The Robert Kuok Memoirs on His Access to Malaysian Leaders

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In South China Morning Post’s second extract from Robert Kuok’s memoir, revelations of the tycoon’s access to Malaysian prime ministers.

  • High regard for Tunku, who never adopted cronies
  • Tunku knew that if you favour one group, you only spoil them
  • Hints of cronyism even before May 13
  • In the haste to bridge the economic gap between the Chinese and Malays, racism became increasingly ugly
  • Kuok implored using the best leaders regardless of race, colour or creed for the future of the country, but Hussein Onn clung to race-based politics

Malaysia has had six Prime Ministers since independence and Kuok has known all of them.

He wrote about Tunku Abdul Rahman having a bee in his bonnet about communism.

“One day, when we had become quite close, he said to me, ‘Communists! In Islam, we regard them as devils! And Communist China, you cannot deal with them, otherwise, you are dealing with the devil!’ And he went on and on about communists, communism and Communist China.

“I responded, ‘Tunku, China only became communist because of the immense suffering of the people as a result of oppression and invasion. I think it’s a passing phase.’

“He interjected, ‘Oh, don’t you believe it! The Chinese are consorting with the devil. Their people are finished!'”

Kuok said that years later, when Tunku was out of office, he was invited to China.

Zhao Ziyang, then Premier, entertained him in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Tunku was accompanied by a delegation of 15 Chinese businessmen who were good friends of his.

After Tunku’s trip to China, he stopped by Hong Kong and they had dinner together.

“I asked him for his impressions. All of his old prejudices had vanished! He didn’t even want to refer to them. He just said the trip had been an eye-opener. ‘They are decent people, like you and me,’ he said. ‘We could talk about anything.’ From then onward, you never heard Tunku claim that the Chinese Communists were the devils incarnate.”

Kuok shared glimpses of the man Tunku was.

“If you talk of brains, Tunku was brilliant, and very shrewd. His mother was Thai, and he had that touch of Thai shrewdness, an ability to smell and spot whether a man was to be trusted or not.

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“One thing I will say for Tunku: he had friends. His friends sometimes helped him, or they sent him a case of champagne or slabs of specially imported steak. He loved to grill steaks on his lawn and open champagne, wine or spirits. His favourite cognac was Hennessy VSOP.”

Tunku would do favours for his friends, Kuok wrote, but he never adopted cronies.

Kuok recounted an amusing incident.

“When Tun Tan Siew Sin was Finance Minister, Tunku sent him a letter about a Penang businessman who was one of Tunku’s poker-playing buddies. It seems the man had run into tax trouble and was being investigated by the tax department, and he had turned to Tunku for help. In his letter, Tunku wrote, ‘You know so-and-so is my friend. I am not asking any favour of you, Siew Sin, but I am sure you can see your way to forgiving him,’ or something to that effect.

“Siew Sin was apoplectic. He stalked into Tun Dr Ismail’s office upstairs and threw the letter down. ‘See what our Prime Minister is doing to me!’

“Tun Dr Ismail read the letter and laughed. ‘Siew Sin,’ he said, ‘there is a comic side to life’. Ismail took the letter, crumpled it into a ball and threw it into the waste-paper basket.

“He then said, ‘Siew Sin, Tunku has done his duty by his friend. Now, by ignoring Tunku, you will continue to do your duty properly.’

“That was as far as Tunku would go to help a friend. Cronyism is different. Cronies are lapdogs who polish a leader’s ego. In return, the leader hands out national favours to them. A nation’s assets, projects and businesses should never be for anyone to hand out, neither for a king nor a prime minister. A true leader is the chief trustee of a nation.”

Kuok revealed that Tunku was unnerved by the riots of May 13.

“After the riots, he was a different man. Razak managed to convince him and the cabinet to form the National Operations Council, a dictatorial organ of government, and Razak was appointed its director. Parliament went into deep freeze. By the time the NOC was disbanded, Razak had been installed as prime minister.

“Tunku felt bewildered. He had helped the country gain independence and had ruled as wisely as he could, yet the Malays turned against him for selling out to the Chinese.

“In fairness to Tunku, he had done nothing of the sort. He was a very fair man who loved the nation and its people. But he knew that, if you favour one group, you only spoil them.

“When the British ruled Malaya, they extended certain advantages to the Malays. When the Malays took power following independence on 31 August 1957, more incentives were given to them. But there was certainly no showering of favours. All of that came later, after 1969.

According to Kuok, the May 13 riots were a great shock to the system, but not a surprise.

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He wrote that extremist Malays attributed the poverty of many Malays to the plundering Chinese and Indians. Leaders like Tunku Abdul Rahman, who could see both sides, were no longer able to hold back the hotheads. The more thoughtful leaders were shunted aside and the extremists hijacked power. They chanted the same slogans as the hotheads – the Malays are underprivileged; the Malays are bullied – while themselves seeking to become super-rich. When these Malays became rich, not many of them did anything for the poor Malays; the Chinese and Indians who became rich created jobs, many of them filled by Malays.

