Shipping magnate Frank Tsao dies, aged 94

Mr Tsao left a legacy in both Malaysia and Singapore.
IMC Group

Shipping magnate Tan Sri Frank Tsao, who founded the International Maritime Carriers (IMC) Group, died in Singapore on Monday (Aug 12) at age 94.

Mr Tsao, who was made an honorary Singapore citizen in 2008, had helped champion the country’s development as an international maritime hub.

He was also a key founding member of a consortium of Hong Kong tycoons that became Suntec City Development.

His late mother, Mrs Tsao Ng Yu Shun, set up the non-profit Tsao Foundation in 1993 to help seniors in Singapore stay healthy and independent. The foundation is now chaired by his daughter, Dr Mary Ann Tsao.

Mr Tsao was born in Shanghai in 1925. Both his father and grandfather were bankers, while he studied economics at Shanghai’s St John University. He started his career working in family-owned businesses in banking, shipping and trading.

In 1949, the family was forced to leave the city in a hurry, just weeks before the Red Army marched in. Mr Tsao, the eldest son, went to Hong Kong to try and salvage the family businesses. His parents emigrated to Brazil, while his younger siblings moved to Canada.

That period of his life was simply “a matter of survival”, he told The Straits Times in a 2005 interview. “When people are desperate, they work very hard,” he said.

Mr Tsao started out by trading in beans. “I rented a barge and went to North China and bartered for beans – red beans and green beans. From China, we crossed over to Japan and traded the beans for chemicals and steel, which we took back to Hong Kong and sold. Then we loaded up again and went back to North China again,” he said.

After months of studying shipping journals and shipping organisations to familiarise himself with freight markets, Mr Tsao finally bought his first ship.

It had belonged to a Singaporean businessman and was old. But it marked the beginning of his shipping empire, which later became known as the IMC Group.

Mr Tsao had left a legacy in both Malaysia and Singapore.

In 1968, he helped the Malaysian government establish the first national shipping line, Malaysian International Shipping Corp. He also contributed to the setting up of the first shipyard and seamen’s training institute, as well as the modernisation of the maritime legal framework. He was awarded the title of “Tan Sri” for his work.

In the early 1990s, Mr Tsao moved the operational headquarters and bulk shipping operations of IMC to Singapore. He was also instrumental in the establishment of the National University of Singapore’s Centre for Maritime Studies, and the IMC Group contributed $1 million towards its funding.

In 2006, Mr Tsao became the first person to receive Singapore’s International Maritime Centre (Individual) Award for his contributions to the maritime sector. The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore said then that Mr Tsao “follows the shipping developments in Singapore passionately, offering much of his personal time to expound on concepts and ideas which would drive Singapore’s growth as an international maritime centre”.

The Honorary Citizen Award he received in 2008 was the highest honour given to non-Singaporeans.

Mr Tsao is survived by his four children. His late wife, Madam Maisie Chow Tsao, died in December 2014.