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Top 10 Malaysian Leaders & Icons 2023

Get an inside look into how these inspirational icons achieved their big successes!

Over the years, Malaysia has produced many role models who were able to go above and beyond and come out on top. These leaders and icons have taken everything that has been thrown at them and showed us their excellence in leadership. In honour of these iconic leaders, let’s take a look at 10 warriors who have made Malaysia proud.

Datuk Redzuawan Bin Ismail (Chef Wan)

chef wan
The Energetic and Bubbly Chef Wan presenting a dish for a Qatar Airways event.
Source: Qatar Airways

Speaking of icons, who better to start off than Chef Wan! Prior to his stellar career as a chef and TV personality, he was an accountant for 7 years before deciding to dedicate his life to making a name for Malaysian cuisine and doing what he loves most, cooking. Two decades later, Chef Wan has risen to become one of Malaysia’s most prominent chefs and esteemed TV personalities. 

Earlier this year, he made waves by opening the 3rd branch of his rising restaurant chain, “De.Wan 1958 by Chef Wan” at Bangsar Shopping Centre, which serves a scrumptious variety of Malaysian cuisine with a twist. His first branch in The LINC Kuala Lumpur is known for its calming and light-hearted environment and represents the physical embodiment of Chef Wan’s personality which makes it the perfect place for weddings and company events. 

From an accountant to a celebrity chef to even a successful business owner, Chef Wan has conquered it all!

Michelle Yeoh

michelle yeoh
Michelle Yeoh making history as the first Malaysian to win an Oscar.
Source: AFP via The Star

How could we make a list of Malaysian icons and not include the one and only Tan Sri Michelle Yeoh? She is easily the most famous Malaysian to have come out of the film industry and it’s not going to change anytime soon!

Prior to her blockbuster career in the movie world, Michelle was gracing the stage as a ballerina while enrolled in the Royal Academy of Dance in London. She went on to win the title of Miss Malaysia World in 1983 before getting her big break in the film “Yes, Madam” featuring Jackie Chan, where Michelle proved she belonged in this business and the rest is history.

After years of dominating the film industry, Michelle was honoured with her first Oscar Award due to her excellent performance in the movie “Everything Everywhere All at Once”. A living legend, what Michelle Yeoh has accomplished in her career has been nothing short of spectacular and will be admired for generations to come.

Lee Chong Wei

lee chong wei
Lee Chong Wei making Malaysia proud by bringing home Olympic Silver.
Source: Lee Chong Wei via X

Hailing from Perak, Lee Chong Wei was keen that he wanted to play basketball in his earlier years, but thankfully, his parents advised him against it as they didn’t want him to be playing in the scorching heat and convinced him to take up badminton.

His love for badminton blossomed and he eventually became good enough to catch the eye of badminton legend, Misbun Sidek. This led to Chong Wei being drafted to the national team at the young age of 17 years old. In the year 2003, he entered the Malaysian Open and managed to reach the final but unfortunately only managed to win 2nd place. The loss made him hungry for more as he earned his first two titles the very next year.

After a historical career, Chong Wei was inducted into the Badminton World Federation Hall of Fame alongside Chinese rival legend Lin Dan, who he faced twice in the Olympics finals. Chong Wei holds the record for being ranked 1 in the world for 349 weeks and it’ll definitely be a while before someone can reach his level of excellence.

Khairul Aming Kamarulzaman  

khairul aming
Khairul with his best-selling sambal.
Source: khairul aming via Instagram

Khairul Aming Kamarulzaman, better known by his online persona “Khairul Aming”, is a content creator that mainly focuses on food and sharing his recipes. His rise to fame began in 2018 when Khairul would upload daily videos of him cooking his own dishes. He started with around 800 followers, but little did he know that he would eventually skyrocket to a staggering 4 million.           

With his new ever-growing following, he launched his sambal brand “Sambal Nyet”, and sold a million units within a few months. From those sales, he invested it back into his business by opening their first factory in Kelantan. As of now, Sambal Nyet produces up to 5,000 thousand bottles a day and has a revenue of an astounding RM20 million! 

From humble beginnings to being a sambal tycoon in Malaysia that sells out inventory in seconds after restocking, Khairul Aming has shown us how passion and determination can help you reach places you would never even imagine.

Dato’ Sri Siti Nurhaliza Binti Tarudin SSAP, DIMP, JSM, SAP, PMP, AAP

siti nurhaliza
The Malaysian with the voice of an angel.
Source: Siti Nurhaliza via Instagram

Dato’ Sri Siti Nurhaliza Binti Tarudin lives to be in the spotlight. Starting her career in 1995, she gained recognition with her inaugural single “Jerat Percintaani,” which became a smashing hit and pushed her into the spotlight. Further adding to her success, she clinched the Bintang HMI award later in the same year.

One of her biggest feats was performing for Queen Elizabeth at the Commonwealth Games closing ceremony in 1998. Being followed by millions on Instagram, She has not only made her name with her angelic voice, but also made an impact in the Malaysian cosmetic industry when she opened her company “SimplySiti”. 

Siti has then gone on to win awards and grow her music business “Siti Nurhaliza Productions” to the very top of the industry while performing all over the world. The voice of the nation, Siti will go down in Malaysia’s history as one of the best vocalists of her time.

