The incivility in Malaysian politics

RECENTLY, blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin claimed Malaysia's richest billionaire, Robert Kuok Hock Nien (Robert), had given donations to Malaysia Insight and to the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) via his nephew, James Kuok (James); these donations were aimed at overthrowing the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) government and instituting Chinese rule in Malaysia, Raja Petra alleged.

These allegations were denied by both James and Robert Kuok. Nevertheless, the tsunami of criticism provoked by these falsehoods highlight one singular fact – many politicians and their wannabes didn't read Robert Kuok, A Memoir. More importantly, the ensuing verbal slugfest underscores civility in Malaysian politics is endangered.

First, some readers would have asked this question: Given the relationship between Robert and James depicted in the biography, would the billionaire have selected this individual as a conduit to effect the donations?

On page 344, Robert described a less-than-friendly annual shareholders meeting of Kuok (Singapore) Ltd in the early 1970s. At that meeting chaired by Robert, James said: "My brothers, sisters and I, who are shareholders, do not trust these accounts. We think they are cooked."

James and his accountant brother David also alleged "there was breach of trust", according to the memoir.

The memoir makes clear James and David aren't Robert's nephews in the Western sense. Both James and David are the sons of Robert's cousin, Kuok Hock Chin.

In accordance with Chinese tradition, all males of the same generation bear an identical middle name – Hock for Robert, his brothers and all their male cousins while Khoon is the middle name of James, David, Robert's sons and all those of the same generation.

Hock Chin was the eldest son of Robert's second uncle and Hock Chin's father was the brother most loved by Robert's father. When Kuok Brothers Ltd (KBL) was formed in 1949, Hock Chin was given a 25% share – equal to the stake Robert held.

James had worked for the group twice. The first time, he worked in a department headed by Robert's 12th cousin who complained about James.

"James did things in very funny ways. He often disappeared from the office, So, eventually, we had to let him go," Robert wrote. After a few years, Robert "took pity on James and rehired him". This time, Robert placed James directly after him; he realised the previous complaints about his cousin's son were "quite accurate" and let him go the second time.

After years of "hostile struggle with Hock Chin's children," a settlement was reached. Robert paid S$25 million for all their shares, the Sugar King wrote.

This failure to read Robert's memoir is evident in another mistake. Countless individuals and some newspapers have addressed Robert as "Tan Sri". A reading of the memoir will show Robert was never given the title of "Datuk" by the federal and state governments let alone the more elevated Federal Government award of "Tan Sri".

Second, Robert lived in Singapore with his wife, Joyce, and their five children until 1979 when he moved to Hong Kong with Pauline, the mother of his subsequent three children. Although Robert owned a house in Kuala Lumpur, his memoir indicates he didn't reside in this country.

Those who suggested Robert should surrender his Malaysian citizenship should ask this question: Despite non-residence in this country and despite articulated dissatisfaction with Malaysia's key policies, why did Robert retain his Malaysian citizenship?

Third, some critics have labelled Robert as "ungrateful" because he was given monopolies in flour and sugar that were the foundation for his wealth.

According to the memoir, two licences were simultaneously issued for flour milling – Robert's Federal Flour Mills and Hong Kong Flour Mills owned by David Sung Sr. (page 171)

Did granting a monopoly in sugar and a duopoly in flour to Robert hurt Malaysians through higher prices and a taxpayer-funded government bailout to pay a mountain of debt?

Fourth, one politician proposed Robert should come to this country and participate in the forthcoming 14th general election (GE14). Does this mean only contestants in Malaysian politics are allowed to give funds to opposition parties and to criticise government policies?

A 92-year-old political leader has indicated his participation in GE14. Will Malaysian voters benefit from the candidacy of another nonagenarian? And if Robert stands on a DAP ticket – the purported recipient of the billionaire's largesse – will this enhance BN's prospects of victory?

Fifth, this imbroglio also underscores the lack of civil discourse in Malaysian politics today. As a billionaire, Robert Kuok isn't inviolate. If criticism is warranted, he deserves to be criticised and he should be criticised. However, this criticism should be couched in language that isn't vulgar.

Is politeness and intelligent discourse among political contestants today an endangered civility? In the run-up to GE14, should voters brace themselves for more gutter language and even worse verbal vulgarities?

Opinions expressed in this article are the personal views of the writer and should not be attributed to any organisation she is connected with. She can be contacted at