AHEAD of past Umno general assemblies, the preoccupation of Malaysians would be on issues and policies that could emerge from this important Malay political meeting.
But this time around, the talk of the town was slightly tilted to the 376-page book authored by Robert Kuok, Malaysia’s richest man and one of Asia’s top tycoons.
Kuok, whose wealth was recently estimated to total US$14bil (RM58bil), revealed Robert Kuok, A Memoir last month.
The book, which chronicles his past dealings, tells of how he started his business in Malaya and built his multinational empire from 1960s.
Among others, the book contains Kuok’s frank views on Chinese in South-East Asia, his dealings with Malaysia’s former premiers, his take on Malaysia’s economic policies, meetings with China’s late leader Deng Xiaoping and current President Xi Jinping.
In essence, its content confirms the long-held belief that Kuok is an influential person in South-East Asia and China in the political and corporate circles.
What is interesting is that Kuok also reveals his private life. He said his wise mother shaped his values and business principles. He agonised over the pain he inflicted on his first wife when he fell in love with another woman in his office.
The book was sold out even before it was launched in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. Jakarta will see the launch of the book on Jan 1.
The buzz created by the book is not limited to people in South-East Asian nations but also those in Hong Kong and China.
“My business associates in Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong tell me that Mr Kuok’s memoirs have generated a lot of interest in the book as well as his principles that could not tolerate corruption and misfeasance,” says Ian Yoong, investment advisor to Chinese businessmen keen on Malaysia.
Dubbed the “Sugar King” of Asia, Kuok has set up an empire with cross-border businesses spanning from commodity trading to hotels, sugar and oil palm plantations, property development and entertainment.
In Malaysia, Kuok Brothers retain control of Shangri-la Hotel and flour business after selling his sugar and property businesses.
For the ordinary Chinese, they beamed with pride when Kuok wrote about the role of overseas Chinese in the economic success of South-East Asia.
Calling them “the most amazing economic ants on earth”, the media-shy man wrote:
“The overseas Chinese made enormous contributions to South-East Asia.
“They are the unsung heroes of the region: the poor men and women who migrated and blazed trails into the jungle, accessing the timber wealth; workers who planted and tapped rubber, who opened up the tin mines, ran the small retail shops.
“It was the Chinese immigrants who tackled these Herculean tasks, and created a new economy around them. The British were absentee landlords, sitting in boardrooms or plush offices in London, Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. It was the Chinese who helped build up South-East Asia. The Indians also played a big role, but the Chinese were the dominant force in helping to build the economy.”
But while heaping praises on Chinese, stating that the decent Chinese have helped to build up Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, Kuok also sent out a caveat.
He had advised national leaders to flush out “unscrupulous and ruthless Chinese who have devastated many parts of South-East Asia”.
The tycoon also answered the question on why he moved his business headquarters to Hong Kong from Kuala Lumpur: lower taxes in Hong Kong and his disdain for the New Economic Policy implemented after the May 13 riots.
While some people argue he cannot be faulted as a shrewd businessman who maximised his profits, his subsequent sale of some Kuok businesses in Malaysia has caused debates.
“Chinese Malaysians are proud to have a Robert Kuok among us, but he should have also invested more and help create more job opportunities for the people here.
“He should also take note that Malaysia has progressed economically since 1971 and our leaders are able to ensure that May 13 is not repeated,” says Tan Sri Pheng Yin Huah, president of Federation of Chinese Associations Malaysia (Huazong).
Another businessman, who declined to be named, concurred: “He made tonnes of money from sugar and rice monopoly for five decades here.
“By scaling down, he is sending a wrong signal to investors. He should be happy to operate with lower margin, after making huge profits in earlier years.”
After transferring his headquarters to Hong Kong in 1975, Kuok ventured into the mainland and was one of the early investors to help develop the economy of then backward China.
Thus, some quarters have cast doubt on Kuok’s loyalty to Malaysia. But it is now difficult for anyone to repeat this accusation after reading his book.
Going by his memoir, Kuok played an “intermediary role” in ending communist insurgency in Malaysia by passing messages between Malaysia and China in the 1980s. This task sometimes placed him in tense situations akin to “James Bond scenes”.
He was effective. The messages he carried for Malaysia urging China to stop supporting the Malayan Communist Party saw desired results under Deng Xiaoping’s regime.
“It is fair to say that Malaysia regards me as the Malaysian with the best contacts in China.
“Because of my connections on both sides, I was called upon several times to act as a conduit between the two governments,” he wrote.
Indeed, Malaysia has Kuok to thank for playing such an important role in ending this 30-year long “civil war” that had cost so many lives and resources.
And if anybody is still not convinced of Kuok’s affinity to Malaysia, money can do the talking.
Kuok said he contributed funds to Barisan Nasional and MCA “especially when it comes to election time”.
When former MCA president and Finance Minister Tun Tan Siew Sin was alive, he approached Kuok for political donations on behalf of MCA and Barisan.
