If I can make a difference to others and help them, I would love to be part of it.
– Sofia Subri, owner of CAZ Villa in Bali
Many Singaporeans work to put food on the table and to achieve their goals in life, be it material well-being, wealth, fame, self-fulfilment or ideology.
Sofia Subri is no exception. She is a Singaporean who received only a Primary One education, yet the fearless and gutsy lady began working overseas when she was barely 16 years old. Eventually, she took on various jobs, including being an underwater inspections diver in Hong Kong and a sales professional in a marine company.
After years of hard work and determination, she ventured into entrepreneurship and earned her first million. She attributes her success to perseverance and persistence.
Presently, she is an investor as well as the owner of CAZ Villa and the property firm CAZ International in Bali.
In retrospect, the 50-year-old finds that ‘giving back to the society’ makes her happier than earning a million bucks. She thinks there is nothing more rewarding than giving back and making a difference in the lives of people.
She writes on her Facebook page, “For years, I’ve been too busy and selfish with my own issue and problems. It’s time to give back and share.”
In person, Sofia Subri is easy-going and relaxed. One can hardly imagine that she is the owner of CAZ Villa in Bali. But aside from her laid-back demeanour, there is an inviting dignity about her.
“Money’s not everything. I would rather spend time with my children,” she stresses. She sold her company shares, CAZ Offshore Pte Ltd, to her ex-husband after attaining her S$4 million revenue a few years back, retiring at the age of 45. She was satisfied and happy with her decision.
“Money is the root of all evil,” she feels. She is contented with what she has now. She is no longer a money grubber and happiness is what she pursues at this moment in time. She believes that when she is happy, everything would fall in place.
What does “happiness” mean to Sofia? “Be yourself,” she quips.
Life in Bali
During her teenage days, Sofia dreamt of being a beach bum in Bali. Decades later, she found herself in Bali, owning a villa. “You are what you believe,” she emphasises.
It was by coincidence that she entered property investment in Bali. Sofia’s giving spirit motivated her to adopt an Indonesian child, and she was in Bali to find her child a proper education. She rented a villa for two years, but ended up purchasing some land and building her seven-room villa with a horse stable for abandoned horses in 2009.
Life in Bali is relaxing and the Balinese are always smiling, friendly and helpful. She loves it and has decided to stay there for good.
In Bali, Sofia saw elderly people in their 70s, some of whom were blind, working in the padi fields all day. She would then use this as an example to educate her children to cherish what they have. “We threw away the leftover rice, yet the poor peasants worked so hard in the fields just to make that little sum,” she shares.
Although Sofia can afford to let her children live a luxurious lifestyle, she always teaches them to be responsible and to earn the things that they want. For instance, if her child wants a new pair of shoes, she would ask her to wash her car for a week before buying her a pair of new shoes in return.
Giving Makes Me Happy
Sofia believes, “If I can make a difference to others and help them, I would love to be part of it.” She aspires to give succour and strength to the disadvantaged.
Quarterly in Bali, Sofia would visit the orphanage, hospital for the poor and villages in the mountain to dole out rice, food, diapers and other necessities.
“It’s worth every penny to see them smile. The moment they say ‘Thank you’ to you, it is a blessing,” she says with a smile.
She also volunteers with The Red Cross to give motivational speeches to women who are being abused or tortured. “There’s no dead end in life,” she says.
Simple and meaningful, giving back to society makes her contented and happy. She believes in karma as her mother taught her “giving is much better than receiving” and “the more you give, the more you would get back”.
“Being grateful makes me who I am today,” she says.
From a Girl in the Streets to the Owner of CAZ Villa
When Sofia was a child, she would go around peddling nasi lemak to assist her mother, who was the sole bread-winner of the family.
She attributes her headstrong nature to her somewhat unprivileged childhood — the result of being the seventh of twelve children.
She quit school at the age of eight to support her siblings’ education. However, due to the influence of bad company, she became addicted to drugs in her teens. Fortunately, she quickly snapped out of it, after her friends ended up behind bars.
Growing up in a one-room flat with eleven other siblings, sleeping criss-cross from one another, cramped like sardines and starving at times, Sofia never blamed her parents. Instead, she was determined to get out of the situation.
The lack of formal education did not deter Sofia from learning.
Her mother told her, “You did not attend school but that doesn’t mean you are stupid. God gave you a brain, use it.”
Her mother’s words raised Sofia’s morale. This led her to believe that she was capable of doing anything.
She only learned to read and write when she was eleven. “Self-educated”, as she put it, she ploughed through her brother’s textbooks to learn everything she could.
