China is today the world’s biggest economy. But the Middle Kingdom didn’t transform itself into a wealthy nation overnight without lifting a finger. It had been invaded and colonised by various empires – from Mongolia to Manchuria, Russia, United States, Britain, France, Italy, Germany and Japan. Amazingly, the Chinese didn’t perish but emerge stronger over time.
The Chinese have survived more than 5,000 years of civilization and perhaps will continue to exist forever. When the going gets tough, the tough (or rather the Chinese) get going. In the eyes of billionaire Robert Kuok, the Chinese are born entrepreneurs and survival. But thanks to Europeans colonization, it opened up Southeast Asia to a tsunami of Chinese migration.
in his memoirs, the 94-year-old tycoon reveals how the overseas Chinese made enormous contributions to Southeast Asia. As one of the migrants himself, the Malaysia’s richest man who has been on the top chart for as long as one can remember described the Chinese migrants as the unsung heroes. It was the Chinese who helped build up Southeast Asia.
While the powerful British Empire appointed their men as administrators – sitting in posh boardrooms and luxurious offices in Singapore or Kuala Lumpur – the poor Chinese migrants did all the heavy lifting. The Chinese workers planted and tapped rubber, opened up tin mines, explored jungle for timber, ran small retail shops and in the process created a new economy around them.
Because most of them originated from Fujian and Guangdong provinces, the Chinese migrants brought with them some of the best entrepreneurial genes in the world to Southeast Asia. Worth a staggering US$14.1 billion (Forbes), Robert Kuok’s flagship Kuok Group controls an empire that includes the high-end hotel chain Shangri-La, Kerry Properties and commodities trader Wilmar.
He described how the Chinese migrants came very hungry and eager to earn a living, often barefooted and wearing only singlets and trousers. They would do any work available, as an honest income meant they could have food and shelter. That’s all they have had ever cared for. Not only are Chinese entrepreneurs efficient and cost-conscious, they are also extremely good at bargaining for the best price.
As the Chinese saying goes, they work harder than anyone else and are willing to “eat bitterness”, which means they are willing to suffer and sacrifice without knowing the outcome. Mr. Kuok said the Chinese are simply the most amazing economic ants on earth. The majority of Chinese migrants are moral and ethical people who practice fair play and possess a sense of proportion.
His book – “Robert Kuok – A Memoir” – also made comparison between the Chinese loyalty and the Japanese loyalty. While the Japanese possess blind loyalty where they would defend their skunk boss, the same cannot be said about the Chinese. Unlike the Japanese, every Chinese is highly judgmental, regardless whether they are the most educated or uneducated at all.
To prove his point, Kuok said the Chinese migrants who came to Southeast Asia were totally ignorant of the world. Yet, those so-called villagers picked up ideas and strategies very quickly on the foreign soil. They could remain clueful – not clueless – because in every Chinese village and community, moral values are drilled into each child during his or her family upbringing.
Not only are the Chinese resourceful and knowledgeable, they can be trusted because they always deliver. Unlike other races who prefer to enjoy first than to “eat bitterness” at the early stage, the Chinese don’t need expensive equipment or a nice office. One of the reasons how they become awesomely competitive is because they constantly listen and develop their own minds.
While Kuok proudly declares he “belongs” in Southeast Asia, he adds that he felt duty bound to help China, the birthplace of his parents. That’s because it was his Fuzhou-born mother – Tang Kak Ji – who shaped his views on everything, from his love life to boardroom decisions. He attributed his Kuok Empire to his mother, whom he considers the “true founder.”
Also known as the “Sugar King”, Robert Kuok got his start trading sugar, rice and wheat flour in Malaysia in 1949 and in Singapore in 1953. However, his sugar barter deal with India and Mitsui in 1958 almost led to disaster after the Chinese entered the market as a seller of sugar at the exact same time. Instead of a trade war, the Chinese companies in Hong Kong decided to work togetherwith Kuok Brothers.
From 1965, Kuok began travelling to mainland China exploring opportunities. What he didn’t see, his mother saw and warned him – “You are going in too soon, my son, too soon. You will meet brick walls. Why bang your head on a brick wall? Your head will only bleed, and you won’t achieve anything. Worse still, if you achieve something, then they will take it away from you and you will be back at zero.”
Indeed, his mother was right all along. Although China had Deng Xiaoping, the Middle Kingdom was much poorer than Malaya. It was in a self-imposed period of isolation during the Cultural Revolution. There was a lot of red tape laced with a high degree of suspicion. His mother was critical of bullying behaviour of mainland China bureaucrats towards their fellow overseas Chinese.
His mother also correctly predicted that China will go back to capitalism and Kuok would experience it in his lifetime. In spite of rumours, the real reason Robert Kuok moved his business to Hong Kong, instead of birthplace Malaysia, was due to taxation. Both the Singaporean and Malaysian governments were in a contest to see who could impose the highest taxes.
