Grit and Grace of a Benign Billionaire

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By 2018-02-11

By Sarath de Alwis

Robert Kuok is the Malaysian Chinese billionaire who created the oriental version of perfect luxury – the Shangri-La hotels. The name is an appropriation from the imagined land of tranquility and longevity. In the tenth decade of his life at age 94, he has published his memoirs. The Publisher hoped to sell 40,000 copies in its first print. The Book published in November 2017 and released in Hongkong, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand has sold ten times more and has been out of stock till early February. The European and US editions are due in March.

It is a 376-page tome in small print and is 'unputdownable' to anyone interested in tracing the economic and social trajectory of modern China and ASEAN countries.

It is a compelling reminiscence of colonial East Asia and its brutal Japanese occupation during World War II. It is also a disarmingly innocent narrative of post-colonial identity search in that part of the world. Known for his prodigious philanthropy, the benign billionaire paints an irresistible canvass of global events that he has experienced firsthand.

In breathtaking detachment, he describes his early entrepreneurial forays during the Japanese occupation of Malaya. As a child he saved four cents out of five cents given to him. He describes his experiences as a clerk working for Mitsubishi who were contracted to supply rice to occupied Malaya. His relations with governments were always upfront. He opted for the path not taken by most overseas Chinese businessmen who relied on political patronage.

Considered Asia's richest, his holdings include the Singapore listed Wilmar International – the world's preeminent producer of palm oil and one of the top ten producers of sugar. His other interests include logistics and property development in East Asia, Europe and Australasia.

The first-person narrative begins with a matter of fact recollection of a hurt childhood in a broken family. 'My earliest memory is of crying and feeling heartbroken'. It is followed with a detached observation 'Father has abused Mother virtually from the day they were married in 1920.'

A Soul Stirring Story

Thus, begins an epic tale that covers eight decades of the 20th century and the two decades of the 21st. It is a soul stirring tribute to the memory of a tenacious mother who steadfastly inculcated ethical and moral values in her three sons and her youngest Robert in particular. The book is dedicated to his mother whom he calls 'The true founder of the Kuok group'.

The book is also dedicated to his brother William 'a great human being who died young'. Bookish William who loved English poetry who became a journalist was an activist in the Malayan Communist Party. He was killed by the British in their pre-independence slaughter of Malayan communists who were the only opposition to Japanese military occupation of peninsular Malaya.

The book is an informed first-hand account of post-war East Asian history and its accompanying politico economic transformation. His own story is secondary, but can best be summed up in the verse:

Are we not but a speck of sand
trying to find its place in the pile.
Are we not just like every other speck
until we set ourselves apart.

At age 94, Robert Kuok can truly claim, 'the world is my oyster.' His life story is easily a parallel to the process of oysters producing priceless pearls. First it is a painful intrusion of a speck of sand. To overcome the irritation, it covers it with comforting layers of its own toil. Finally, emerges the pearl of immeasurable radiance and beauty.

Overseas Chinese – The most amazing economic ants

With an uncanny élan he explains the obvious to the skeptics. The overseas Chinese are the real drivers of growth in East Asia.
"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."

The overseas Chinese are the unsung heroes of the region. The poor Chinese immigrants both men and women 'blazed trails into the jungle accessing the timber wealth, planted and tapped rubber, opened up the tin mines and setup small retail shops. "It was the Chinese immigrants who tackled these Herculean tasks and created a new economy around them.

"Chinese entrepreneurs are efficient and cost-conscious. When they search for foreign hardware and expertise, they know how to drive hard bargains. They work harder than anyone else and are willing to 'eat bitterness', as the Chinese say. The Chinese are simply the most amazing economic ants on earth."

He is blunt. It is the overseas Chinese who are the real drivers of growth in East Asia.

Robert Kuok is an astute profiler of people. He relies on sharp clarity and plain language and offers profiles of some outstanding leaders of East Asia – Tunku Abdul Rahman of Malaysia, Deng Xiao Ping of China and Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore.

On Tunku Abdul Rahman

"Tunku was like a strategist who saw the big picture. He knew where to move his troops, but actually going to battle and plotting the detailed campaign – that was not Tunku. He'd say, "Razak, you take over. You handle it now." In that sense, they worked very well together. In my meetings with Tunku, he demonstrated some blind spots. He had a bee in his bonnet about communism. One day, when we had become quite close, he said to me, "Communists! In Islam, we regard them as devils! And Communist China, you cannot deal with them, otherwise you are dealing with the devil!" And he went on and on about communists, communism and Communist China. I responded, "Tunku, China only became communist because of the immense suffering of the people as a result of oppression and invasion. I think it's a passing phase." He interjected, "Oh, don't you believe it! The Chinese are consorting with the devil. Their people are finished! You don't know how lucky you Chinese are to be in Malaysia." I replied softly, "Tunku, as Prime Minister of Malaysia, you should make friends with them."

"Years later, when Tunku was out of office, he was invited to China. Zhao Ziyang, then Premier, entertained him in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Tunku travelled with a delegation of 15 Chinese businessmen who were good friends of his. On his way to China, Tunku stopped in Hong Kong and I gave them dinner. Then on his way out of China, he stopped in Hong Kong and we dined again. I asked him for his impressions. All of his old prejudices had vanished! He didn't even want to refer to them. He just said the trip had been an eye-opener. "They are decent people, like you and me," he said. "We could talk about anything." From then onward, you never heard Tunku claim that the Chinese Communists were the devils incarnate."

On Deng Xiao Peng

I was invited to meet Deng Xiaoping in the autumn of 1990. 'There was no hint of arrogance in his voice. It was as if he were a wizened sage looking in to his crystal ball and describing what he saw.'

He impressed me as a very fine and humble human being. He was by then an elderly man, but from the moment he saw me, his whole behaviour – his smile and his body language – was like that of an eager young man seeking to make a new friend. In none of his actions or words was there a hint of: "I am a great leader of a great nation. Who are you?" You could sense that the man was never thinking of himself. He was all for the people, his people.

When we sat down, his first words were to thank and to praise the Overseas Chinese for their contribution to the birth of the new China, and for the major role they had played and were continuing to play in China's economy. Then he said several things that still stick in my mind. One was: "In 30 years' time, China will be the most important and strongest nation in Asia, which will by then be the strongest continent in the world." There was no hint of arrogance in Deng's voice. It was as if he were a wizened sage looking into his crystal ball and describing what he saw. He stated it very humbly, and then he added words to this effect: "I shall not live to see that day, but I have no doubt that it will become true."

On Lee Kwan Yew

Robert Kuok met Lee Kwan Yew when they were both students at Raffles College in prewar times.

"One day a friend suggested that I meet Kuan Yew. I was told never to get into an argument with him because he always had to win. To that I replied, 'Why would I want to meet him then?'

I was eventually introduced to Kuan Yew. He came across as having a very sharp mind and very strong views on every subject that was being discussed. I think even then he had a clear vision of where he was going. I thought he was also slightly disdainful of people unless he thought you were as smart as him or a very interesting person.

I never had any arguments with Kuan Yew. He was more standoffish than warm, but you could sense it was not snobbery. It was because the man had something going on in his mind all the time, probably superior to anything going on in your mind. He just felt there was no point mixing unnecessarily or engaging in small talk."

Next Week – The colossus
built by Robert Kuok

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