Nothing is impossible. Everything is possible. It’s up to you if you want to do it or not.
– Sofia Subri, owner of CAZ Villa
Sofia’s mother passed away when she was sixteen. Beside herself with grief, she purchased an air ticket to Japan with her savings to escape her grief.
She landed in Tokyo in winter. She was unprepared, and was not sufficiently dressed to keep herself warm.
Just when she had little hope of the future, she met a Singaporean man in Osaka who recommended her a job in a semiconductor factory. After a half-year stay in Japan, she flew home with S$10,000 savings.
That experience motivated her to upgrade herself, so that she could find a higher-paying job. “I want to be better!” she exclaims.
From ‘Across the Straits’ to ‘Under the Water’
In pursuit of a better life, Sofia flew to Brisbane, Australia, to learn aerobics. She wanted to be a fitness trainer and started her own fitness studio in Kuala Lumpur, but the job was physically-demanding.
Due to her background, she felt that it was hard for her to be given a second chance, so she seized any opportunity that came her way.
“If other people can do it, I can do it.” Her drive propelled her to take up many challenging jobs, including underwater diving inspection jobs in Hong Kong.
She lived on the boat during her four-year stay in Hong Kong. When typhoons hit, she would sleep in her diving suit. She was the only female diver then, earning a monthly income of S$3,000, which was a lot of money back then in the ‘80s.
Having no paper qualifications, it was difficult for Sofia to break out from the vicious cycle and find a high paying job until one day, she stumbled upon a job opening for a marine specialist in the paper. Despite having little idea of the job scope of a marine specialist, she decided to give it her best shot.
Sofia was determined to meet Stephen Tan, the boss of SJP trading. Upon meeting him, she told him honestly that she had neither the experience nor the paper qualifications, but if he gave her a chance, she was more than willing to learn.
She promised him that if she failed to deliver, she would not demand a single cent; nonetheless, if she made it, she would expect the same amount of remuneration. Stephen was pleased to hear that, and decided to give her this golden opportunity.
“When the opportunity comes, I grab it, as I believe opportunity comes to me only once,” she says. “If something goes wrong, I shall start all over again. I am not afraid to start all over again, because I believe in myself.”
‘You Need to be Tough!’
Sembawang Shipyard became her second home for the next three years. She often lost sleep due to her work, but she was motivated as she wanted to earn big bucks. She would go from one vessel to another, selling gaskets and mechanical seals to the ship owners.
Initially, she knew nothing about the trade, but picked up the knowledge through surfing the internet and self-study. This was usually done in the evening, after her workday of drudgery. Her quest for knowledge impelled her to keep upgrading herself.
She went on board 10 vessels a day. “Going up 10 storeys, coming down 10 storeys, it’s hard work! Going up the gangway. It’s dangerous!” she recalls.
Being one of the very few ladies on board the ship, she faced many challenges and discrimination. “You need to be tough. You must let the man know that, ‘Yes I’m a woman, but I am not stupid, I have brains, I am here for business,’” she says.
Outstanding Sales Records
Sofia’s outstanding sales records of S$25,000 surpassed the set target. She outperformed her counterparts and her boss was pleased.
Stephen gave her another chance to undergo a one-month mechanical seals and sales specialist course in Boston, and further training in Oslo for three months. She was proud of herself for obtaining her Marine Specialist certificate.
Sofia was delegated overseas to meet bosses, ship owners, and company CEOs to do presentations of her company’s products and to clinch the deals. Initially, she felt so small and intimidated by the people whom she was meeting. Nevertheless, she carried herself with confidence and learned along the way.
She would bring in sales for the company on these business trips. Her monthly salary was a five-digit figure or even more.
Starting Her Own Company
In 2007, Sofia resigned and started her own company, CAZ Consultant, as she wanted to spend more time with her children.
The first six months were tough, and she had to sell off her car and other items to get by.
But her ex-boss, Stephen, supported her and soon, CAZ Consultant clinched its first sales contract worth S$300,000. At the end of the first year, her company made its first million.
Sofia remains very grateful to Stephen for giving her the opportunity.
In the same way, she entrusted and empowered employees with a similar background as her to help them break away from the poverty trap.
Many of her employees stood with her through thick and thin. As her company grew, she ventured into offshore marine services, and registered her company under CAZ Offshore Pte Ltd. Her workforce subsequently grew to 27.
Even when she was the boss, she maintained her humble way of doing things. Her staff called her “step-mum”.
She firmly believes in giving people a second chance, so she reached out to ex-convicts, including drug addicts, through the yellow ribbon programme.
“Nothing is impossible. Everything is possible. It’s up to you if you want to do it or not,” she says.