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Publication Date : 09-10-2013
Robert Kuok keeps ties to Malaysia, China
There is a bit of a romantic streak in Southeast Asia's richest man, it seems.
Four decades ago, Robert Kuok decamped Malaysia for Hong Kong.
The ostensible reason: lower taxes in Hong Kong. What some say: a fierce dislike of Malaysia's controversial New Economic Policy favouring the bumiputeras and the resulting cronyism.
Whatever it was, today, Kuok says of the country in which he was born: "I haven't lost my affection for Malaysia."
In a telephone interview with The Straits Times yesterday, the tycoon elaborated on his donation of 100 million ringgit (US$31 million) to build Xiamen University's first overseas campus in Salak Tinggi, Selangor.
The largess was announced last week during a lunch with Chinese President Xi Jinping when the latter visited Malaysia. "It is a gesture of appreciation. I wish Malaysia only well," says Kuok.
The magnate, who marked his 90th birthday on Sunday and is known for being averse to media interviews - he had not granted one to the international media for 16 years barring one to Bloomberg in January - showed little signs of his age except in some impact on his hearing.
Asked about succession plans for his HK$300 billion (US$39 billion) conglomerate Kuok Group, Kuok insists firmly that it is a "private matter - a family matter, a company matter".
"I will not poke my nose into other families' (businesses), and I hope they won't poke their noses into mine."
It is an acerbic retort to a recent cover story by Hong Kong's Chinese-language Next magazine, which speculated that five of Kuok's eight children are jockeying to take over the helm.
Unlike peers such as Li Ka Shing, Kuok has yet to announce who will head his empire, which includes three listed enterprises - Kerry Properties encompassing the Shangri-La chain of hotels, the SCMP Group which runs the South China Morning Post and Singapore-listed Wilmar International, the world's biggest processor of palm oil.
Further incurring his ire was the magazine's allusion to an "open secret" that Kuok, who is twice married, has a third family in Shanghai. "I (only) wish that journalists who write those articles can find me a third wife!" he says irritably.
On whether he will take any legal action against the periodical, he says: "Those are filthy productions, and if you want me to dive into dirty drains (with them), I hope I'm not that stupid."
Kuok is more forthcoming in talking about the ties that continue to bind.
"Our family enjoyed relative success due to the benevolence of the host country where my parents settled," he says. Immigrants from Fujian, they ran a shop in Johor Baru selling rice, sugar and flour, and when Kuok Senior died in 1948, the then 25-year-old Robert established Kuok Brothers with his brother and other family members. Its success would eventually earn him the moniker "Sugar King".
Kuok, who was educated at Raffles College where he was classmates with Lee Kuan Yew, later moved his base to Singapore.
Tracing those years, he says: "We were minnows in the pond, then we entered the lake where we grew to five to 10 pounds."
By 1960, he was trading sugar and rice with China, skilfully navigating its political turbulence.
"Later, the ocean - Hong Kong and China - attracted my attention and so the fish could become even larger," he says.
His focus today is on China's economic development, "instead of interfering in the politics of China", he says, in apparent allusion to critics who say he is too cosy with Beijing leadership.
Staff from the SCMP for instance, have complained that under Kuok ownership, the paper censors stories it thinks the Chinese government would not like.
But, he says, like the giant leather-backed turtles of Terengganu he had once seen, which return every year to the same sandy beaches to lay their eggs, he feels the primal tug of home.
"Roots are roots, except that my other root is the the root of my parents - and that is China.
"I am twin-rooted."
Asked about the sense of discrimination among the Chinese in Malaysia, Kuok demurs commenting, saying: "This will lead only to highly controversial statements, which is not good for anybody. One must never hurt those Chinese who are living in Malaysia, never be the cause of any kind of interracial hostility.
"We all feel it, but there may come a day, with the proper platform (do we then talk about it).
"What's most important is the timing."
And the present is not the right time? The man laughs: "Certainly not this morning, to a journalist!"