Kuok recalled an incident that occurred a few months after May 13. He was waiting to see Tun Razak when a senior Malay civil servant whom he knew very well came along the corridor of Parliament House and buttonholed him.

“He asked, ‘What are you doing here, Robert?’

“I replied, ‘Oh, I’m seeing Tun.’

“He snarled, ‘Don’t be greedy! Leave something for us poor Malays! Don’t hog it all!’

“I could see that, after May 1969, the business playing field was changing. Business was no longer clean and open. Previously, the government announced open tenders to the Malaysian public and to the world. If we qualified, we would submit a tender. If we won the contract, we would work hard at it, and either fail or succeed. I think eight or nine times out of ten we succeeded.

“But things were changing, veering more and more towards cronyism and favouritism. Hints of change were there even before the riots.

“I was hell-bent on helping to develop the nation: that’s why I went into shipping, into steel – anything they asked of me.

“Even among the Malays, there were those who admitted their weaknesses and argued for harnessing the strength of the Chinese.”

Kuok opined that overall, the Malay leaders have behaved reasonably in running the country.

“At times, they gave the Malays an advantage. Then, when they see that they have overdone it, they try to redress the problem. Their hearts are in the right place, but they just cannot see their way out of their problems.

“Since May 13, 1969, the Malay leadership has had one simple philosophy: the Malays need handicapping. Now, what amount of handicapping?

“I felt that in their haste to bridge the economic gap between the Chinese and the Malays, harmful shortcuts were being taken.”

Kuok wrote that one of the side effects of the zeal to bridge the economic gap was that racism became increasingly ugly. He said he saw very clearly that the path being pursued by the new leaders after 1969 was dangerous. But hardly anyone was willing to listen to him.

He revealed that he made only one strong attempt to influence the course of the history of Malaysia and this took place in September 1975 when he had a heart-to-talk with Deputy Prime Minister Hussein Onn while Prime Minister Tun Razak was gravely ill with terminal leukaemia, for which he was receiving treatment in a London hospital.

Kuok and Hussein’s friendship dates back to 1932 when they were in the same class in school in Johor Bahru. Their families were close, with Kuok’s father often spending weekends with Dato Onn bin Jafar.

Kuok wrote that he warmed up to his subject with Hussein very quickly.

“‘Assuming Razak doesn’t have long to live – please don’t mind, but I have to say that – you are clearly going to become the new Prime Minister in a matter of months or weeks.’

Then he broached the subject of leaders in the public and private sectors.

“‘Does it matter to the masses whether it becomes a case of racially proportionate representation, where we must have for every ten such leaders five or six Malays, three Chinese, and one or two Indians?’

“‘Must it be so? My reasoning mind tells me that it is not important. What is important is the objective of building up a very strong, very modern nation.’

“‘If you share my view that racial representation is unimportant and unnecessary to the nation, then let’s look at defining the qualifications for those leaders.’

Among the qualifications Kuok cited to Hussein were integrity, ability and capability, and willingness to work hard.

He told Hussein: “The best brains will come, in all shades and colours, all religions, all faiths. They may be the whitest of the white, the brownest of the brown or the blackest of the black. I am sure it doesn’t matter.”

He used a story to emphasise his message.

“‘You’re going to be the leader of a nation, and you have three sons, Hussein. The first-born is Malay, the second-born is Chinese, the third-born is Indian. What we have been witnessing is that the first-born is more favoured than the second or third.’

“‘Hussein, if you do that in a family, your eldest son will grow up very spoiled. As soon as he attains manhood, he will be in the nightclubs every night because Papa is doting on him.’

“‘The second and third sons, feeling the discrimination, will grow up hard as nails. Year by year, they will become harder and harder, like steel, so that in the end they are going to succeed even more and the eldest will fail even more.'”

Kuok wrote that he implored Hussein to use the best brains, the people with their hearts in the right place, Malaysians of total integrity and strong ability, hard-working and persevering people.

“‘Use them regardless of race, colour or creed.’

“‘The other way, Hussein, the way your people are going – excessive handicapping of bumiputras, showering love on your first son – your first born is going to grow up with an attitude of entitlement.’

“I concluded, ‘That is my simple formula for the future of our country. Hussein, can you please adopt it and try?'”

Kuok said Hussein had listened very intently to him, hardly interrupting.

After sitting quietly for a few minutes, Hussein spoke, “No, Robert. I cannot do it. The Malays are now in a state of mind such that they will not accept it.”

Kuok wrote that Hussein clearly spelt out to him that it was going to be Malay rule.

“He was saying that he could not sell my formula to his people.”

Kuok said that the meeting ended on a very cordial note. He felt disappointed, but there was nothing more that he could do.

He described Hussein as an honest man of very high integrity.

“I think Hussein understood my message, but he knew that the process had gone too far. I had seen a picture developing all along of a train moving in the wrong direction. During Hussein’s administration, he was only partially successful in stemming the tide. The train of the nation had been put on the wrong track. Hussein wasn’t strong enough to lift up the train and set it down on the right track.”


Earlier extract: Nov 28, Robert Kuok, A Memoir: Mother, the Lasting Influence