Reflections from a memoir

I lOVE reading biographies. My last one was on Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson. Now I am devouring Robert Kuok - A Memoir. A really pleasant read. An eye- and mind-opener that is a "must read" for all Malaysians. No one can come close to this personality as a "true blue" Malaysian. Most will pale against his experience and contributions as a citizen to the nation.

For one he gained the trust of the first prime minister (whom he caricaturised as "a late starter") and the next two, especially, the second and his deputy too. Also, of leaders across the causeway as a proxy to Malaysia, and later leaders of Communist China including the "unrepentant capitalist roader" – Deng Xiaoping who turned China on its head. For sure no other can claim such a feat.

Robert is of the pre-Merdeka vintage of the 1920s which has its own vantage points. Most of us were not even born yet. Those who were, and survived, are not as "lucky" and "savvy". He might pin this down to "karma" which for him is foretold. The journey is "predetermined" as it were. This includes being fortunate enough to be exposed to the then local Malayan "real" multicultural experiences during his growing-up days especially through the local school system allowing him to move "seamlessly across culture".

This continued through to Raffles College in Singapore where he intermingled with many future leaders. The fact that he prefers the term "Chinese Malaysian" (which I advocate) in his memoir, instead of the "usual" reverse, marks his highly discerning capacity and empathy for change as compared to the current generation given their "defective" understanding of multicultural Malaysia. Thanks to the current schooling system(s). It only means that the future generation will not fathom Robert's wisdom, no matter how successful they are in comparison (which is unlikely to date).

This makes the memoir a gem of insights that most will not be able to savour in real life due to changing times and mindsets. We can only view this through the window that Robert chose to make public in a most frank manner some of his invaluable and unique predispositions (going even into his married life).

Perhaps as a billionaire and living in "exile" pass 90 years of age, he is more courageous in recounting experiences and thoughts without fear and favour. It is for this reason that the memoir remains relevant and eloquent for Malaysia and Malaysians to articulate a common future together.

To me this is a bonus because the name "Kuok" (though not Robert in particular) is familiar enough. It goes way back to my university days to a well-known foundation that provides financial aid to needy students. Later as I helmed the students affairs division, and more so the university, I got to know the Kuok Foundation better depicting well the principles advocated in the memoir. Humility being the most profound.

The foundation offered one of the most generous financial assistance with no fanfare. Unlike today where the publicity is heavy and often accompanied by political invitees, Robert is almost media shy, directing his sincere gesture more to the recipients rather than to himself. This is certainly a refreshing perspective that we ought to humbly (re)consider. There are others of course that are pertinent to us now. One is his insistence that Malaysians must be in the "driving" seats and not leave them to "foreigners". This he voiced out to the third prime minister: "The days of colonialism are over". And that "We are running the show", otherwise the foreigners "drove our country helter-skelter".

Consistent with this he advocated that Malaysians must first embrace "integrity", and must be of "the highest integrity" – without a "whiff of corruption or scandal". Next, there must be "ability; and with it comes capability". Lastly, hard work; "people who are willing to work long hours". He believed that character is more important than mere qualifications which resonates well with me. From my limited experience the latter can be taught but it is never easy for the former once it is not there.

To this extent Robert warned of "the need for watchdog institutions with bite". He raised this in the context of "the rise of the unscrupulous and ruthless Chinese" reportedly during a high-level brainstorming seminar in Indonesia. He reckoned this is "because the leaderships have been weak". Otherwise, "all these devils would have disappeared overnight" as Lee Kuan Yew ably demonstrated by keeping "the unsavoury elements under control". It is also not a coincidence that Lee was more enlightened about the psyche involved and took the bull by the horns ahead of time as compared to his non-Chinese counterparts in the Asean region which remains so (think One Belt, One Road).

Not surprising therefore Robert himself (thanks to his mother) is strict in adhering to principles rather than compromising them. In the section "at government service", the memoir amply illustrates this when he was called to serve in various roles and capacities.
The mantra: integrity, ability/capacity and hardwork! After trying his level best, and still not getting what was expected of him, he would not hesitate to pull out. Again not like what we witness today. Only if there is no violation of principles or integrity, did he opt to be flexible to push the process to its fruition.

The above are just random tips of the iceberg (limited to his Malaysia experience) to be (re)learned given the somewhat similar situations we are in today.

There are many more that we will revisit in the coming weeks. Meanwhile thanks to Robert for the reflections.

With some four decades of experience in education, the writer believes that "another world is possible". Comments: letters@thesundaily.com