Henry Ting

henry ting
Master of ergonomics and comfort.
Source: EY

A pioneer of gaming chairs in Malaysia, Henry Ting saw a potential market for gaming chairs when he realized that people nowadays spend more time in their chairs than their beds. In a momentous effort to help people feel more comfortable while working or gaming, he founded TTRacing. 

With TTRacing, Henry has provided better comfort and ergonomics for gamers all around Southeast Asia as he has expanded his sales to the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand. With innovative additions, he has also managed to make them more affordable than office chairs that claim to offer ergonomic support. 

Since then, TTRacing has reached a milestone of selling over 300,000 chairs and expanded into different markets of ergonomic furniture such as gaming tables and floor pads that allow you to elevate your feet while seated at your desk. As a leading figure in the ergonomic furniture industry, Henry has shown creativity and innovation with TTRacing and does not plan to slow down anytime soon.

Anthony Tan

anthony tan
Reinnovating transportation one step at a time.
Source: Ian Teh via Fortune Magazine

Being the youngest child of one of the richest families in Malaysia, Anthony grew up with many prominent businessmen to look up to which helped him gain the mindset of an entrepreneur. He would sell off his valuable comic books once he was done reading them in order to earn some extra pocket change. 

While studying at Harvard, Anthony came up with the idea of making an application that would help you book taxis with the information of the driver stated in the app. This would be easier, safer and stress-free compared to the traditional way of booking taxis in Malaysia. However, Anthony’s lecturers didn’t really think it was a good idea, this made Anthony more eager to be successful. 

Starting “Grab” in a small garage with some friends, the company solved many problems that taxi riders faced. Grab offered safety and assurance while also generating more jobs by allowing individuals to register their personal vehicles for passenger transportation. Today, Grab is also known for its food delivery services. This, in particular, has helped many restaurants put their name on the map as people now have more access to them. If Anthony had listened to people who doubted him, he would not have risen to where he is now!

Anthony Francis Fernandes PSM, CBE

Tony Fernandes posing for a bloomberg photoshoot
One of the most established Malaysians of all time!
Source: Edwin Koo via Bloomberg

The founder of one of the world’s largest budget airlines, Tony Fernandes started AirAsia from the ground up. He purchased it for only a ringgit but assumed all the debt that came with it. With his vision and determination to provide Asians with low-cost flying, the airline managed to pay back its debt in only two years!

Besides leading the budget airline to the top, Tony also has many other ventures under his belt. To begin with, he was the founder of the Tune Hotel chain. This chain also aimed to offer customers affordable pricing while prioritizing quality hotel services. Additionally, he even ventured into Formula 1 with his Lotus Team, and he remains the majority owner of Queens Park Rangers, a team currently competing in the English Championship. With other projects like Epsom College, AirAsia Food and AirAsia Ride, Tony is an entrepreneur through and through. 

Tony stepped down as CEO of AirAsiaX recently to direct his focus to its holding company, Capital A. However, he still wants to help AirAsiaX soar to greater heights and help recover its losses from the pandemic. Tony is one of the most successful businessmen in Malaysia and he is not going to slow down anytime soon.

Lee Thiam Wah

Lee Thiam Wah
Lee shows us that nothing is impossible when you have the spirit.
Source: Beetify

Whether you are looking for groceries, buying pet food or simply craving a soda, chances are you’ve visited 99 Speedmart to make a purchase. Lee Thiam Wah was only 8 months old when he was diagnosed with Polio, a disease that causes paralysis through person-to-person transmission, leaving him permanently paralyzed from the waist down. 

However, this didn’t stop Lee. He couldn’t go to secondary school due to a lack of funds for transportation fees. He sold small items outside his family home to earn cash while still finding time to learn whenever he could. He managed to earn quite a sum of money from doing this and was able to open a small grocery shop named, “Pasaraya Hiap Hoe”. This grocery mart would serve him well, as he later sold it to use the funds for opening what we know today as “99 Speedmart”.

Today, there are over 2,000 outlets of 99 Speedmart and you can find one on practically every corner. You can even find the store outside of Malaysia, as Lee opened the first overseas outlet in Singapore in 2019. Lee is a great example of how pure determination and perseverance will overcome any circumstances and that there is nothing that can stop you from achieving greatness.

Pandelela Rinong Pamg

Pandelea bringing home bronze from the World Championships in Budapest.
Source: The Malaysian Reserve

Growing up in Kuching, Pandelela Rinong Pamg would often play games in the forest or go hiking, making her adventurous and always eager to embrace different opportunities. When she was 8 years old, a diving instructor visited her school to identify potential students for water sports competitions. Pandelela was one of the few selected.

After learning about the different types of water sports, Pandelela found that diving was the sport that tugged her heartstrings. She dived off the 5m platform easily for her first time, and that’s when her love for diving blossomed. She trained regularly with the support of her coach and family. After only 3 years of training, Pandelela earned her first podium finish, winning bronze at a national tournament. She later won gold at the 2010 Commonwealth Games and had the honour of securing silver for Malaysia at the 2016 Olympics.

Recently, Pandelela was named a “National Unity Icon”, a title bestowed upon her by the National Unity Minister—a distinction once held by the legendary Tan Sri P. Ramlee. Currently, Pandelela is gearing up to compete in the 2024 Olympics in Paris, with her sights firmly set on gold!