TYCOON Robert Kuok has released his autobiography in Hong Kong and Singapore today, detailing his thoughts on Malaysia and his relationship with its prime ministers
The South China Morning Post (SCMP), which Kuok once owned, released excerpts of his memoir today.
IN the 376-page “Robert Kuok, A Memoir”, the 54th richest man in the world, according to Bloomberg, said he had known all of Malaysia’s six prime ministers and shared how he saw Malaysia’s trajectory as far back as 1969.
Tunku – chief trustee of a nation
Kuok, who is also ranked Malaysia’s richest man, said first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman was a well-educated law graduate with “tremendous rhythm”.
“If you talk of brains, Tunku was brilliant, and very shrewd. His mother was Thai, and he had that touch of Thai shrewdness, an ability to smell and spot whether a man was to be trusted or not.
“Tunku was less mindful about administrative affairs. But he had a good number two in Tun (Abdul) Razak (Hussein), who was extremely industrious, and Tunku left most of the paperwork to Razak.”
The 94-year-old said Tunku had many friends but he would not adopt cronies.
“His friends sometimes helped him, or they sent him a case of champagne or slabs of specially imported steak. He loved to grill steaks on his lawn and open champagne, wine or spirits. Tunku would also do favours for his friends, but he never adopted cronies.
“When Tan Siew Sin was finance minister, Tunku sent him a letter about a Penang businessman who was one of Tunku’s poker-playing buddies. It seems the man had run into tax trouble and was being investigated by the tax department, and he had turned to Tunku for help.
“In his letter, Tunku wrote, ‘You know so-and-so is my friend. I am not asking any favours of you, Siew Sin, but I am sure you can see your way to forgiving him,’ or something to that effect.”
But Kuok said Siew Sin was upset and marched into Dr Ismail (Abdul Rahman)’s office to complain.
“Ismail took the letter, crumpled it into a ball and threw it into the waste-paper basket. He then said, ‘Siew Sin, Tunku has done his duty by his friend. Now, by ignoring Tunku, you will continue to do your duty properly’,” Kuok said.
“That was as far as Tunku would go to help a friend. Cronyism is different. Cronies are lapdogs who polish a leader’s ego. In return, the leader hands out national favours to them.
“A nation’s assets, projects and businesses should never be for anyone to hand out, neither for a king nor a prime minister. A true leader is the chief trustee of a nation. If there is a lack of an established system to guide him, his fiduciary sense should set him on the proper course.”
Kuak said a leader who practiced cronyism justified his actions by doing everything necessary to achieve his ends.
A different man after 1969
Kuok said Tunku was a different man after the May 13 race riots.
Tunku felt he had helped the country gain independence and had ruled as wisely as he could, yet, the Malays turned on him for purportedly selling out to the Chinese, said Kuok.
“In fairness to Tunku, he had done nothing of the sort. He was a very fair man who loved the nation and its people. But he knew that, if you favour one group, you only spoil them. When the British ruled Malaya, they extended certain advantages to the Malays.
“When the Malays took power following independence on August 31, 1957, more incentives were given to them. But there was certainly no showering of favours.”
Kuok said everything changed after 1969 due to extremist Malays attributing their poverty to plundering Chinese and Indians.
“The more thoughtful leaders were shunted aside and the extremists hijacked power. They chanted the same slogans as the hotheads – the Malays are underprivileged; the Malays are bullied – while themselves seeking to become super-rich.
“When these Malays became rich, not many of them did anything for the poor Malays; the Chinese and Indians who became rich created jobs, many of them filled by Malays.”
Kuok said prior to 1969 the government would open tenders and if a company worked hard, it would succeed “eight or nine times out of 10”.
“But things were changing, veering more and more towards cronyism and favouritism.”
Kuok said Malay leaders were quite reasonable in running the country and gave Malays an advantage at times.
“Then, when they see that they have overdone it, they try to redress the problem. Their hearts are in the right place, but they just cannot see their way out of their problems. Since May 13, 1969, the Malay leadership has had one simple philosophy: the Malays need handicapping. Now, what amount of handicapping?”
Closing the gap but opening new wounds
Kuok said Malaysia’s zeal to narrow the wealth gap between the races caused even more racism.
“As a Chinese who was born and grew up in Malaysia, and went to school with the Malays, I was saddened to see the Malays being misled in this way. I felt that, in their haste to bridge the economic gap between the Chinese and the Malays, harmful shortcuts were being taken. One of the side effects of their zeal to bridge the economic gap was that racism became increasingly ugly.
“I saw very clearly that the path being pursued by the new leaders after 1969 was dangerous. But hardly anyone was willing to listen to me.”
Hussein Onn and the three sons
Kuok said his father and Hussein Onn’s father, Onn Jaafar had known each other since the 1930s. Kuok and Hussein were even classmates at one time.
And he told the third prime minister to use the best Malaysians for the job regardless of race, colour and creed before he took over.
“You’re going to be the leader of a nation, and you have three sons, Hussein. The firstborn is Malay, the second-born is Chinese, the third-born is Indian. What we have been witnessing is that the firstborn is more favoured than the second or third. Hussein, if you do that in a family, your eldest son will grow up very spoiled.
“As soon as he attains manhood, he will be in the nightclubs every night. The second and third sons, feeling the discrimination, will grow up hard as nails.
“Please, Hussein, use the best brains, the people with their hearts in the right place, Malaysians of total integrity and strong ability, hard-working and persevering people. Use them regardless of race, colour or creed.
“The other way, Hussein, the way your people are going – excessive handicapping of Bumiputeras, showering love on your first son – your firstborn is going to grow up with an attitude of entitlement.”
Kuok said Hussein was quiet for a while and after that he said: “No, Robert. I cannot do it. The Malays are now in a state of mind such that they will not accept it.”
He clearly spelt out to me that, it was going to be Malay rule, said Kuok.
“I felt disappointed, but there was nothing more that I could do. Hussein was an honest man of very high integrity. Before going to see him, I had weighed his strength of character, his shrewdness and skill. We had been in the same class, sharing the same teachers.
“I knew Hussein was going to be the Malaysian prime minister whom I was closest to in my lifetime. I think Hussein understood my message, but he knew that the process had gone too far.
“I had seen a picture developing all along of a train moving in the wrong direction. During Hussein’s administration, he was only partially successful in stemming the tide. The train of the nation had been put on the wrong track. Hussein wasn’t strong enough to lift up the train and set it down on the right track.”