Kuok also gave money to support projects in Malaysia. Two years ago, he donated RM100mil to Xiamen University Malaysia.
“During my meetings with Mr Kuok to raise funds for Huazong’s building, I could feel his heart is truly with Malaysia. His topics of conversation centred on Malaysia,” Pheng told Sunday Star.
While Kuok’s political insights and revelations enthral readers, he also touched a raw nerve.
In sharing his thoughts on Malaysia and his relations with a former premier, Kuok said: “Since May 13, the Malay leadership has had one simple philosophy: Malays need handicapping.
“I have seen a picture developing all along of a train moving in the wrong direction.
“The train of the nation had been put on the wrong track. (Third Prime Minister) Hussein Onn wasn’t strong enough to lift up the train and set it down on the right track.”
Kuok’s “wrong track” remark has angered Umno supreme council member Datuk Seri Bung Moktar Radin, who said it was “unfair” for the world’s 54th richest man to criticise the country which had nurtured him.
Bung Moktar argued that the Government had to help Malays to prevent animosity among the ethnic groups.
“We are on the right track. That’s why Malaysia is sustaining until today,” he was quoted as saying in media reports.
He said successful business leaders should be fair when voicing their opinions on the country and its leadership, as their views could affect investor confidence and the economy.
Bung Moktar suggested that Kuok return to Malaysia as he had an “obligation” to help in the country’s development.
That the book is out now may also have irked politicians from the ruling parties, as the general election will have to be held before August 2018.
“The timing for the release of this book could be detrimental to BN in the coming general election
“But we don’t believe he has political motive,” said a government politician.
Kuok’s link with Malaysia and MCA did not stop even after he moved to Hong Kong.
In his memoir, Kuok said he “kept getting dragged into Malaysian politics” even after his relocation.
He was called upon to help the MCA several times.
In 1986, he was approached by the MCA leadership to post bail for its then president, Tan Koon Swan, who had been charged with criminal breach of trust in Singapore in connection with the Pan-El crisis that rocked the stock markets in Malaysia and Singapore.
He paid the S$20mil bail. Tan was later convicted and jailed.
In the late 1980s, Kuok’s help was again sought to rescue MCA-controlled Multi-Purpose Holdings Bhd, whose businesses included gaming, property development and plantations. He turned the group around.
Unknown to many, Kuok has also helped businessmen in financial distress.
When oil palm company Samanda Holdings Bhd was facing a hostile takeover bid in the 1990s, its owner asked Kuok to buy up a substantial stake to help stave off the raider.
“He knew I was a Chinese community leader but he did not know me personally, yet he rendered help.
“He held the stake for years until I was able to buy back from him,” the late Tan Sri Ngan Ching Wen recounted back then.
And to many less fortunate students, the charitable Kuok Foundation has touched their lives.
Kuok’s narration on the setting up of Malaysian International Shipping Corporation (MISC), now controlled by the Government, has also attracted some dissenting noise.
From the writings, it is clear that Kuok set up this shipping firm in 1968 mainly to meet his needs to import and export sugar, wheat and flour, as well as other commodities.
Admitting he “knew nothing about shipping”, he attributed the success of MISC to his shipping magnate business partner Frank Tsao, MISC’s deputy chairman in the early days.
But Tan Sri Chua Ma Yu, a former prominent stockbroker, holds a different view.
“The success story of MISC is because of Petronas’ long term LNG carrier contracts. It started with five and now there are many more,” says Chua, chairman of CMY Capital.
Kuok’s chapter on MISC also offers a startling revelation that may upset local Chinese.
He said Japan’s compensation for its massacre of tens of thousands of Chinese during the Japanese Occupation of Malaya was given in the form of two ships to MISC.
“MISC’s first two ships had come from Japan as ‘blood debt ships’ or ‘goodwill ships’ to compensate for the Japanese massacre of innocent Chinese in Malaya.
“The demand for compensation came from MCA, and was supported by (first Prime Minister) Tunku Abdul Rahman.”
Most Chinese do not know about this deal. In fact, Chinese guilds are still demanding compensation from Japan for the atrocities committed in the 1940s.
As Kuok has often emphasised on honesty and integrity, his book is viewed as a statement of historical facts, although the writings were peppered with his views and observations.
“I cannot imagine anyone of his stature writing such an honest biography. Malaysia is fortunate to have Mr Kuok to provide economic leadership.
“He has little to gain and much to lose by writing such a controversial memoir. Yet he has done so,” says Yoong.
Dr Oh Ei Sun, principal adviser of Pacific Research Centre (Malaysia), says: “What Kuok has expressed in his book reflects to a large extent the predicament of many Chinese businesses in Malaysia. But they are unable to articulate for fear of losing opportunities.”
According to one online commentator, this book is “more interesting and exciting” to read than memoirs written by Lee Kuan Yew and other political leaders.