EAGER, hungry and able to swallow bitterness, with cultural strength in the marrow of their bones, Chinese immigrants are unsung heroes, says Malaysia’s richest man, Robert Kuok.

In an extract of the Kuok’s autobiography published on the South China Morning Post today, the Malaysian “Sugar King” eulogises the Chinese immigrants for their industry, adaptability, and moral courage.

He also credits the Chinese immigrant workforce with building Southeast Asia.

Yet, he writes, “in Malaysia, Sumatra or Java, the locals call you Cina – pronounced Chee-na – in a derogatory way”.

“Around the world, I have seen benevolent governments sponsor and even financially aid their nations’ businessmen so that they can compete overseas. It’s true in the US, Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Korea and Taiwan.

“National banks come to their citizenry’s aid; import-export banks subsidise their exports. In the commodity trade, the French and British governments and banks stand proudly behind their commodity brokers, who have lines of credit that I can only dream of. If the commodity traders’ capital is US$20 million, they receive US$200 million of credit…”

The overseas Chinese, he writes, have no such luck.

“The Chinese have no fairy godmothers (I exclude here the type of Chinese who connive with leaders peddling cronyism, and therefore rise and fall with such leaders.) 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.”

None as loyal as Chinese

All that aside, he writes, Chinese people are also loyal.

“I have not come across any people as loyal as the Chinese. The Japanese have a kind of loyalty, but it’s an uncritical, bushido type of loyalty: they are loyal even if the boss is a skunk. Unlike the Japanese, every Chinese is highly judgmental, from the most educated to the uneducated. In every Chinese village and community, moral values are drilled into each child during his or her family upbringing.”

Overseas Chinese are the unsung heroes who made enormous contributions to Southeast Asia, he says.

“The poor men and women who migrated and blazed trails into the jungle, accessing the timber wealth; Chinese workers who planted and tapped rubber, who opened up the tin mines, who 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 good administrators. Many of them in private enterprise were absentee landlords, sitting in boardrooms or plush offices in London, Singapore or Kuala Lumpur.

“It was the Chinese who helped build up Southeast Asia. The Indians also played a big role, but the Chinese were the dominant force in helping to build the economy.”

‘Outside observer’

The Chinese businessmen of today, meanwhile, are typified in the current crop of high achievers in Hong Kong, men like Li Ka-shing of Cheung Kong, Cheng Yu-tung of New World and Li Shau-kee of Henderson Land, he writes.

“They came from the school of hard knocks. Not one of them went to college.”

Kuok calls himself an “outside observer” of the ways of China-born Chinese businessmen steeped in the Chinese language and culture, as he was mainly brought up in the English-speaking world.

“I can tell you that Chinese businessmen compare notes every waking moment of their lives. There are no true weekends or holidays for them. That’s how they work. Every moment, they are listening, and they have skilfully developed in their own minds – each and every one of them – mental sieves to filter out rubbish and let through valuable information. Good Chinese business management is second to none; the very best of Chinese management is without compare. I haven’t seen others come near to it in my 70-year career,” he writes.

Chinese crooks

He says it is regrettable that Indonesia, and most other countries in the region) did not heed his warning about the need for watchdog institutions with bite to keep the crooks in check.

“The decent Chinese have helped to build up Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, and made these countries what they are today. But you also had the rise of the unscrupulous and ruthless Chinese, who in turn have devastated many parts of Southeast Asia.

“Why were these people allowed to wreak havoc? It is because the leaderships have been weak. If the leaders were strong, all these devils would have disappeared overnight.

“Singapore had the same number of Chinese crooks, but you try and find one today. They are all hidden, camouflaged, or dormant. The crooks were held on steel leashes by two hands: Lee Kuan Yew’s left hand and Lee Kuan Yew’s right hand. With the unsavoury elements under control, look what Singapore has been able to accomplish by harnessing the energies of the overseas Chinese.”

The extract from Robert Kuok, A Memoir, the fourth extract in a serious of six that the South China Morning Past is publishing in conjunction with the book release in Singapore yesterday. The book is scheduled for release in Malaysia on December 1 and in Indonesia on January 1.