Robert Kuok, A Memoir: Mother, the Lasting Influence

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Once owned by Robert Kuok, the South China Morning Post published the first instalment of six extracts from the tycoon’s first-ever memoir on Nov 24, with highlights including why he left Malaysia and Singapore for Hong Kong.

The 376-page book begins with a chapter on the lasting influence of his Fuzhou-born mother whom he calls the “true founder” of the Kuok empire. The youngest of three brothers, Kuok details how his mother, Tang Kak Ji, shaped his views on everything from his love life to watershed boardroom decisions. 

Raised in Johor Bahru, Kuok wrote that his mother warned him against investing in China in the 1970s.

He recalled his mother telling him: “You are going in too soon, my son, too soon. You will meet brick walls. Why bang your head on a brick wall? Your head will only bleed, and you won’t achieve anything. Worse still, if you achieve something, then they will take it away from you and you will be back at zero.”

Robert Kuok, A Memoir via SCMP

He wrote that his mother knew the Chinese make-up and the mindset of her generation. However, he saw that China was pitifully backward and that it must wake up and join the modern world.

“It was much poorer than the Malaya into which I was born. I felt that I wanted to help China and, if possible, push the country to develop faster.”

He said he has his mother to thank for his lifelong interest in the birthplace of his parents.

“Mother always retained a strong and deep emotional tie to her homeland. Yet, she was very objective and critical of all the Chinese faults, including the foibles of successive governments and leaders.”

He wrote that his mother always stood up for the poor and was a strong critic of the bad and bullying behaviour of China’s bureaucrats towards their fellow Chinese.

“In the early 1970s, she made a trip to Fuzhou after many years away. She was required to deposit her passport with the Public Security Bureau of Fuzhou. After staying for a few months and feeling unhappy at what she saw around her, she decided it was time to go back to Malaysia. She went many times to retrieve her passport, but the Public Security Bureau always gave her some kind of stupid answer and wouldn’t return it to her.

“One day, she got really angry. She went to the bureau, pounded on the desk, and said, ‘I am an overseas Chinese citizen of Malaysia. The Chinese Government told us to go overseas and become worthy citizens of the countries of our adoption. Why do you keep my passport? What have I done wrong? Why are you treating me like this? I shall go to Beijing to lodge a strong complaint.’

“Within a few days of that incident, an official brought the passport to her home, and she booked a flight and returned to Malaysia. Many poor Chinese from Fujian had left to seek a better life abroad, particularly in Southeast Asia, and when they went back to China to visit relatives and asked for assistance, they would often find the bureaucrats at the Overseas Chinese Bureau officious and unsympathetic.”

Acknowledging that his mother assessed Deng Xiaoping quite correctly from the beginning, he recounted her telling him: “Nien, China will go back to capitalism in your lifetime. It’s already moving in that direction. I can tell you, son, man can only be driven by the selfishness in his heart and the betterment of himself and his children’s well-being. Only that can propel him to achieve more things, to be more creative and productive. China will and must continue to be driven by this.”

Kuok revealed that the principal reason that he moved to Hong Kong in the 1970s was taxation.

Reuters

“At that time, it almost appeared as though the Singapore and Malaysian governments were competing with each other to see which could levy the highest taxes on those who were generating wealth for the nations. Both were taxing our profits at punitive rates. If you earned a dollar, you barely kept fifty cents.

“My main business at the time was in commodities. I was a substantial trader, taking large positions.

“A movement of one US cent a pound would bring huge profits or losses. If I went long and wrong, or short and wrong, margin calls could easily wipe me out. So it was imperative for me to build up my company’s cash reserves.”

Hence, it made more sense to Kuok to base his operations in a low-tax jurisdiction like Hong Kong.

“I finally made the plunge in 1974, deciding that I must form a Kuok Brothers Hong Kong.

“I spent about seven to ten days a month in Hong Kong from 1974, and then gradually it became 15 days a month, 21 days, until eventually, I moved there in 1979.”

At 94, Kuok, once dubbed the “Sugar King of Asia”, is still at the helm of the corporate empire he built from scratch.

Once asked why didn’t he retire, Kuok answered, “As long as I can still contribute, I cannot rest.”

Robert Kuok, A Memoir via SCMP

In an in-depth interview with China’s CCTV for its prime-time talk show ‘Dialogue’, Kuok talked about growing his sugar, hotel and other businesses: