Born in Johor in 1923, Robert Kuok Hock Nien has kept his life away from the public eye. At 94, he recently released his memoir, a book written together with Andrew Tanzer, a former Forbes journalist. Not one for business biographies (which this is), I chose to read it to understand what it took to become one of the greatest entrepreneurs of independent Malaya and why he was known as the legendary “Sugar King”. I was certainly intrigued.
Kuok opens up to reveal the details of what shaped his growing years; having a father who sailed from Fujian to Malaya in search of a better life and an educated mother from a well-to-do family who reluctantly agreed to the arranged marriage. His father had found fame and riches after settling down in British colonial Malaya. Almost immediately, from the day they were married, Kuok claims their relationship was volatile, as his father, like many successful early immigrants, indulged in opium, gambling and kept women.
The youngest of three sons, Robert, who was small and slender, grew up feeling left out and isolated. Both of his brothers, Philip and William, were nearer in age and were also taller and stronger. Consequently, he became closer to his mother and followed her everywhere, mixing with her friends and absorbing their adult conversations. He felt rejected by his father who showed an obvious preference for his elder brother, Philip.
Despite the troubled relationship, he nevertheless admired his father’s streetwise business acumen as well as his ability to build friendships within the elite Malay community, including members of the royal family in Johor. These strategic relationships enabled his father, Kuok Keng Kang, to gain long-term trading contracts with the state and earn a higher social status among the immigrant community. Unfortunately, for Kuok, he could never reconcile the good with the bad; the way his father treated his mother, the second family his father had and how he subsequently abandoned his first family, leaving them to fend for themselves. His father’s obvious partiality and unkindness drove Kuok from an early age to excel in everything he did.
Kuok and his brothers received their early education at local English schools, unlike other immigrant children. Encouraged to adopt Western names, their father named all three sons after famous historic figures. Fortuitously, their father believed that English was the lingua franca for international commerce, encouraging them to advance their studies all the way to the famed English College in Johor Baru and after that, the prestigious Singapore Raffles College. Through his educational choices, he befriended many future Malaysian and Singaporean leaders and intellectuals such as Hussein Onn, Abdul Razak Hussein and Lee Kuan Yew. This network of friends would later prove to be advantageous when Malaya gained its independence.
The merchant in making
The Japanese invasion brought his student days to an abrupt end. To protect his family from Japanese aggression, Kuok agreed to be enlisted in the administration of Mitsubishi’s rice distribution business, working his way up from a clerk to the head of the department by the time the war ended. It was here that he had his first taste of business and making money.
When the war ended, he agreed to help his father’s company, which by then had been awarded a large contract to supply provisions to Japanese prisoners of war. Later, it distributed essential goods around Johor for the British. His English education proved advantageous as the British were comfortable dealing with him. Not long after, his father died and together with his mother, brother and extended family, they founded Kuok Brothers in 1949 to continue the trading business.
With Malaya’s independence, life changed for the Kuok brothers; Philip went on to become a diplomat under Tunku Abdul Rahman’s leadership while William, Kuok’s much-loved revolutionary brother, joined the Communist Party to oppose the resumption of colonial rule. He was subsequently killed in combat by the British army, leaving control of the company to Kuok.
The genesis of his brilliant business career
Malaya’s independence was a major turning point and cosmopolitan Johor with its elite Malays was open and accessible for major trade and growth. It was this background that provided Kuok and his family their business trajectory to become a market leader in Malaya. The trusted friends that he made were to become prominent figures in the newly independent country.
When British control ended, their influence declined. This then left a gap for Malayan companies to enter the business sphere and broaden their scope and coverage. Kuok saw a greater potential in sugar, an area underserved by the Chinese community, who were focused on rice.
Sugar was the making of his empire and he grew the business beyond the home shores of Malaya and Singapore. Kuok, with his language skills and earlier working experience, was able to form solid partnerships around post-colonial Southeast Asia and eventually, the world. With the Japanese, he built a refinery in Prai, using their technology and resources. In London, he befriended leading commodity traders to learn the skill of trading first-hand.
From there, there was no stopping him and he went on to buy and sell sugar all around the world, even in communist bloc countries such as Cuba. He searched the world for cheaper sugar, providing the commodity at a lower price than the British. Eventually, flour and edible oils — commodities with vast demand worldwide — were added to the business portfolio. And from the established network he made through his commodity business, he went on to build a diversified multinational conglomerate.
Turning his attention to Malaysia, he openly acknowledges the support he received from the young government and in return, he gratefully agreed to work alongside the newly formed Malayan cabinet to help build their infrastructure — providing management guidance as well as private-sector support to government initiatives.
MISC, Malaysia’s first shipping line, was conceptualised under his stewardship. Additionally, he accepted board positions with Bank Bumiputra, Malayawata and Malaysia-Singapore Airlines (MSA). Unfortunately, MSA did not survive and Kuok provides insights into the politics of managing boards that were not cohesive and united in vision.
In probably the most contentious sections of his book, he recounts the conversations he had on affirmative action with the various prime ministers and how the events of May 1969 changed the rhythm of the country. The conversations reveal how the strength of Kuok’s business acumen made him partial to a pragmatism that overlooks the emotion behind social issues, particularly those felt in Malaysia at the time.
Finally, with the changing political climate in Malaysia and the allure of a larger playing field beyond home shores, Kuok relocated to Hong Kong in 1975 to take advantage of the attractive business environment that it offered and eventually planned his entry into China.
The man he finally became
Kuok believes that any business can be learnt through hard work, honesty and good management. “There are qualified technical people for hire in the world. You can easily employ captains, ship engineers and architects. But most important are your businessmen.” His memoirs reflect his many years of managing and then shepherding his business empire, through good and bad times.
There are qualified technical people for hire in the world. You can easily employ captains, ship engineers and architects. But most important are your businessmen
Speaking with remarkable candour, he discloses some of his principles of doing business — believing in a long-term vision, managing risk, using diplomacy to negotiate the best outcome for both sides and learning to share the fruits of one’s labours. He also reveals his disdain for greed. This he learnt from his mother when she bestowed shares of their business to extended family members, long-serving employees and even the second family.
Influenced by his mother, whom Kuok refers to as the “hidden captain’’ of his life, he attributes her religious spirituality as a stabilising authority throughout his life. Don’t expect to read a lot about his immediate family and his thoughts on succession — Kuok shares very little, except for the admission that he inflicted great pain on his late first wife when he fell in love with another. He admits his failings without excuse. Nevertheless, the book is filled with tender touches when family is cited.
Kuok lived through the most fascinating times in Malaysia and Asia. He witnessed the dismantling of British colonialism and grabbed the opportunities that came with it. He survived the Japanese occupation and at the same time, learnt their business. And from there, he went on to build his own empire beyond Malaysia and through post-colonial Southeast Asia. A visionary, he anticipated ahead of others the dramatic rise of Asian economies, particularly China. And with China, he braved his way through the maze, taking a long-term view of this country. He eventually succeeded in winning the trust of Deng Xiaoping and paved the way for other Malaysian businesses.
This is a story of an outlier — a talented, driven and intuitive child who grew up in an entrepreneurial environment at the right place and time. Whether you agree with Kuok or not, this is a fascinating read for anyone interested in Malaysian history and business.
'Robert Kuok: A Memoir' is available at MPH and Popular bookstores. Price from RM109. This article first appeared on Mar 19, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.