Effective taxes in both countries were in excess of 50% while in Hong Kong; the business-friendly environment would only take 17% of every dollar Kuok made. Obviously, Hong Kong was a much bigger pond than Singapore or Malaysia. CEOs of top U.S., Japanese and European multinationals would visit Hong Kong, leaving senior VPs to go to Singapore and lower ranking executives to Malaysia.
After much thought, the billionaire finally decided to move to Hong Kong in 1974, forming Kerry Holdings Ltd with a capital of HK$10 million. From spending 7-10 days a month in Hong Kong in 1974, he eventually moved there permanently in 1979. Of course, as Hong Kong’s economy skyrockets for the next 20 years, so does his Kerry Holdings.
His first major investment in Hong Kong was in November 1977, where he bought a piece of land in Kowloon at auction and built the Kowloon Shangri-La Hotel, which is still the jewel in the Group’s hotel business today – more than 40 years later. Interestingly, he made the bet in property market because he noticed the rent of apartments meant for his staffs’ accommodation always shoots up.
Kerry Properties Limited was established as his investment flagship for investment in Hong Kong and mainland China real estate since 1978. From buying just one or two floors of office space or one or two apartments, Robert Kuok expanded into building entire buildings, and subsequently major integrated commercial and residential complexes, and he never looked back.
However, he admits that Chinese corporations are nowhere as wealthy or as huge as American multinationals. That’s because Americans operate in the largest economy in the world, caressed by political and social stability and protected by a strong legal system, not to mention a powerful government. The overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia had none of the above.
On the contrary, the Chinese migrants are often maltreated and looked downupon in Southeast Asia. Kuok revealed how locals in Malaysia, Sumatra or Java (Indonesia) would call the Chinese – “Cina” – in a derogatory way. True enough, the ethnic-Chinese in Malaysia are often bullied and discriminated despite paying 90% of total income tax, even until today.
The Chinese in Southeast Asia flourish without the national, political and financial sponsorship or backing of their host countries. In the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Korea and Taiwan, their governments would sponsor and even financially aid their nations’ businessmen so that they can compete overseas, privilege Chinese migrants in Southeast Asia could only dream of.
Yet, despite facing these odds, the overseas Chinese, through hard work, endeavour and business shrewdness, are able to produce profits of a type that no other ethnic group operating in the same environment could produce. But how could the Chinese excel when other ethnics in Southeast Asia, and the world for that matter, fail miserably?
Robert Kuok believes the answer lies in the great cultural strength of the Chinese. When they left their homeland, the overseas Chinese didn’t leave empty-handed but retained the culture of China in the marrow of their bones. They were very cultured people who knew what was right and what was wrong.
Even the most uneducated Chinese, through family education, upbringing and social environment, understands the consequences of behaviour such as refinement, humility, understatement, coarseness, bragging and arrogance – revealed Robert Kuok’s memoirs. Still, the Chinese are not perfect and if left unchecked, some bad apples would wreck havoc.
Singapore might look like a great role model but even the nation has its fair share of Chinese crooks. They are all hidden, camouflaged, or dormantbecause the Singaporean crooks were held on steel leashes by two hands – Lee Kuan Yew’s left and right hand. But it’s a totally different story with Malaysia, Singapore’s once master but is now more than 3 times poorer, as far as currency is concerned.
Based on Kuok’s memoirs, Malaysia could have had overtaken Singapore as the most developed nation in Southeast Asia if not for extremism and racism due to weak prime ministers, all of whom were ethnic-Malays. Of all the 6 Malaysian prime ministers since independence in 1957, Robert Kuok personally knew all of them.
However, the tycoon reserved all his praises for the first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman. Tunku was a strategist with a vision, a great liberal leader whose favourite cognac was Hennessy VSOP. Tunku would also do favours for his friends, but he never adopted cronies. But even a great leader like Tunku had his blind spots.
For obvious reason, Kuok didn’t reveal it but Tunku’s deputy – Abdul Razak Hussein (father of present Prime Minister Najib Razak) – was instrumental in endorsing and architecting the 13 May 1969 bloody racial riots. It was a plan, a form of coup d’etat, to seize power from Tunku Abdul Rahman. However, karma soon bites and Mr. Razak only ruled for 6 years before his sudden death of leukaemia.
Besides blinded by his deputy Abdul Razak’s deadly ambitious, Tunku was also intially biased towards the Communist China, equating the Chinese to devils. It would take a trip to China, under the invitation of Premier Zhao Ziyang that Tunku’s old and wrong prejudices vanished. From that day onward, Tunku never belittled the Chinese Communists.
The May 13 riots was the turning point to not only Tunku Abdul Rahman but also Kuok’s birthplace Malaysia. Despite helping the country gain independence and had ruled as wisely as he could, the ethnic-Malays turned against the first prime minister. Extremist Malays rose to power and conveniently blamed the poverty of many Malays to the plundering Chinese and Indians.
