During the two week-Chinese New Year celebrations, with the tossing of yee sang for better times ahead, the key topic of conversation among the Chinese revolved around the general election.
But the sudden eruption of high-level political attacks on Robert Kuok last weekend sent shockwaves through the community. Since then, the richest man in Malaysia has been the talk of the town.
The onslaught could not be taken lightly as Kuok is not just any ordinary businessman but someone of stature held in high esteem not only in Malaysia and China, but also by the global Chinese community.
It is a known fact that Kuok helped to lay the groundwork for the end of communist insurgency in Malaysia, played a role in easing racial tension after the May 13 racial riots and contributed funds to Umno and MCA during elections.
Kuok has always stood tall among everyone.
Dubbed the “Sugar King of Asia”, Kuok has set up a huge international empire with businesses spanning from commodity trading to hotels, sugar and oil palm plantations, wheat flour milling, property development and entertainment.
In Malaysia, he retains control of Shangri-La Hotels and the wheat flour business after selling his sugar and property businesses.
Hence, the Chinese community here feels hurt to see their business icon being smeared based on hearsay. They see grave injustice done to this man whose loyalty and commitment to the country is being questioned.
However, due to suspicion that the whole episode could be a politically driven scheme ahead of GE14 for various reasons, Chinese community leaders only spoke up after Kuok defended himself.
While many are aware that Kuok’s recent memoir had irked some quarters due to his disdain for the New Economic Policy (1971-90), they are perplexed by the timing of this smear campaign.
Kuok’s political revelations in his book have also earned him brickbats from some people.
This round, the criticisms against the tycoon were based on three articles posted by blogger Raja Petra Kamaruddin on the online portal Malaysia Today.
The most startling allegation made by the controversial blogger, who has a record of stirring up racial hatred towards local Chinese in past writings, was that Kuok had donated hundreds of millions to the DAP in a bid to overthrow the Umno-led government.
Without verifying the content, Malay critics and senior Umno politicians told Kuok to be grateful to the Government as the tycoon had built his early sugar, rice and flour empire based on his good ties with Umno leaders.
The remarks by Tourism and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz were particularly scathing, as crude and offensive words were used. In addition, he told Kuok to surrender his citizenship.
The critics might have misconstrued earlier statements by Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, who had said that some of the richest people, including Kuok, owed their success to opportunities created through government policies.
“If we look at the list of names of the richest people in Malaysia, such as Robert Kuok, who gave him the key to become the rice and sugar king? It was given to him by the ruling government,” said the Prime Minister at an event in Selangor on Feb 24.
“Yes, he is driven, hardworking, industrious and disciplined – but that is not enough. Everyone still needs the key to creating these opportunities,” he added.
Although DAP leaders promptly denied receiving money from Kuok, this failed to stop the tirade of aspersions cast against Kuok.
It was obvious that Kuok had to defend himself. He issued a statement last Monday, saying all allegations against him were “untrue, unjustified and amounted to libel”.
The 94-year-old Kuok, who moved his business headquarters from Kuala Lumpur to Hong Kong in 1975, denied funding The Malaysian Insight portal or opposition parties to overthrow the Government.
He also denied that he was anti-government, a racist or a Chinese chauvinist.
While Kuok’s hint of instituting libel suits might have some deterrent effect, the proposal by MCA president Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai to the Prime Minister to intervene in the matter could have shut the mouths of Umno leaders.
Liow tweeted: “I have conveyed the feelings of the Chinese community to the PM. We hope that the PM will intervene to put this issue to rest. Mr Kuok has contributed greatly towards the development of the nation.”
If the vicious attacks on Kuok were allowed to continue, the first casualty in GE14 could be MCA and Gerakan, and ultimately Barisan Nasional, as angry Chinese could be provoked to vote against the coalition in GE14.
And the unintended winner from this latest episode could be the opposition side.
The question now is: Faced with so many challenges in the coming polls, could Barisan afford to sow a new seed of discontent and allow it to germinate unchecked?
The Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement, saying Kuok’s success is “an inspiration” for other entrepreneurs.
Though this brief statement and its “cooling effect” came a bit late in the political sense, it was better than nothing.
In addition, a tribute to Kuok posted by Najib’s brother Datuk Seri Nazir Razak on Instagram is also a comfort to the Chinese.
“I may not agree with all his views but he (Kuok) is a patriot, the icon of Malaysian business and a first-class gentleman,” said Nazir, the chairman of CIMB Group Holdings Bhd last Wednesday.
However, the injustice done to Kuok on such a scale is unlikely to be forgotten soon, as this incident has also stirred up some debates.
Is there any hidden political agenda to vilify Kuok before GE14? Do successful businessmen owe their allegiance to ruling political parties? Is it morally wrong to change your political stand?
Dr Oh Ei Sun, former political secretary of Najib, offers some explanations to Sunday Star: “Robert Kuok has shown his contempt for the NEP in his book. This may be seen as questioning Malay supremacy and this attitude must be nipped in the bud.”
He adds that Kuok may not be forgiven for stating the obvious, which many Chinese have wanted to voice out but could not for fear of losing business opportunities.
In his memoir, Kuok stated that although the Chinese have played a significant role in the economic development of Malaysia and other South-East Asian nations, many did not receive just and fair treatment.
Sin Chew Daily, quoting unnamed Barisan sources, says the bashing of Kuok also carried a warning message to the business community to think twice before they contribute election funds to opposition parties.
“These attacks also sent a message to the Malay community that they must be united to support Umno, which is being ditched by others it has helped to prosper,” said the Sin Chew report last Thursday.
Although a life member of the MCA, businessman Tan Sri Lee Kim Yew believes people owe no loyalty to political parties.
He tells Sunday Star: “A businessman is expected to be loyal to his country, not to ruling parties. Politicians and political parties come and go.
“Whoever becomes the government has a duty to create a conducive environment for the people to prosper and live harmoniously. If politicians are not worthy of support, people are free to switch their political stand in a democracy.”
Apart from ordinary people, the business community is also watching developments linked to Kuok with concern.
“If the issue on Robert Kuok is not handled properly, there will be a negative impact on the sentiment of investors. We are all following these developments,” says a businessman at a CNY dinner.