Commentary Local

Kuok : Patriot or Iconic Businessman


Written by TheMole

March 5, 2018

By Salahuddin Hisham

LAST week’s heated exchanges on Robert Kuok that culminated with MCA doing a demonstration was not easy to digest.

It begs an answer as to why Datuk Sri Nazri bin Tan Sri Aziz uttered such unnecessary words and Datuk Tajuddin Rahman demanded for Robert Kuok’s citizenship to be revoked.    

If one looked at a few corporate personalities openly doing business with both sides of the political divide, one could assume they were contributing to the campaign coffer of both sides. With opposition in control of few economic centre-states, it does put businessmen in a political dilemma.

It was in the 1990s that someone linked to a powerful politician-corporate personality revealed to yours truly of so-and-so Chinese businessmen having given to both BN and DAP.

Somehow or rather, the way the exchanges rolled out indicated that it was beyond the suspicion of Kuok’s political funding of opposition. Only Nazri, Tajuddin and Datuk Tengku Adnan know.

The issue caught the attention of political observers when Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak  was reported to have said that the likes of Kuok would not have made it only on hard work and business acumen without government opening the key to success.

Kuok replied to acknowledge Najib. In a statement to defuse the situation, Najib acknowledged Kuok’s achievement and contribution to the country.

The story of Kuok cannot be simplified and summed up into a sentence or paragraph. The life story and business pursuits of the 93-year old Kuok transcend the history of the country.

It is not fair to accuse the man as not doing his part to contribute to the country. He did contribute in establishing the basic food supply chain of the country and detaching link from the colonial capitalist control.

Kuok was involved in establishing the first Malaysian shipping company, Malaysian International Shipping Corporation (MISC). He was the chairman of the new entity Malaysian Airline System (MAS), following the split of Malaysia Singapore Airlines (MSA).

It was Kuok that was called upon to be chairman of MCA-initiated cooperative, Multipurpose Holdings Berhad (MPHB) to bring back confidence and stability to resolve the co-op crisis in the 1980s.

The story of Kuok has many sides to it.

A research paper by Universiti Malaya described Kuok’s success as an interesting case of a “minority of a minority”.

The Kuok came from the minority immigrant Foochow clan in a Johor Chinese community dominated by the Teochew and Hokkien.

Another dimension to Kuok is their Buddhist faith. The majority of Foochow – be it in heir  Setiawan, Perak or Sibu, Sarawak bases – are Christians.  

The Kuok acclimatised themselves to pre-war Johor and adapted to the changing historical environment. He went to an English school, befriended children of Malay royal and aristocracy, and during the Japanese occupation, worked with a Japanese trading company.

That was where he picked up knowledge on the sugar business. When his family company, Kuok Brothers went into sugar trading, it was the Japanese that provided the technical know-how.  

Sugar trading was the business on which the Kuok built their empire. His long and close relationship with the ruling elites of early Malaysia got him monopoly trading license for sugar, rice and flour for more than 20 years.

If YTL was bombarded for questioning crony capitalism to the extent he had to back out of an IPP deal, the resentment towards Kuok maybe a reaction to his recently-released memoir (though not available yet in Malaysian bookstores) for questioning the New Economic Policy.

Contrary to his regressive opinion of NEP’s handicapping policies, Kuok amassed wealth throughout the NEP era. It was not the stage and right time to expect fair competition to help nurture Malays and Bumiputera.

Nevertheless, Kuok’s view has its basis. NEP was abused and those favoured to excel are at times without merit but out of marriage and friendship.

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s reply was to still defend NEP and denied Barisan Nasional ever received political donation from Kuok during his time. Yes, sure …

However, Kuok could not escape the resentment towards his criticism of NEP. One reason often cited was monopoly. Other businessmen too were given monopoly. However, Kuok’s monopoly was seen as absolute. No relaxation to allow competition.

Back in the 80s, when there was a potential rice shortage, an attempt by a Malay businessman to work with the Kuok to import rice was not given a listen. He returned from Hong Kong without even being given an audience with Robert Kuok.

Where Malay “cronies” were required to do national service and expected to contribute large sums of money to support various initiatives, the magnitude of the CSR from his group of companies was said to be pittance.

Though he personally gave opportunities and assisted the Malay royalty and aristocracy, he was seldom accused of not doing enough to offer assistance for the rest of the Bumiputera, including employment opportunities for Bumiputera graduates.

Lee Rubbers could be seen more often donating to community efforts than Kuok Foundation.

One criticism against Kuok that was seldom talked about but was raised by a former media Chief Editor in his blog was the transfer in domicile of Kuok’s group of business to Singapore-listed Wilmar and for setting up base in Hong Kong for more than 40 years. This made many sceptical of Datuk Seri Nazir Razak’s defence of Kuok as a patriot.

Critics claimed that Kuok strived on the return of his simple favours to those in high places and lopsided preferential deals. One example was the site of Shangri-La Kuala Lumpur which critics claimed was forced on UDA to be sold for cheap.   

Though these are criticisms often levelled at Kuok, someone with a long history cannot be simplified in such a manner. There may be other terms attached unknown to others.

Many do not know that when Kuok sold his sugar refinery business, it was to Felda.

In the case of MISC, he sold his shares at pre-listing price to those that helped built the company in its early days.

The same critics claimed that Kuok sold the business due to the thin margin and used the proceeds to acquire raw sugar source to be sold to Felda at market. It is claimed that his dominance in the China palm oil market made it difficult for Felda palm oil to enter the market.

Nevertheless, such deft business move is why  Malaysian Chinese and Malaysians in general look up to Kuok as an icon and a national pride. Kuok’s contribution to the country is strategic in nature and helped to open opportunities to the country.

His move to Hong Kong could be argued as a far sighted strategic move to prepare for the opening up of China. It is said a favour to help China during a sugar supply shortage was the opening to establish his relationship with China.

Kuok built a first world class Shangri-La hotel in Beijing. It is said to be the first. And he built the World Trade Centre of China. Admirers of Kuok claimed that he contributed to the current flow of capital and investment from China to Malaysia.

Kuok helped to open up trade links between China and Sabah by building several trade centres in Kota Kinabalu and Lahad Datu.     

What motivated Nazri to utter such foul words may never be known. He will apologise but it is waste of time to figure out his motive.

Sometimes politicians do things for reasons not related to the act itself.    






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