From newspaper boy to SAF officer to CEO

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30 Apr 2020 | PEOPLE

From newspaper boy to SAF officer to CEO

Propnex CEO COL (Ret) Ismail Gafoor, 57, started his transformative life journey during National Service (NS).

// Story by Koh Eng Beng

// Photos by Chua Soon Lye & courtesy of Propnex

On his enlistment day in 1982, COL (Ret) Gafoor woke up at 4am to deliver newspapers to neighbourhood HDB flats. This was his daily routine since he was seven years old.

His dad, an immigrant from India, was a newspaper vendor who also ran a small provision shop. Life was hard for the family of eight – he stayed in a one-room HDB rental flat with his parents, four brothers and one sister. The boys would deliver newspapers in the morning before rushing to school, then help out in the provision shop after school.

After delivering his last newspaper, the then-19-year-old reported for enlistment at Central Manpower Base at Dempsey, beaming with excitement.

"I was looking forward to NS," recalled COL (Ret) Gafoor. "I wanted to break the monotony of the routine of delivering newspapers every morning and helping at the provision shop after school."

Finding his feet in NS

At that point in his life, he was feeling lost about his future. He understood that education was his ticket to a better life, but he didn’t do well for his O-levels.

However, everything seemed to click for him in BMT -- he took to the tough training like a fish to water and finished as the Best Recruit in his platoon.

Then-Recruit Gafoor (second row, second from left) with fellow recruits in BMT.

"I enjoyed every moment in the Army because I was a lean machine in terms of fitness. What (else) do you expect from someone who woke up at 4am and ran across the blocks to deliver newspapers every single day?" he said with a chuckle.

"The interesting thing is that the morning wake-up call was only at 5.30am! I got to sleep another one and a half hours more than when I was back home. So the Army was like heaven to me!"

The best BMT trainees typically go on to Officer Cadet School (OCS), but with only O-levels, he was posted to the SAF Non-Commissioned Officers School (now School of Specialist Cadets).

He finished in the top one percent of the Infantry Section Leader Course, earning a place in OCS eventually.

Then-Officer Cadet Gafoor with a fellow cadet in their OCS bunk.

After his officer commissioning, COL (Ret) Gafoor weighed his options and decided that the military was the best career choice for him.

"As long as you enjoy the journey – it doesn't matter whether it's the military or business – you'll do well."

As a Regular, he served in various roles such as company commander and operations officer in 3rd Battalion, Singapore Guards.

After 13 years in the SAF, he left in 1995 to become an entrepreneur. But he continued to serve as an Operationally Ready National Serviceman (NSman) for the next 20-odd years, retiring only last year as the Chief of Staff of 9th Singapore Division.

"If I didn't like the Army, I would not have continued the journey – I'm talking about a good 37 years in the Armed Forces, in various roles and capacities," said the 57-year-old.

Then-COL (NS) Gafoor receiving the Public Administration (Military) Bronze medal from then-President Dr Tony Tan in 2013.

As commanding officer of 596th Battalion, Singapore Infantry Regiment, he led his men to clinch the best NS Infantry Unit three times. In recognition of his commitment beyond the call of duty, COL (Ret) Gafoor was given the NSman of the Year award in 2004.

Never-say-die attitude

On his early days of entrepreneurship, COL (Ret) Gafoor recalled that he felt confident he could survive anywhere, thanks to the leadership and organisational skills he gained from the military.

While his SAF training could not entirely prepare him for the rough and tumble of the business world, it helped him to take each challenge in his stride.

Propnex is Singapore’s largest listed real estate agency.

Under his leadership, Propnex has grown to more than 8,400 property agents in Singapore, as well as another 2,000 in Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia. It also made its debut on the Singapore Exchange’s mainboard in 2018.

"Has the military taught me the right values? Yes, (such as) the 'never say die' attitude. Many may not survive the tough times, but with strong leadership and with the right people behind you, we can achieve more."

COL (Ret) Gafoor on how military values have helped him in business.

Bringing military practices to the company

His company bears the DNA of a military unit: He conducts a monthly "first parade" as well as a "stand by table" twice a year for his salaried staff (who are non-salespersons).

For those who are not familiar with military lingo, a "first parade" refers to a morning meeting, while "stand by bed" refers to bunk inspection.

Noting that these practices were not for regimentation purposes, COL (Ret) Gafoor said: "The outcome of having a ‘stand by table’ is not to find fault. It's to show that, as a CEO, I care for you."

For example, at one of these "stand by table" sessions, COL (Ret) Gafoor learnt that a staff member had bought a laptop stand so that she could work comfortably. He decided to buy one for all his staff.

COL (Ret) Gafoor believes in looking after the well-being of his staff, a good value which he picked up from the Army.

As for the monthly "first parade", it’s to thank his staff for their work, and to inform them about the company’s strategies and what they should focus on for the coming month, he explained.

"Leadership is not about one man, but about how a team of people are connected by embracing the right values."

Advice for national servicemen

If you are serving NS and would like to know what you should do in order to transform your life, just like what COL (Ret) Gafoor did, he has these tips for you:

  • Pick up the good values that you can learn from the Army, such as discipline and the belief that nothing is impossible.
  • Focus on learning leadership and organisational skills, and if given the opportunity, take up courses that are offered by the SAF.

"Keep an open mind to learn and to embrace; build your inner core during your NS. All these things will come in handy as life skills, whether you want to be an entrepreneur or you're going to work for anyone else." 

COL (Ret) Gafoor on how military values have helped him in business.

To hear more from COL (Ret) Gafoor, watch the clip below:

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