answered with an emphatic no. He was the youngest of 13 children. His father worked as a government clerk and his mother looked after the family. Tun Daim states on his personal website: “To my parents I owe everything. They sacrificed to provide me with a good education. Without that, I would not have succeeded.”

But today he is passing his passion for art to his own children. His sons, 17 and 20, were involved not only with the construction of the tower, but also the public galleries. Tun Daim smiles proudly: “One son chose the architect; he said, ‘Let’s get the best.’ And he chose Norman Foster. The Foster studio told me, ‘He’s our youngest client.’ I encourage them to get involved since they will take over the business one day.” The two young men pushed for their father to show video art in the third-floor galleries.

Open only since late August 2015, the museum—which does not charge admission—was part of the original plan since the building’s inception. “I needed to do this, otherwise so much of my work just sits in storage.” The museum mounts shows organized by its creative director, Tun Daim’s friend and former art dealer, Valentine Willie, with 20 percent of the works drawn from the family collection and the rest borrowed from private or institutional collections.

The inaugural show, “Picturing the Nation,” was of Malaysian modern portrait painter Dato’ Hoessein Enas, and a display of newly created works by four contemporary Malaysian artists responding to Enas’s works commissioned by Shell Oil to commemorate the founding of Malaysia in 1963. Officiating at an exhibition for young artists in Selangor’s Galeri Shah Alam, in late 2015, Tun Daim stated, “Visual artists must use their brush and paints to tell the current changes the nation is going through and even include the protests by the people, as this will become historical record.”

With this in mind, it is not surprising that both the gallery and the office tower are named Ilham, which means “inspiration” in Arabic and Malay. The only one suggestion by his sons that Tun Daim rejected was to have the gallery take on their family name.
In this respect, the museum remains consistent to Tun Daim’s philosophy to remain discreet, yet make a significant impact on Malaysian culture.

Portrait of Tun Daim Zainuddin. Courtesy Tun Daim Zainuddin.