Known to be a very private person, Robert Kuok, or Kuok Hock Nien, has finally come out with his long-awaited autobiography at age 94.
A Memoir is a journey back in time to Johor Baru where Kuok grew up and turned a small family company into a diversified multinational, multibillion-dollar business. It is a fascinating and insightful book in which Kuok sets his story against a backdrop of momentous world events he lived through.
The Kuok Group, with three holding companies in Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong, is the world's largest palm oil producer and is involved extensively in flour, shipping, properties and hotels, including the chain of luxury Shangri-las. Kuok's business covers more than 50 countries with a focus in South-East Asia and China. In 2017 Forbes estimates Kuok, Malaysia's richest man and once dubbed the "Sugar King", to be worth US$13.9 billion (S$18.4 billion).
Born in 1923, Kuok showed early business acumen. He writes in Memoir how he saved four out of the five cents he was given for daily pocket money, earned extra income by auctioning off damaged rice from Mitsubishi at which he worked during World War II, and bought bales of cigarette paper from the surrendering Japanese using worthless Occupation currency and re-sold them at huge profits later.
His business success was founded on three influences: family, dialect, and state.
Kuok's links with the state were different from those of most other Chinese overseas businessmen, sometimes described as crony capitalists whose business success depended on the political patronage of powerful indigenous figures or groups.
In Kuok's case, the state first sought him out. He recounts how in 1965, then Deputy Prime Minister, Abdul Razak Hussein, appointed him a director of the newly established Bank Bumiputra. Two years later he was asked to head Malayawata, a joint Japan-Malaysian integrated steel mill, and later to chair the Malaysia-Singapore Airlines and the Malaysia Tourism Board.
The state at this critical juncture depended on local businessmen to stimulate the economy and create jobs. Kuok, with experience from his successful sugar and shipping ventures, was one of those favoured. Furthermore, he was close to privileged Malays he had grown up with in Johor Baru.
Yet, Kuok was also sensitive to an evolving social and political environment. He anticipated the New Economic Policy (NEP) and, earlier than most and more than others, he relied on non-family members and professional management to expand and diversify. His incorporation of Malays at the highest level should be seen through these lenses. Nevertheless, he was critical of aspects of the NEP and describes his meeting with then Deputy PM Tun Hussein Onn in September 1975 urging a re-think on how the policy should be implemented.
Insights Into Strategies
The family environment that stressed education, both English and Chinese, and traditional values, nurtured Kuok's talents and business acumen. He grew up in the business culture of his father's Tong Seng and Company. His mother was instrumental in shaping his outlook and attitudes towards people around him.
That Kuok belongs to a minority Fuzhou dialect group forced him to shift to essential commodities not controlled by dialect ties. This turned out to be prescient and rewarding because Kuok's family business now traded in commodities largely protected by government restrictions, and his partnership with state institutions allowed him to move into plantations and other businesses. Trading in sugar and flour, which faced little local competition, enabled him to create immense wealth and a reputation that allowed him subsequently to enter into more competitive service sectors like hotels. Some of his new businesses such as insurance and transport complemented those he was engaged in.
Probably the most absorbing part of Memoir is Kuok's account of his sugar trading in the London market, where he made a fortune. Memoir offers invaluable lessons in his style and strategy in growing Kuok Group's business, developing partnerships, diversifying into different products and services, entering new markets, and managing associates and employees.
In his business decisions, timing seems to have been a key element of his success. Whether switching from trade in rice to the more lucrative sugar, going into the hotel business, or relocating to Singapore and then Hong Kong, the decisions turned out to have been well-timed. But could he have anticipated that when he shifted to Hong Kong in 1974, China's economy was about to open up? Certainly, the times that Kuok lived through were exceptional: British decolonisation, an expanding Japanese economic presence, the economic transformation of South-East Asia, and the rise of China - and he grasped all the opportunities offered. His Kuok Group became part of those changes, contributing to and benefiting from them.
Kuok's close ties with China started in 1973, when two Chinese officials met him in secret in Hong Kong to seek his help to overcome a dire shortage of sugar in China; Beijing, lacking in foreign exchange, could not make international purchases. He obliged and set up a separate account to quietly trade in the sugar futures market and, with the profits made, bought sugar for China.
As one of the most respected overseas Chinese, Kuok's help was often sought by political and business leaders. He writes how the director of the Malaysian Special Branch passed through him a message to Chinese officials that ended Communist Party of Malaya broadcasts beamed from China, and how he played an intermediary role between Malaysian and Chinese officials that led to the signing of the Hadyai Peace Agreement in 1989.
There are human interest elements in Memoir. Kuok writes about his mother, whom he regularly consulted, and of his father, who left to set up another family. He offers reminiscences about his two elder brothers who did not share his entrepreneurial inclination. Philip became a Malaysian diplomat while William, a political idealist, died in the jungle in 1953 fighting what he believed was an anti-colonial cause. Kuok writes frankly about some of the stresses in the extended family but seems confident that the succeeding generation is ready to take over.
Kuok expresses in Memoir strong and, what some might consider, controversial views on how business should be conducted, and of the world around him. He is scathing of colonial rule in South-East Asia, praises the overseas Chinese for their hardworking qualities and contribution to the economies of host countries, and believes that the excesses of capitalism must be tempered by the egalitarian impulses of communism.
He is proud of his Chinese heritage and of the homeland of his parents. But his heart remains in Johor Baru.
There is much more that Kuok could have included in his long- awaited Memoir, but what he does offer is enough to add to our knowledge of a man who continues to fascinate with his imagination and generosity.
Dr Lee Kam Hing is currently a deputy vice-chancellor at New Era University College and was a professor of history at Universiti Malaya.