Robert Kuok’s memoir a frank narrative
Mahbob Abdullah 

It is a rare treat to get a book like Robert Kuok: A Memoir. I sat down to enjoy every word. In the past, one could only hear about him, that he was attentive to all that was told, he was classmate to top politicians. He did not forgive a slight, and he would not forget a friend. He is loyal to those who gave him service and made sure they stayed on long after retirement age.

He was the top trader in rice. He was the Sugar King. His hand would appear to help friends in need. He delivered when it was in the national interest. He was secretive.

Now this book is a tell-all, blow-by-blow account of his childhood, his family, his business, and the problems that many other writers would prefer not to say. He was caned more than 50 times by his mother, who pointed out his faults. His mother had warned him that he tended to take away the bridge after he had used it, and therefore he had to be more helpful to others. There was not enough money at home, it showed in the clothing he wore to school, then there was the war, and hiding in a pineapple plantation in Johor, followed by the Emergency, and the loss of a brother shot by the security forces. He did not get on with his father. No other writer I had read had revealed so much about himself and his flaws. But his mother was there to guide him.

Kuok had his strengths as well, that made him a success in trading. It included rice and sugar. He worked hard and he worked fast, and he could use all his senses to assess a situation. He could enter a room and meet people, listen attentively, and used the facts he read to help him judge how prices were going to go. He took bold action. He did not use charts. “No chart can tell the future.” He went on about trading: “You must be two or three jumps ahead. One jump may not be enough.” His dealings were simple: “Be humble; be straight; don't be crooked; don't take advantage of people.”


Juggling feat

As a non-Chinese, I got a better idea of how a Chinese trader can start his business, using contacts and credit from friends and relatives based on trust. Kuok railed about colonial administrators, and it took the Bangkok Bank to extend its help to make him grow. He found opportunities in doing business he did not expect to be in, and it included plantations, hotels, housing, and shipping.

He said it was like keeping many balls in the air, and every now and then he might have to add a few more, sometimes on the request of governments.

In Malaysia, he found himself in charge of the steel business and the airline business. He did the best he could, as a kind of national service but had to stop when he thought it was no longer tenable for him to stay.

It was said that he moved to Hong Kong where the tax rate was low and he could build up funds faster than in Malaysia or Singapore. Being close to a bigger market he would have more opportunities to grow.

On the other hand, it was also rumoured that he had not found the changes in politics and appointments to be to his way of thinking, which is by meritocracy, and that made him move. Yet he would come back to his roots, to help in many ways when he was called by his old schoolmates who became political leaders in the country.

In Hong Kong, he formed another root, which led him to China. It gave a bigger scope, but he had to take a loss sometimes while learning about how things were done there. He strongly believed that business should be done in the only way he knew, that your word is your bond, and a handshake is binding. He won the trust of the businessmen and the government because of that.

With growth, he would need more managers. He would hire people and meet with many disappointments, as he wrote in the book. He finally boiled it down to four things: the person selected must have integrity, have ability, be a team player and can work hard. Probably no one had worked harder than him, and he could drop whatever he was doing to get on a plane at short notice to meet someone about a trade, or someone high up in government, and he would carry out what needed to be done.


A very hard-working people

He did try to give advice once in politics for the Malaysian government, and regretted that his ideas about meritocracy were not accepted. In my view, he was right if it applied to running a business, but in running a country where your future was decided by the will of the voters, there were other considerations in the balance.

Kuok had said the Chinese are very hard-working, wherever they go. Certainly in my view that is true for the region, as the Chinese who had come were the strong-willed ones who were bold and wanted to improve their lot. Their descendants are like them. Therefore, there has been a rigorous selection. This is their home and they will continue to work hard.

For readers who are keen on business, Kuok had many pointers, including the following: “Stay focused, work hard, and work intelligently. Many people think that shyness is a virtue. If you want to join business, leave that outside your door. You have to be thick-skinned, and able to take knocks.”

 I found that the book was a feast on details of the boardroom squabbles, the cuts and wounds of doing business, the quarrels, and making up, the friendships and the kinship that brought back the family together in the form of a big holding called Wilmar International, one of the biggest companies listed in Singapore.

Much credit goes to the writer, journalist Andrew Tanzer. He had captured the points very well. Kuok himself is no mean writer in English, who appreciates poetry, and so he must have gone into the draft in great detail until he got it the way he wanted it.

Apparently the book was ready a long time ago, but Kuok did not want it out until recently. Perhaps he no longer cared if his frankness would hurt anybody, and many would have left this world. At 94, this might be his chance to tell his story, and it can also be like a catharsis.

After reading the book I got to know him, with his flaws and his abilities. He stands out as someone I would admire greatly. It was the right decision to release the book. It is just that he did not get enough copies out, that you would need to hunt for them in many bookshops before you could get them. But when you do, there are enough lessons in there to help you get on with your life.

Mahbob Abdullah is a former planter. Comments:

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 271.