Kuok recalled an event where he was waiting to see Mr. Razak (after the 1969 racial riots) when a senior Malay civil servant approached and said – “What are you doing here, Robert? Don’t be greedy! Leave something for us poor Malays! Don’t hog it all!” From that day onwards, Kuok knew the business playing field was changing. It would be no longer clean and open.
Today, it has been proven that those privileged Malays who scream the loudest and walk the corridors of power have become super-rich but not many of them did anything for the poor Malays. On the contrary, the Chinese and Indians who became rich have created jobs for the Malays. Since May 13, 1969, thanks to Mr. Razak, the Malays need handicapping.
The memoirs also reveal how the greedy and powerful Malays abuse the 30% free stake of Chinese companies for the so-called poor Malays. After given the free shares, the Malays would sell off their shares for profit. Then they would claim that the same company that had already given away 30% has not fulfilled the obligation and is forced to give – again – free shares to meet the 30% requirement.
Essentially, it was a bottomless pit where the Malays would ask for handouts continuously without lifting a finger. Kuok writes that while it’s one thing to change the rules, it’s a robbery if you do it the second time, even if it was done by the government. Naturally, he expressed his sadness to see the Malays being misled in this way. Did he try to talk to the leaders about the mistakes?
Yes, he did but when free money falls from the sky, hardly anyone was willing to listen to him. He made one – and only one – strong attempt to influence the course of history of Malaysia. He approached school and class-mate Deputy Prime Minister Hussein Onn who would soon become the country’s third prime minister. It was 1975 when Kuok poured his opinion and advice.
Hussein Onn was advised that in order to move the country forward, racial representation is not important but integrity, capability, honest and hard-working are the main criteria in choosing leaders to build up nation. Kuok told Hussein – “You have three sons, Hussein. The first-born is Malay, the second-born is Chinese, and the third-born is Indian.”
Kuok advised his good friend – “What we have been witnessing is that the first-born 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 because Papa is doting on him. The second and third sons, feeling the discrimination, will grow up hard as nails.”
Unfortunately, Hussein would not listen to Kuok’s simple formula of practising integrity and using the best brains for the future of the country. Mr. Hussein replied – “No, Robert. I cannot do it. The Malays are now in a state of mind such that they will not accept it.” The Chinese tycoon was disappointed that his buddy was too weak to do the right thing.
The Johor-born tycoon hadn’t offered any advice to Malay politicians ever since. Perhaps Hussein’s choice of submitting to extremism and racism had its fair share in helping Kuok’s decision to move his business empire to Hong Kong. Still, he didn’t burn any bridge and continues to establish relationship with Malays who walk the corridors of power.
Although he lacked the knowledge and experience in shipping business, Kuok would later hire the best mind in the industry, Frank WK Tsao, and formed the national shipping line – MISC (Malaysian International Shipping Corporation). Within a year of establishment, however, Prime Minister Abdul Razak came knocking asking for free shares.
Razak, the father of the current Prime Minister Najib Razak, told Robert Kuok – “I want you to make a fresh issue of 20% of new shares. I’m under pressure because there is not a high enough Malay percentage of shareholding.” Kuok was forced to arm-twist the board to allocate the shares demanded by Razak, as racism starts showing its ugly face.
Essentially, the shares belonging to Kuok, Frank and even MCA group (Malaysian Chinese Association) were diluted to satisfy the greedy but lazy Malays. But the daylight robbery didn’t end there. Two years later, thanks to MISC roaring success, the same Prime Minister Abdul Razak came knocking again – this time demanding another 20% – making Malaysian government the largest single shareholder.
The Malaysian government thought it was shameful for Chinese to run the national shipping line. Realizing he was fighting an uphill battle against the increasingly racist government, the Kuok Brothers eventually sold all their MISC shares and pulled out of the national shipping company completely. Kuok moved to Singapore and formed its own shipping company – Pacific Carriers.
During the era of Mahathir Mohamad – Malaysia’s 4th Prime Minister –cronyism flourished and the person who forced Kuok to give up his sugar business – Syed Mokhtar Albukhary – was one of the Malay cronies who became very rich at the expense of Chinese’s hardwork. It was no coincidence that sugar was kept lowly priced by Kuok but immediately after Albukhary took over, the price skyrockets.
MISC would eventually forced to bailout Konsortium Perkapalan, which was 51% owned by Mahathir’s son, Mirzan Mahathir, to the tune of US$220 million after the 1997-98 Asia Financial Crisis. Under Mahathir administration, Chinese crooks were unleashed and flourished under cronyism, something which Kuok had warned years earlier.
While Mahathir had secretly and quietly enriched his family members and cronies using Chinese crooks, the country’s 6th Prime Minister – Najib Razak – has essentially transformed into a crook himself. Najib was caught siphoning and plundering national coffers to the tune of US$4.5 billion, as revealed by U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation.