THOUGH born in Malaysia, tycoon Robert Kuok still felt a strong sense of duty to help develop China, he said in his newly released autobiography.
In “Robert Kuok, A Memoir”, the businessman once dubbed the Sugar King of Asia noted the role and influence his mother, Tang Kak Ji, had on him.
Calling her the “true founder” of his business empire, Kuok, the youngest of three brothers, said his mother shaped his views from love to investments in China.
Kuok, who was born in Johor Baru on October 6, 1923, also said his main motivation for doing business in China was not money.
“I belong to a developing Southeast Asia. And now there is China, the land of my parents and ancestors. As long as I can still contribute, I cannot rest,” Kuok said in his memoir.
“The more I heard people call China backward, the more I felt we must show the rest of the world, some day, that China can be advanced.”
Mother’s influence and Mao Zedong
Kuok said his first experience with the Chinese began in 1958, after a sugar barter deal with India and Mitsui almost ended in disaster.
But in the end, it was a blessing in disguise as he got to know the Chinese trading companies based in Hong Kong, said Kuok.
He said he began travelling to mainland China in 1965, and found the people there to be friendly.
“In my early visits, I sensed that the people in China were highly moral and decent. I never felt like a stranger.”
But compared to his earlier visits, Kuok said post-Cultural Revolution China in the 1970s was a very different place.
“There was a lot of red tape laced with a high degree of suspicion. Many cadres did not have experience of business, and they feared that every capitalist was coming to try to rob the nation of its national treasures.
“The cadres didn’t know how to develop a business, but neither were they prepared to let you develop it. Mother warned me against investing in China: ‘You are going in too soon, my son, too soon. You will meet brick walls. Why bang your head on a brick wall? Worse still, if you achieve something, then they will take it away from you and you will be back at zero.’”
Kuok said his mother understood the Chinese very well, but he still felt a strong desire to develop the country.
“I felt that the country must wake up and join the modern world. It was much poorer than the Malaya into which I was born. I felt that I wanted to help China and, if possible, push the country to develop faster.
“Thank God there were good people, and standing above them all was Deng Xiaoping.”
Kuok also credited his mother for his lifelong interest in “the birthplace of my parents”.
“Mother always retained a strong and deep emotional tie to her homeland. Yet, she was very objective and critical of all the Chinese faults, including the foibles of successive governments and leaders.,” said Kuok.
She also welcomed the victory of Mao Zedong, Kuok added.
“Until her death, she (mother) said Mao’s pluses far outweighed his minuses. But, from early on, she knew that mistakes were being made. She saw the harm that the Great Leap Forward did to rural areas.
“I think that, today, we would say Mao didn’t really understand how to run an economy. During the war years you needed heroic acts. But once all the battles are won, you have to focus on building up the economy and bringing up the standard of living of the people.”
Kuok said his mother also assessed Deng Xiaoping very accurately early on.
“She told me: ‘Nien, China will go back to capitalism in your lifetime. It’s already moving in that direction. I can tell you, son, man can only be driven by the selfishness in his heart and the betterment of himself and his children’s well-being. Only that can propel him to achieve more things, to be more creative and productive. China will and must continue to be driven by this.’
“But in her mind, the ultimate goal of society should be true socialism, where man truly works for all his fellow beings on a totally selfless basis. But that stage is a long way off. Before that, man must complete the long march to becoming truly civilised, and we have only travelled the first few of 10 thousand miles.”
Why Hong Kong?
In another part of the memoir, which will be released in Malaysia on December 1, Kuok said the reason why he chose to move to Hong Kong was taxation.
“At that time, it almost appeared as though the Singapore and Malaysian governments were competing with each other to see which could levy the highest taxes on those who were generating wealth for the nations.
“Both were taxing our profits at punitive rates. If you earned a dollar, you barely kept fifty cents. My main business at the time was in commodities. I was a substantial trader. Three thousand lots is the equivalent of 150,000 tonnes of sugar.
“A movement of one US cent a pound would bring huge profits or losses,” said Kuok.
The father of eight said he needed to build up cash reserves as his company was vulnerable to margin calls if trading turned bad.
“Since I was in the international sugar trading business with mobile operations, it seemed almost irresponsible not to trade sugar from a low-tax base. Tax policy plays a very important role in encouraging or discouraging business.
“Hong Kong’s policy is very straightforward. Why would I want to hire an army of lawyers and accountants to avoid taxation? I should stress that I had not – and indeed, have not – lost one iota of my affection for Singapore. It is simply that it made more sense to base my operations in a low-tax jurisdiction like Hong Kong,” said Kuok.