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RAWEENA RAVAL and RAJNI ANAND LUTHRA on Maha Sinnathamby, the Brisbane-based entrepreneur who cites Mahatma Gandhi and Swami Vivekananda as his inspirations
Failures, they say, are the stepping stones to success.
One of the Brisbane Indian community’s best-loved stalwarts knows this only too well, even though it may be hard to even utter the term failure in the same breath as his name.
Maha Sinnathamby has himself said on manyan occasion,
“I have learnt far, far more from my failures than my successes and I have failed much, much more than I have succeeded.”
And yet, the 75-year-old Maha Sinnathamby is well-known not only to Brisbane’s Indian community, but to the wider mainstream as one of this nation’s leading entrepreneurs.
He was listed 52nd in this year’s BRW 200 Rich List.
One of his main claims to fame is that he is the visionary behind the planned city Greater Springfield, just outside of Brisbane.
As the Chairman and Founder of Springfield Land Corporation, Sinnathamby took on the project with a partner nearly twenty years ago, on a stretch of barren land that, in his own words, “nobody wanted to touch”. Today, the 7000-acre parcel of land is home to over 30,000 residents. It is projected the population will increase by more than 100,000 in another twenty years, to see the township become a city about the size of Darwin.
Greater Springfield is hailed as one of the most inspiring development projects in the modern world, and has even been termed the “World’s Best Master Planned Community” by the International Real Estate Federation, FIABCI.
In short, Maha has built a new city from scratch, the tenth largest master-planned community world-wide, and only the second in Australia after Canberra.
In the process, not only has he won awards for its master plan, he has also been hailed for his visionary business philosophy that incorporates much Gandhian thought.
In 2013, he was also featured on the list of 100 Most Influential Indians in the World, the sole entrant from Australia.
Maha Sinnathamby’s story is hugely inspiring for us in the Indian community. As a young student at the University of New South Wales in the 1960s, he drove taxis to support himself. His life before was no fairy tale either. He came from a remote fishing village in Malaysia called Ranatau that had no electricity or even running water. Travelling 36kms by road everyday to school, he learnt early on about the absolute importance of good education. That lesson continues to drive him to this day.
“Education is the currency of the future, which cannot be stolen from its owner,” Sinnathamby tells Indian Link. “It is the most fundamental thing that any human being can possess in today’s world; it is a type of currency that one can encash anywhere in the world. At one stage in my life when I had lost everything, someone said to me, ‘Maha, you have lost all your money, your house, your car, what will you do now?’ My reply was that I haven’t lost something that is invaluable and that is still encrypted in my head. Education is vital to succeed in life and to contribute and add value to society. It is the quintessential factor in the success of a nation.”
After finishing at UNSW, Maha found work as a design engineer but moved to Perth to start a property business. In the 1980s, married and with a young family, he shifted base to Queensland. Small residential properties and some commercial projects got him off on the path to building a portfolio of sorts.
There are many stories about how Maha lobbied government departments and ministers to get the Greater Springfield dream off the mark (including one about how all 89 Members of Parliament voted to have some legislation changed to get infrastructure out to the plot).
And there are those who had laughed at him earlier, ‘a Malaysian born Sri Lankan migrant and former taxi driver’ with no money but with great visions for a ‘happy city’.
The very same people are probably now parroting one of Maha’s own business mantras: if you believe in something that is right and is legal, then don’t ever give up.
“There is something in human nature, that if you follow this rule and don’t give up, the other side surely will,” Maha observes.
His vision of creating a community “where people can live, learn, work and play” has become a reality.
Only weeks ago, Maha welcomed General Electric’s new state headquarters to Springfield, a $72 million energy-efficient building housing 480 of the company’s 750 Queensland staff, with room for 700 more, a significant investment in GE’s Queensland operations. GE joins the award winning Brookwater Golf and Country Club, Brookwater Golf and Spa Resort, Global Icon, the $85million, 80-bed Mater Private Hospital, Dusit Thani’s, the University of Southern Queensland, Orion Shopping Centre, two train stations – Springfield and Springfield Central, 10 schools, 11 childcare centres, and much more, as the suburb continues to grow. The plan follows Maha’s vision of catering to overall health, wellness and education – allowing the community to live, work, rest and play well.
