By Dato’ Dr Vaseehar Hassan
A man who built lives, developed communities and redefined Islamic Finance
On the 19th of May, the 26th day of Ramadan, I received a call from a friend from Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM) to verify if Sheikh Saleh Abdullah Kamel, a prominent Islamic banker, had passed on. It was shocking news to me as I had only spoken to Saleh Kamel just two days earlier when he called me to check on the political situation in Malaysia. Having been a good friend of all our political leaders from all divides, he was always concerned about Malaysia, which he considered the best Islamic country in the world – a view commonly held by many Muslims in GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) and elsewhere.
A little shaken, I called Jeddah. My worst fears were confirmed when I was told my Chairman of well over 20 years (from 1990 to 2010), a mentor, a friend and associate for 30 years had passed on while performing his terawih prayers.
Saleh Abdullah Kamel was no ordinary Muslim. His life bore so many examples which deserve emulating at a time we are struggling as an Ummah globally. A self-made businessman, who ventured into several fields successfully, Sheikh Saleh was always working tirelessly to create wealth for the good of the society. Through his entrepreneurship skills and leadership, Dallah Albaraka Group ranked among the top five companies in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with business interests across the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
Over the 30 years of association with him, I learnt a lot about Islamic finance, zakat, entrepreneurship, leadership and, above all, humility from a man who did not need to depend on anyone for his livelihood. Yet, every time I was with him, I was reminded of how our lives are so fragile, and no matter how much we may have been blessed with by the Almighty, it could just be taken at a bat of an eye. I was managing his portfolio of businesses in Malaysia. He treated me more like a brother than an employee. I will illustrate two examples of how his leadership brand was not about making money but creating wealth for humanity.
In the early 90s when we had just established the Dallah Albaraka office in Malaysia, I was given RM100 million as an initial fund to invest in Malaysia (the company had more than RM500 million invested in Malaysia until 2010). Pending identifying viable projects in Malaysia, I decided to invest the funds in Bursa Malaysia instead of keeping them idle. As our good fortune would have it (coupled with the Tan Sri Rashid Hussain’s shrewd investment strategy), over a period of 12 months I was able to return 100 per cent profit on investment.
When I mentioned this proudly to Saleh Kamel, his reaction was, “Vaseehar, I am happy you made money for Dallah Albaraka, but this is not how I want you to invest. Please invest in industries and businesses where you can create wealth.” After we exited the market, Bursa crashed in 1993/94.
On another occasion, my late Chairman narrated to me an incident involving the Saudi Stock Exchange. During the booming market in Saudi Arabia, one of Dallah Albaraka’s listed companies was trading at SR300 (SR1 = RM1.16) per share, a high premium. The Group Chief Financial Officer (CFO) approached Saleh Kamel and, as a responsible CFO, recommended the group to divest five per cent of the subsidiary’s shares which would raise sufficient funds to completely pare down the group’s borrowings, making the group debt- free. Saleh Kamel asked the CFO, “Do you think our shares are worth SR300 each?” The CFO responded, “Well that’s the price the market is placing on our share.” After listening to the CFO, Saleh Kamel took no action to sell. After the meltdown of the Saudi Stock Exchange, the same subsidiary’s share was trading at SR75.
My Chairman, in his wisdom, explained to me, “I could have sold the shares at the peak and settled my borrowings but can you imagine an ordinary investor who bought my share at SR300 would be cursing me if he had lost money. That’s why I do not believe in stock market values. It’s no different than gambling.” It may sound harsh but he only considered the stock market for long-term investments and not short-term trading.
He was a responsible leader and businessman who wanted to create wealth through real production and not paper trading. There are many similar stories I could share on how Saleh Kamel was a man who did not believe in making money through impoverishing others but rather through real production using the earth’s resources responsibly. He had many dreams, which were left unfulfilled by his passing.
He was the first proponent of a Global Mega Islamic Bank in which he was prepared to invest US$500 million (US$1 = RM4.36). However, he did not succeed in securing investors who shared a similar long-term vision. Another of his dreams was to set up a global news channel to present worldviews in a fair and unbiased manner. He thought Malaysia would be the best place to house such a project as Malaysia had good reputation globally. Furthermore, he had great admiration for (Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, for raising the profile of Malaysia internationally especially amongst the Muslim nations.
To promote Malaysia as a preferred destination for tourism, he personally supervised the production of a 12-segment TV series on Malaysia including interviews with Dr Mahathir in the 90s, which were broadcast on his television channel Arab Radio Television (ART). Malaysia too had great respect for him as he was bestowed the title of Dato Seri by the State Government of Sarawak. He was also the first recipient of the Royal Award for Islamic Finance by the Government of Malaysia. In his last visit to Malaysia in November 2019, he met many leaders from both sides of the aisle as he believed that despite the ideological differences, the wellbeing of humanity and the country must always be placed front and centre. He never took sides, but always tried to steer on the side of trust, integrity and dignity.
While Muslims consider his passing on during the last week of Ramadan as a blessing, Saleh Kamel would have achieved more if he had had better health. He endured untold pain and humiliation in his later years, which he took in his own stride.
The world is orphaned of a great icon, an admirable and inimitable business leader, and I grief for the loss of a great friend who had a large impact on who I am today. Muslims in particular have lost a great personality with the passing on of Sheikh Saleh Kamel. May Allah place him with the righteous, and reward him in the hereafter for all his efforts to create a better world for humanity. For those of us who were granted the opportunity to walk in his path, though for a while, we owe it to our own conscience to keep alive his value system which was founded on integrity and self-respect.
Dato’ Dr Vaseehar Hassan is the former CEO of Dallah Albaraka Malaysia and presently Malaysia and South East Asia Representative for Dallah Albaraka Group.
Malaysia National News Agency
No.28 Jalan BERNAMA
Off Jalan Tun Razak
50400 Kuala Lumpur
Tel : +603-2693 9933 (General Line)
Email : helpdesk[at]bernama.com