A sense of humour is a prerequisite if you’re in Goh Miah Kiat’s line of work. Really, it’s unavoidable. As CEO of Karex Bhd – the world’s largest manufacturer of condoms, producing around four billion prophylactics per year – there are bound to be a few awkward giggles when it comes to the nature of his company’s operations.
“One in every five or six condoms is a product manufactured by our company, so I always say we’ve touched a vast number of people in the most intimate way you can imagine!” he laughs gently. Jokes aside, however, he’s utterly serious about the significance of Karex’s contribution to the world (and its population): “What you have on the table is fun and pleasurable, but it’s also a product that saves lives.”
And it’s true – as one of the most accessible and inexpensive forms of birth control available, condoms are the only method of contraception that provides protection against sexually transmitted infections and HIV. Considering that condoms – when used correctly – make sex 10,000 times safer in terms of preventing HIV transmission than going bareback, and have a 98 per cent theoretical effectiveness rate, they’re hardly objects worth mocking.
Even looking at Goh’s own story and the history of Karex, the impact of the deceptively simple latex condom has spread far beyond our bedrooms. For so many societies across the world, it’s changed – or it’s beginning to change – our levels of health and wellbeing, and, just as crucially, our sexual and economic freedom.
“Some people assume I inherited the business when I came back from university, and that I went straight into driving a nice car, with a good title at Karex,” says Goh, speaking from his luxuriously furnished office at the company’s headquarters in Klang, which resembles an executive hotel suite more than the cerebrum of a condom factory. (It’s worth mentioning that he has an eye for design, and decided on all the interiors himself.) “But it was not all that. It was tough – I practically lived my life in the factory as a child. It was my house and almost my life.”
The roots of Goh’s family are set firmly in Malaysia’s rubber industry, where his grandfather set up a successful rubber processing company, before – following the devastating collapse of the global commodities market in the 1980s – turned towards making condoms instead. “My family had to dig into all of their savings and pump them into the company. Initially, they couldn’t sell any condoms because gaining market acceptance and recognition was so difficult – and we were spending everything we had.”
A young boy at the time, Goh has vivid memories of growing to understand the way the factory’s processes worked. “I was a child labourer in Karex! Even when we were in front of the television, my uncle would say, ‘Don’t just watch, lah – pack at the same time and do some work’.” All this took place around him, ironically, without the 10-year-old Goh actually realising what his family was manufacturing. “I didn’t know what a condom was until I looked it up in the Oxford Dictionary later. My family just told me it was ‘what French people wore on their heads’, while my uncle explained it to me as a giant finger cot.”
It was – and still is – very much a family affair at Karex (Goh’s aunts and uncles currently sit on the executive board). Two of his uncles, who were trained in chemical and mechanical engineering, were responsible for improving upon the first condom-making machine that the company purchased, allowing Karex to continue fulfilling its orders. “The first machine had a lot of problems, and we couldn’t afford a second one because our savings were almost gone, so my uncles sat down and looked at it, saying, ‘We can fix it up better.’ They bought some parts, assembled our second machine, and from there, we got better and better. We’ve been making machines for nearly 20 years now, and I think that’s been the key to Karex’s success.”
After breaking into the tender market, where their condoms could be purchased by non-governmental organisations and government agencies to distribute for free or to sell at a low, subsidised price, Karex gained access to making private labels for the commercial market, giving the company – and the family – steadier ground to stand on. It was certainly enough to send Goh to the University of Sydney in 1998 to study for a degree in Economics and Management, although the unexpected death of his father during Goh’s second year meant that his uncles and aunts ended up taking on the responsibility of ensuring that he completed his education.
“I must say that coming back to help the company started off as an obligation – it was a job,” Goh recalls. “It was never my father’s intention for me to come back from university directly. People usually want you to work outside for a bit and gain experience, but when I returned, Karex was starting to undergo fast-paced growth. I was asked to handle sales and marketing, and I actually fell in love with the job in a way that made me realise it might have been a path that I was led to.”
TO PROTECT AND SERVE
Plunging straight into it, Goh swiftly began travelling the world to source for business opportunities – one trade mission saw him travelling for 43 hours to reach Brazil. “We’ve never viewed ourselves as a Malaysian company that went international,” he expounds. “Although we started our business in Malaysia, we didn’t have the market here: our population isn’t big, and we’re small in terms of consumption. There was no choice involved – from day one, going international was something that was expected of us.”
It was a trip to Africa that cemented his belief in what he was doing, driving home a sense of need and purpose. “When you live in countries like Australia and Malaysia, you never fully realise that people are affected by problems like HIV/AIDS. When I first landed in Uganda, I was overwhelmed by the poverty and the scale of the HIV epidemic there. At that point of time, one in four people there were HIV-positive. People would come over and thank you for producing a product I’d always taken for granted.
“I’d sit at trade fairs and see people with AIDS walking around, which was a shock to me. I visited countries where women had up to 16 children and were told by their doctors that they might die during their next pregnancy because their nutrients were being sucked out of them. Their bodies can’t take it – they’re not baby-making machines, and they become trapped in poverty. I came to understand how such a simple thing in life makes a difference, and that what we’re making: a lifesaving product.”