Is the reason for emphasising these factors that, in today’s society, a sense of community and ‘loving thy neighbour’ is somehow getting lost – whether due to work pressure or other circumstances? In reply, Maha talks about two types of capital.
“There’s human capital, where we are in an environment and value is being added by others; and there’s social capital, where value is being added by society through various interactions. I am proud to state that Greater Springfield has the first Indigenous school in the country. Through this educational facility we want to ensure that these kids are accepted into normal society and not segregated.”
In the Indian community though, the debate is more about public vs private schooling.
“I personally don’t feel that private schooling is necessary,” Maha says. “It is better to be with the tribe rather than a ‘select’ tribe. Public schooling gives greater exposure and indirectly creates more competition compared to a select number in private schools. However, in society today, there is a market for private schooling and it has its own place. But does it create a ‘class system’? I don’t think so; there will be families who will place importance on education and will sacrifice life’s small luxuries to enable their kids to attend private schooling. I think a person, regardless of background, will succeed given the right attitude, aptitude and determination.”
He might as well be talking about himself with that last thought. Despite a personal net worth estimated at over $903 million, it has never been the acquisition of wealth that drives Maha Sinnathamby. Another of his oft-quoted mantras is: “Chase success and money will follow”, as he firmly believes that chasing money will not develop a person to his full potential.
Maha is heavily committed to uplifting society, his ideas and visions inspired by Mahatma Gandhi whose teachings he follows closely. He has been following Gandhigiri since the age of 22, which you might say, changed his perspective on life. During the course of this interview, he gave many examples of how Gandhigiri had influenced his life but one that struck a chord with his own story of success, was when he said, “Gandhi changed the course of history. He had no money and no army. All he had was self-belief, and the belief that righteousness and truth would win.”
Maha talks passionately about giving back to society through various community outlets. Currently, he holds many leadership positions such as Patron for GOPIO (Global Organisation for People of Indian Origin) and FICQ (Federation of Indian Communities in Qld). He has recently donated generous amounts of land for the building of the Vedanta Centre (Brisbane Chapter) in Springfield Lakes.
“Name one person who has taken it all with him,” he laughs. “Whilst you have the capacity, then it is important to share it. A lot of people have given to me and now it’s my turn to give back. My mother used to say, ‘When you give, your hand is at the top, and when you receive, your hand is at the bottom. Always have the joy of having that hand on top’. You know, the well that you draw water from has plenty more fresh water coming in. The more you share your thoughts with others, and the more you add value to others, the richer you become in your own mind.”
There is no doubt that there is much we can all learn from Maha’s story. His guiding principles in business, particularly, seem to be mentoring other young entrepreneurs as they set out on their own paths. He has himself said many times, “I love having the opportunity to inspire you all to achieve your own greatness and success”. These have been put together in a book entitled Stop Not Till the Goal is Reached, released in 2014. The book, written by Scottish author Karen McCreadie with Sinnathamby’s full co-operation, has been described as ‘part biography, part business guide and part self-help manual’. It lists ten principles for fearless success, and is inspired by the teachings of Swami Vivekananda.
Readers might be tempted to think, Maha has been fortunate to get the right opportunities and become the success that he is today; where are my opportunities?
“Like you, I was also looking for those opportunities too,” Maha reveals. “I kept turning every stone that came my way. Under many stones I turned, there was nothing. Some stones I turned had a snake that came out to bite me. Other stones I turned and put back, even though I found a gold coin underneath. Just keep turning, and you will find what you are looking for.”
Forge your own destiny, seems to be the take-away from the meeting with this inspirational man.
As well, think big, and you will be big.
And of course, pay it forward.
And finally, don’t be afraid of failures.
Interview conducted by Raweena Raval