Its no stairway to heaven, but Nirvana leads the way

David Kong Hon KongPETALING JAYA: There are only two things certain in life, death and taxes, as the adage goes and with the government having the monopoly on one, the other seemed like a potentially lucrative business opportunity to one young man in the mid-1980s.

Unlike in the West, however, the business of death is a rather taboo subject in Asian cultures, as most people hold the belief that profiting from someone else’s loss is not a “decent” way to earn a living.

That’s where David Kong Hon Kong, 61, decided to think out of the box, when he came up with the idea of a funeral-services business in Malaysia back in 1985, reports Forbes magazine.

“Death is a certainty. Whoever is born must die. That means a demand in perpetuity,” Kong said of the time that he decided to venture into this “new” service.

He would soon learn that no one wanted in on the idea, as banks wouldn’t lend him money, while local authorities would not approve his application to open a privately-run cemetery.

Kong persevered however, and it has paid off, with his Nirvana Asia now being Southeast Asia’s largest full-service funeral company. From dealing with the remains – embalming, burial and cremation – to casket design, simple headstones and elaborate tomb structures, Nirvana does it all.

Funeral service facilities are also available for people of diverse cultural and religious followings, as is the case in Southeast Asia, allowing for rituals and prayers to be conducted just prior to cremation or burial at the same cemetery location.

The business is also as much about the living as it is about the dead with 85 per cent of Nirvana’s revenue coming from “advanced orders” for various services including plots that will, hopefully, not be needed for years, with people as young as 40 planning ahead.

Fittingly, the business is also not exclusive to the rich, as the company offers packages at various price ranges.

Whatever the price may be, Kong may not have seen his future in being able to afford any package at a service provider like Nirvana, growing up in his hometown of Kuala Lipis, Pahang.

He was the third son in a family of 10, with his parents being rubber tappers, and he remembers waking up at 2am to follow his mother to the estate, and leave for school at 7am.

“My mama would buy me outsize shoes so they would last longer. The only new clothes I ever wore were school uniforms,” Forbes quoted Kong as saying of the tough life he led, with the school day being followed by more work, bundling and delivering latex, before he and his siblings went to bed.

In the early 70s, the teenage Kong followed his brothers to the bright lights of Kuala Lumpur and after various business ventures in sales which offered low margins and credit terms which didn’t always pay off, he settled to being a money-lender in 1985.

He had gotten married by then, and it was when his father-in-law had died, that he saw how difficult it was for ordinary folk, regardless of how much money they had, to do all that was necessary for their deceased loved ones.

Calling all that he had to go through “chaotic”, Kong saw that there was definitely a demand for a better service in this area.

Mental barriers

Keeping the business as a sideline to his money-lending services, his hand was forced when the recession hit Malaysia in 1987. With a wife and two kids to feed, he sought the advice of a friend who was a monk.

Overcoming the mental barriers he faced, not wanting to be seen profiting from the dead, he was able to acquire a piece of land, arranging a revenue-share deal with the owner of a 50-acre plot of land for burial purposes.

It took him a good two to three years, visiting local authorities, including councils and land offices before he finally got the nod to start a privately-run cemetery under the name Nirvana.

Last month, 36 years after that start, Kong decided to take his Hong Kong-listed Nirvana Asia private, after working out a deal with London’s CVC Capital Partners that saw the company being valued at US$1.1 billion (RM4.6 billion), according to Forbes.

As of March this year, Forbes Asia ranks Kong at number 34, in the list of Malaysia’s 50 richest people, with a net worth of US$550 million. However, with the HK delisting last month, his fortune is now estimated to be at US$720 million.

It has been a long and, at times, uncertain road for Kong, but it is the one certainty of life that has made him want to look at it as a way to give back to the people.

“Every life deserves a curtain call,” he tells Forbes in an interview done at his 18-storey Nirvana Center on the outskirts of the Malaysian capital.

“We celebrate life and its achievements and make sure that the transition to the other world is dignified, respectful and easy for both the deceased and their loved ones.”