An eminently readable memoir

ROBERT Kuok, A Memoir is eminently readable. Spiced with the billionaire's acerbic wit – Malaysia-Singapore Airlines was a "classic mongoose and cobra arrangement" – the autobiography, co-written with ex-journalist Andrew Tanzer, offers a riveting, though highly personalised, snapshot of East Asian business history.

At times, reading the 376-page autobiography was like perusing Pravda. What was omitted in the former Soviet Union's official newspaper was sometimes more significant than that printed.

Two examples in Robert Kuok's (pix) memoir stand out. A whole chapter is devoted to his second brother, William, whom he admired immensely, while his eldest brother, Philip, rates only one adjective: "Spoilt."

Although Kuok knew six Malaysian prime ministers, only three are spotlighted in the autobiography – Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Abdul Razak and Tun Hussein Onn. Is silence about the remaining three prime ministers eloquent?

Readers hoping to learn and replicate Kuok's path to riches may be disappointed – because the billionaire's skyward trajectory was singularly unique.

First, his economic intelligence is top notch. Sources included business associates as well as contemporaries from Raffles College and Johor. Second, influential friends in this country helped Kuok overcome seemingly insuperable obstacles. Third, his capacity for taking a well-calculated risk was breathtakingly bold.

Kuok's foray into sugar refining is illustrative. In the autumn of 1958, Mike Horie of Mitsui and Nissin Sugar Manufacturing Co invited Kuok to form a tripartite joint venture, Malayan Sugar Manufacturing (MSM), to apply for a licence for a sugar refinery in Malaya. Despite a belief that he was "being clobbered", confidence that his strategy would work prompted Kuok to sign this agreement in the summer of 1959.

After several years of stalling, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry (MCI) agreed in 1962 to grant full tariff protection to MSM and to ban all imports of refined sugar.

Kuok then complained to the helpful newly-appointed Commerce and Industry Minister Khir Johari that the Japanese had "foisted a very unfair agreement" on him.

A letter issued to MSM stated all agreements signed with foreign partners had to be vetted and approved by MCI. Armed with this letter, Kuok forced the Japanese to give Kuok Brothers more equitable terms.

Also in 1962, Mitsui and Nippon Flour Mills proposed to Kuok Brothers that they should apply for a licence to build a flour mill in this country.

MCI's then secretary-general Raja Mohar told Kuok that Hong Kong Flour Mills had already applied for a flour milling licence. After giving an assurance there would be no flour milling monopoly in Malaya, Raja Mohar advised Kuok to team up with a non-Japanese partner to avoid this country being controlled by any nation.

Consequently, Kuok Brothers partnered William Charlick Ltd of Adelaide. Although Khir queried whether Kuok was being greedy in applying for a second licence after securing that for sugar, Raja Mohar helped the billionaire to secure the flour milling licence.

Unusually, the memoir also recounts Kuok's occasional disappointments.

In mid-1960s, Kuok met Liem Sioe Liong, also known as Soedono Salim, and his son Antoni. Close association with the then Indonesian President Suharto enabled Liem to obtain approval for a flour mill project named Bogasari.

Although Kuok was informed ownership of Bogasari was restricted only to Indonesians, Kuok Brothers helped to plan, finance, build and operate the flour mill.

"And so, for 20 or more years from the early 1970s, we owned 25% of Bogasari without a scrap of paper to prove it," he wrote. In the early 1990s, the Liems decided to inject Bogasari into their public-listed company, Indocement.

In exchange for their stake in Bogasari, Kuok Brothers was given "overvalued shares in Indocement by Antoni Salim" and "were not compensated for Bogasari's enormous accumulated undistributed profits".

Kuok estimated Bogasari made annual after tax profit exceeding US$60 million (RM244 million), of which US$20 million (RM81 million) was distributed as dividends annually.

Kuok is philosophical about his occasional reverses. "When I am diddled by people, I don't make a fuss; I just bear it in my heart," he wrote about an early setback in Singapore.

In trading, Kuok disdains charts. "To me, charts are post-mortems, like dissecting a corpse."

Although the memoir is an enjoyable read, I have some criticisms. A small font is difficult for 65-year-old eyes to read. References to summer and autumn are puzzling in a tropical country.

The proofreading is occasionally careless. In 1958 and 1959, this country was referred to as Malaysia rather than Malaya. On different pages, Tan Siew Sin is described as finance minister and MCI minister in 1958; MCI Ministry is the correct portfolio.

Another error is MISC's shareholding. Because the two ships were war reparations from Japan to the MCA and not to the Malaysian nation, the political party and other Chinese associations were given 20%-30% of MISC, Kuok writes. 

A Khazanah Nasional book states as war reparations, the Japanese government offered a RM25 million goodwill payment which was used to purchase two cargo ships from Japan. There appears to be no document listing MCA and Chinese associations as MISC shareholders.

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