In the early years of Goh’s career, unfortunately, condoms were suffering from somewhat of an image crisis – the packaging and marketing campaigns were often as cringeworthy as the average experience of buying them in a pharmacy, with eyes averted and money hurriedly pushed across the counter. “In those days, companies thought only men bought condoms, so they’d give condom packs very macho branding, with pictures of blonde, bikini-clad women against a sunset.
“Eventually, people realised that men weren’t the only ones buying them. At the end of the day, if you ask a man whether he really wants to use a condom, they’ll reply, ‘Why would you want to eat a sweet with the wrapper on’?” (It’s a valid point – of the world’s male population, only five per cent use condoms during intercourse, which leaves vast room for improvement.) “My job,” says Goh, “is to make the wrapper as sweet and edible as possible for them.”
Karex’s mission to make condoms more palatable and appealing has seen the company exploring a myriad of ways to add new, exciting facets to safe sex: “We got to where we are today due to innovation. If we’d continued making plain, regular condoms, we wouldn’t be in this position. We’ve added studs, flavours and warming lubricants to our condoms for a more three-dimensional effect in terms of texture and sensation. There’s still so much more to invest in – in the future, we might look into creating that macho essence, the real scent of a man, or materials that cross-transfer heat for greater intimacy.”
It’s a task that’s seen him witness what he calls “a revolution in condoms” over the last 20 years, where it’s not just the packaging that’s changed, but our approaches and attitudes towards condoms. “Previously, when people used condoms, the first thing they’d ask was, ‘Is it safe?’ But the youth of today expect condoms to be safe – it’s not something they even question. They’ve moved beyond focusing on the prevention of pregnancy and STIs. What’s the main criteria when they buy condoms? Pleasure.”
While Goh remains fairly soft-spoken unless he’s on a badminton court (he enjoys a game on the rare occasions he’s not zipping between work-related conferences or Karex’s two other factories in Hat Yai and Pontian), he’s every bit as ambitious and proactive as you might expect from an industry leader – especially one who took over the reins of his company and oversaw its public listing at the age of 36. Capitalising on the idea of pleasure, he’s set on expanding Karex’s own-brand manufacturing market in the form of ONE Condoms, after buying a 55 per cent share in the Boston-based brand owner, Global Protection Corp, for MYR21.6 million.
The fun, colourful claimant to the label of being ‘the coolest condoms around’, ONE has made inroads into capturing the attention of the fast-growing younger market, thanks to its unique art-inspired wrappers (there are over 200 designs available), distinctive round packaging, and social media-conscious marketing. “It’s now known as the hip condom brand for the youth,” Goh explains. “Trojan and Durex were the condoms used by your father and grandfather, but this might be something different for you.”
In the United States, ONE’s range includes condoms featuring tattoo-inspired textures, and special edition collections involving collaborations with street artists or the Tom of Finland Foundation. Additionally, Karex’s recent acquisition of bespoke condom-maker TheyFit – now rebranded as MyONE – will offer the US market 56 perfect-fit condom sizes, giving reluctant male condom users a shot at proper satisfaction. As Goh puts it: “Men should have the choice of wearing a condom that fits well. Davin Wedel, the President and Founder of ONE Condoms said, ‘You can fit a watermelon into a condom, but have you ever asked the watermelon if it feels comfortable in there’?”
The brand has also created waves in Malaysia with glow-in-thedark and durian-flavoured condoms, and Goh reveals he’s planning to release a nasi lemak condom for Merdeka Day this year, complete with a warming sambal effect (Peak readers, you read it here first). Although Karex remains committed to producing big-brand condoms for commercial buyers like Ansell Limited and Reckitt Benckiser Group PLC, which own Lifestyles and Durex, respectively – the commercial market still counts for 51 per cent of the company’s revenue, after all – it’s a chance for Goh to continue shaking things up and adding new angles to the condom industry.
He’s already eyeing markets with potential for further growth like China, the Middle East and Africa, and even has his sights set on the possibility of distributing sex toys as well, aided by e-commerce networks. “One day, we’d like to be known as a sexual wellness company – for instance, we’ve already been manufacturing our own lubricants for over 10 years. The other thing that’s changed the world is the Internet, and how it moves information around. In the past, people’s access to sexual wellness information and products was limited, but we can now go directly to consumers through e-tailing.”
Ever at the forefront of his consciousness, of course, is his role as a responsible manufacturer who makes reliable contraception at affordable prices, and ensures people have access to it: “Basic contraception is a human right. It’s not just about being the world’s largest condom-maker – size is not everything. It’s more to do with the values we’ve created that have brought about results.” Goh’s
satisfaction, in a way, stems from other people’s satisfaction – he’s made it his duty to combine enjoyment and safety, and, in Karex, it’s become entirely possible for the twain to meet.
That’s the ultimate goal, he points out: “How do you make sex using a condom more pleasurable than without using one? If that’s something that can be resolved, using a condom won’t be about preventing diseases or avoiding pregnancy anymore. It will be purely about pleasure.”
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TEXT RENYI LIM
ART DIRECTION PENNY CHEW
PHOTOGRAPHY GERALD GOH / IMAGE ROM
PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANTS NELSON CHONG & GEORGE CHONG
PRODUCTION SUPPORT METAL BEES