Datuk Che Azizuddin Che Ismail is all smiles as he enters the brightly-lit living room of the family home, where his wife Datin Dr Ramlah Abd Aziz and their seven of eight children, plus two spouses and a grandchild, lounge.
A wider grin is reserved for his only grandchild, two-year-old Sofia E. Iman, a cheerful girl who knows him as “Tok Wan” (grandfather), whom he places on his lap as the large brood arrange themselves for our Father’s Day cover story photo shoot.
Hailing from Kuala Terengganu, the founder of Arca Corp, the parent company to subsidiaries that encompass the sectors of logistics, education, manufacturing and security, has raised eight children and yet was not raised by his own father.
“My mother passed away when I was young and my grandfather brought me to Alor Setar,” shares Azizuddin, 61. “I was brought up there along with my cousin.
“He was a headmaster, very strict and serious, I’m lucky to have been brought up by him. My father was a government servant and he travelled around a lot.”
Reclining at the dining table with his wife, Azizuddin looks back at the decades that have passed and what have made him the man he is today – a man whom his children love and respect.
“My first job after form five was selling toys at a stall during Pesta Kedah. I brought the toys in from Butterworth and I made good money at the time,” he recalls.
He went on to enrolling at the University of Malaya, where he met his wife, his pre-university course batchmate. She went on to study dentistry and he did a degree in Ecology.
“After that I worked as a production supervisor in an electronics company at the free trade zone Sungai Way for a year before following my wife to do her masters degree in Leeds, the United Kingdom,” he says, adding with a grin “She’s much smarter than me.”
It wasn’t the easiest of times – to make ends meet while Dr Ramlah was studying, Azizuddin worked as a cleaner at Makro Superstore, cycling to work at 5am every day.
Somehow, he also found time to take up a course in marketing at the Institute of Marketing Moor Hall, Birkshire, while also caring for their first child, Amirah, who was born in Leeds.
“Thank God I never fell sick,” he jokes. “I was motivated by our Pakistani landlord and how they survived there without any money or any help. I was a part-time worker, a ‘maid’ at home, I helped my wife with her thesis and took care of Amirah.”
Dr Ramlah chimes in: “He cooked too, especially during my confinement. He was my confinement nurse.”
After two years in the United Kingdom, they left with several achievements to their names – a new baby, his diploma in marketing studies and her masters in Dentistry.
Today, he has built a name for himself through decades of experience in logistics, and continues to grow his business with his latest venture, electric buses.
“Arca Corp is focusing on green energy and sustainability. That’s why we bought into a bus company, Gets Global Berhad (formerly KBES Berhad),” he explains. “We want to convert Putrajaya buses into EV, and next year we are trying to bring in autonomous driving in Putrajaya, that’s still in the testing period.”
Having worked his way up to become a respected figure in his field, despite the demanding nature of running several businesses, Azizuddin never compromises on time with his family.
Throughout their childhoods he would be home for dinner and they would spend weekends together – even today they remain a close-knit family, with each child coming to seek his advice almost daily.
His first five children have taken on roles within Arca Corp, after gaining experience in other companies upon graduating.
Amirah, who is 32, worked in Melbourne, Australia for seven years at PricewaterhouseCoopers before joining the family business, and the others – Atikah, 29; Aqilah, 27; Athirah, 25 and Che Aiman, 23 – have taken on various roles within the company. Aisyah, 21, and Aliah,18, are still pursuing their higher education, while Afifah, 15, is still in school.
Two are married – Amirah to Naqiyuddin Azhar and Aqilah to Tom Warrington, with whom she has a daughter, Sofia E. Iman Warrington.
Having raised children who belong to almost completely different generations, one wonders if his parenting style has changed between raising the eldest and the youngest.
“My parenting style is very simple, I give them freedom, with responsibility,” he explains. “When they reach a certain age, seven, they must start to pray five times a day. I told my eldest, Amirah, when we sent her overseas to study, you can travel the world but you must never forget to pray five times a day, and everything else will fall into place.”
“The foundation for the six guiding principles that I brought them up with is our faith and having love for your family, your friends and what you choose to do in life,” he adds. “My six guiding principles that I have instilled in them from when they were young are discipline, quality, initiative, commitment and integrity.
“Once they have the principles in place, I want their purpose in life to be to help people.”
For years, both Azizuddin and his wife worked full-time while they hired help to take care of the children. Eventually, after the birth of their fifth child, Dr Ramlah retired as a lecturer.
“Back then there were no cell phones, and if we called the house and the helper didn’t pick up the phone, we would rush back to check if the kids were alright,” he recalls. “So eventually my wife took on the role of being at home full time.”
Thankfully, Dr Ramlah says, their children aced all their exams and had no problems with discipline. “They were quite easy to take care of,” she says, laughing.
“Having so many children actually makes life easier,” jokes Azizuddin. “Our teamwork is the older ones taking care of the younger ones.”
While the teaching of family values remains the same, Amirah and Afifah (eldest and youngest, 17 years apart) experienced completely different lifestyles.
“When Amirah was growing up she didn’t have the luxuries that the youngest one has now, we sent her to childcare at other people’s houses, we couldn’t afford to send her to private school and so on. The younger ones have a different lifestyle with various gadgets and so on,” he says, adding “They may have different lifestyles, but we teach them the same values.”
“I always tell them, you must have love. Love your family, the values in your life, love your friends and you must love what you do,” says Azizuddin. “Even now I still kiss my daughters on the cheek, when they were small I would do this before bedtime after a ‘goodnight’ talk. I believe your children will be stronger if they know their parents love them. If you give them money, they will finish it in no time. If you give them love, it will last forever.”
Most of the children still live in the family home, except for Aqilah and her husband and their child – however they are over at the house frequently.
He thinks long and hard when asked when he feels he is able to “let go” and feel like his parenting job is done.
“Once they are married. For the girls if they aren’t married, the parents are responsible. The son, he will look after the parents. I always remind him about this responsibility.”
For the past two years Azizuddin has taken on a new role in life – as doting grandfather to Sofia, the adorable two-year-old who steals the show at our photo shoot.
He doesn’t shower her with gifts, instead he hopes the values he has taught his own kids will be passed down to her and future grandchildren.
“I want to see how they react when they ask for something and you don’t give it to them. I always tell my children life is not easy, you’ve got these challenges, do you want to cry about it? Or do something else. I want them to be strong,” he quips.
This Father’s Day will be spent how Azizuddin always spends his weekends – surrounded by his family.
“They will give me cards with nice words, take me out, but this is not just once a year. If I don’t call them for dinner, they’ll call me.”
As a father of eight does he have any advice for other fathers?
“Appreciate our life every day, make sure that we manage our time, it’s more important than managing money. When you miss out on time you cannot get it back. If you don’t spend time with your family you will lose the time forever. At all stages of your children’s lives, you must keep them close.
“Sometimes when you’re busy, your mood changes and sometimes when you are angry you might use harsh words on them, but you must balance these with loving words. At the end of the day, you must take stock, what have you done right, what have you done wrong, at the end of the day you must not lose their respect.”