Those who go east go far. That’s something U Myint Wai truly believes in. At almost 80 years old, the seasoned businessman has learned his lessons well in life – a lot of them had to do with the time he spent in and dealing with a country in the Far East.
“Look at Japan. That country has no natural resources, but their people have enthusiasm to work very hard. That’s what I like. Their culture is very refined and their people are very decent in the way the talk,” said Wai, founder and patron of WaMinn Group of Companies, one of the biggest corporations in Myanmar with businesses spread in several industries, from enamel and garment to development and hospitality.
At the age of 19, young Wai won a government scholarship to go to Japan, where he studied industrial engineering at Tokyo Institute of Technology. He also spent one year studying Japanese language at Osaka University School of Foreign Studies and stayed to work at Toshiba Company.
Still, idealism made him long to return to Myanmar.
“I wanted to copy leaders of Myanmar at that time. The Thirty Comrades went to Japan, as well as 63 ordinary scholars. When they came back, they became leaders in most sectors: military, economic, politics, social. Some became leaders of the Communist Party, some became leaders of the Socialist Party, and seeing them, I just wanted to be part of the future leaders of the country,” Wai reminisced, menthol cigarettes puffing non-stop from his mouth.
When Wai returned home in 1967, Burma had turned into a socialist country. Life wasn’t what he had expected. Even finding clothing for his newly born son was a challenge. Thanks to a new job as factory manager reporting to the Ministry of Industry No. (1), he managed to get help from friends.
It was ingenuity and hard work that paved the way to his success. In the 1970s, Wai received an award from the Ministry for inventing a chemical to be used in fire extinguishers. Through the years he rose through the ranks, or as he called it, “floated with the environment”.
In 1993, Wai retired from government and was appointed as Chairman of the Government Employees Cooperative. It was after he finished his public duties that the Pyinmana-born man turned to business. He soon established a business that would bridge Japanese industry players with the Myanmar market.
Nowadays, most of the company’s operations have been handed over to Wai’s two sons. His oldest, Kun Naung Myintwai, serves as Chairman, while the younger Naung Kun Myintwai holds the titles of CEO and Vice Chairman.
“As patron and founder of this organisation, I do networking with friends from Japan. That’s my very first and foremost duty for my company,” he said. “I go for coffee. I bring friends here and see if we can work together. I’ll introduce my Chairman and CEO and have them talk to each other.”
When it comes to networking, his well-respected titles come in handy.
Wai is the President of the Myanmar Association of Japan Alumni as well as a leader in the ASEAN-Japan Business Meeting, a multilateral private-led forum that was started in 1974 under the initiative of the Keizai Doyukai (Japan Association of Corporate Executives).
But his biggest accolade, perhaps, is receiving the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette, from the Government of Japan, in 2014, for his contribution in promoting Japanese culture and advancing relations between Myanmar and Japan.
On the wall of the room we sat in, at the WaMinn headquarters in Mayangone Township, hung an oil painting by artist Maung Kyaw Nyunt depicting U Aung Zeya, founder of the Konbaung Dynasty of Burma who reigned from 1752 to 1760. The late king is considered one of the three greatest monarchs of Burma, alongside Anawratha and Bayinnaung.
Historical values aside, the painting also symbolises the kind of valour and gallantry Myint Wai likes to instill in his children, who see him as both a source of inspiration and pride.
“Growing up with him was like watching a classic movie of our time. You enjoy and remember every part of it. That how I enjoyed growing up with him. We still share jokes and thoughts every now and then. He is always there when I need him most. He always trained me to be the best in what I do, be it in sports, education or at work,” said Naung Kun, Wai’s younger son, now in charge of “senior management performance and strategic formulation for the board”.
A heavy smoker, Wai understands the perils of the habit. He makes it up by playing golf five times a week. “Every day from Monday to Friday I would wake up at 5:30 in the morning and go to the golf course,” said Wai, who attests to smoking 40 cigarettes a day.
As for Japan, the Land of the Rising Sun will always be his second home. At least once a year he still travels there to speak at public lectures and to visit old friends.
At some point, he tried to send his two sons to study in Japan, though to no avail. His oldest only stayed for three months, while his younger son preferred Singapore and Australia.
Wai now laughs about it. “I also tried sending my grandson to Japan, but he ended up attending university in London instead,” he said.
What remains even today in his family though, are the Japanese values of harmony, order and self-development, as well as respect for the elders.
“He always advises me to be polite but firm. He is my best friend and lifelong mentor who’s irreplaceable,” said Naung Kun.