As a teenager, Suzie Selvam Wong was already fascinated about the hotel industry – so much that when she was in high school and supposed to be mugging for the SPM examination, she pored over her elder brother’s hospitality books instead!
Her brother was then pursuing a course in hotel management in London, and was home for the holidays. Naturally, after Wong completed her secondary schooling in the early 1980s, she went in search of work in a hotel.
Her father and uncle were entrepreneurs themselves. She remembers that they were hoteliers as far back as during the Japanese Occupation. “I always believe that the passion for being a hotelier is from them,” she says.
The first job Wong landed was with a hotel in her hometown of Kuantan, Pahang. “I started my career as a receptionist in Samudra Beach Resort. I developed multiple skills there.”
Wong finds it challenging and interesting to work in the hospitality industry, as she meets a lot of people from diverse backgrounds. “The job scope enables me to be a more multi-talented person, such as being in the front line (front office) and back line (management).
“This industry also keeps me going, as I have to keep tabs on fast-advancing technology and the trends in room concepts, food and beverage and events (festive, weddings, etc). Thus, there is never an end to self-development.”
Hearts knit together
After a year-and-a-half at Samudra, Wong received a job offer from Merlin Inn Resort, Kuantan, also with the front desk. She accepted, and two years later, she was promoted to supervisor.
“It was an amazing adventure working with the Merlin chain of hotels as they treated colleagues like family members. I worked in Merlin Inn Resort Kuantan for 10 years, until it ended its operations,” she recalls.
Over the course of her work, she met her husband-to-be Rajah Selvam, who hails from Cameron Highlands.
“Merlin Inn Resort Kuantan toughened me up in every aspect, which provided me with the bravery to stand on my own. I met my life partner at this hotel as well. He used to manage the Food and Beverage department and the bar,” she says.
Back to the highlands
“One fine day, my husband and I were having a chat about the direction of our journey, as Merlin no longer existed. He wanted to return to his hometown, and we were wondering what to do up there. Then, my husband decided that we should use our knowledge and expertise to build our own business.”
So, in 1997, the couple ventured into business. They started off by transforming a shoplot into a 10-room budget hotel in Tanah Rata, Cameron Highlands. Rajah believed that there was potential to start a budget hotel there due to a lack of supply – this was 21 years ago.
“We managed the hotel for a year and then moved to a 30-room hotel, which is strategically located in the heart of Tanah Rata town. To make things more interesting, within the same premises, we had four other businesses: a barber shop, a studio, a telecommunications kiosk, and a bistro and pub. We managed these businesses for 12 years,” says Wong.
Their hard work paid off and the opportunities kept coming, so in due time they were able to own a 12-storey hotel with 178 rooms. “Now, we are basically managing the whole property while our general manager takes care of the daily operations. I no longer interfere with the reception. However, it’s my routine to just supervise the daily revenues and monitor the profits and loss,” Wong adds.
At the start of this year, Wong’s good friend and former classmate Janet Liew was holidaying in Cameron Highlands. When Wong found out that Liew was in Cameron’s with a group of friends, she generously invited all 12 of them (including this writer) over for tea.
(Wong and Liew had studied together in SMK Sg Lembing in Kuantan, in the late 1970s to the early 80s.)
On the day of our visit, it was cold, rainy and misty. The hot scones and tea that Wong had prepared for us were perfect for that sort of weather.
Her two daughters helped to serve the teatime treats: Fresh-from-the-oven scones – lightly crisp on the outside, soft and fluffy on the inside – with little bowls of clotted cream, swirls of butter, and her very own homemade strawberry jam, luscious and velvety, with just the right amount of sweetness.
The tuna puffs that her daughter had made were dainty and tasty.
“I have loved scones since childhood, but none of the scones I had in Malaysia tasted like the ones from their country of origin, England,” Wong recalls.
When she got her new oven two years ago, she began baking in earnest. Since then, she has been churning out the most delicious scones for her family, relatives and friends.
“Cameron Highlands is famous for its tea and scones, which are a must-try here.My guests can have it on my terrace with an English-themed setting.”
She likes to experiment with different flavours, both sweet and savoury. And for healthier versions, she leaves out the sugar and adds chia seeds and mixed nuts. For fruity scones, she uses only natural fruits.
Tea for two … and more
Accompanying the delicious teatime snacks during our visit was Wong’s signature masala tea served in two teapots: one silver and the other, white and gold.
Besides those teapots, Wong also owns several others from around the world. Some are fascinating, such as the double-spouted floral teapot, from which one can serve two different types of tea.
“I developed a soft spot for teapots ever since I visited Melbourne years ago. I just fell in love with their numerous designs,” says Wong.
Treading the same path
In the family, Wong and her husband are not the only ones in the hospitality business. Today, their two older children are following in their footsteps. Their youngest, who turns 13 this year, has a long way to go before deciding on her career path.
Her son has a Bachelor’s degree in Business Management (Marketing) from the University of South Australia,and a Master’s degree in International Hospitality Management from the University of Derby, England.
“For now, he is managing the daily operations of the hotel, and reports to our resident manager. So far, I can see that he is giving his best in making over the hotel with a more urban concept than before,” explains Wong.
Wong’s daughter just completed her Bachelor’s degree in International Hospitality from Taylor’s University Lakeside Campus.
“She has great passion for the operations side, and loves dealing with people. She was well groomed by the Mandarin Oriental, KL, in every area of operations. For now, she is managing the staff training and sales.
“Back in her schooldays, when her friends were having their school breaks, she would be helping us out at reception. Believe me, she sells very well and, at times, beyond my expectations.
“I am fortunate my kids have a similar mindset about working in the hotel industry. My husband and I also showed them the advantages of being self-employed. Since we’ve structured the foundation for the business, we are passing the baton over to them to continue the journey,” says Wong.