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Robert Kuok Hock Nien, an ethnic Chinese-Malaysian tycoon, has built a multinational business empire, including his hospitality arm, Shangri-La Hotels. (Photos from Getty Images and Reuters)
Asian Family Conglomerates

Mahathir's 94-year-old top adviser rekindles China connections

Robert Kuok, Malaysian 'sugar king,' takes on new role seen as rebooting empire

HONG KONG -- The same day that 89-year-old Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing stepped down as chairman of his two flagship conglomerates, CK Hutchison Holdings and CK Asset Holdings, 92-year-old Mahathir Mohamad reclaimed the title of Malaysia's prime minister, following an election upset led by his coalition Pakatan Harapan, or Alliance of Hope.

A further surprise came two days later, on May 12, when Mahathir announced the appointment of Hong Kong-based Malaysian tycoon, Robert Kuok Hock Nien, 94, as one of his five top advisors. Well-known as the "sugar king" for his commodities trading and the founder of the Shangri-La Hotel chain, Kuok's emergence to the frontline of Malaysian politics was astonishing to many because of his age and for being low-key for years.

"I salute you, you've saved the country," Kuok said a couple weeks later as he actually saluted Mahathir at the prime minister's office. "We need your help now," the prime minister responded, with a soft touch on the tycoon's shoulder.

Kuok -- a second-generation Chinese born in the city of Johor Bahru of then-British Malaya in 1923 -- is a self-made billionaire and the richest man in Malaysia, with a net worth of $15.5 billion, according to Forbes as of May 31.

He began as a humble commodity merchant in his hometown in 1949, forming Kuok Brothers, with four other members of his clan. The company eventually grew into a conglomerate -- collectively known as Kuok Group in Southeast Asia and Kerry Group in Northeast Asia -- and now expands into property, hospitality, logistics, maritime, environmental engineering and media, with major listed companies such as Shangri-La Asia, Kerry Properties, Kerry Logistics Network, PPB Group and Wilmar International.

Since the holding companies, which have hubs in Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong, are privately held, a complete picture of the conglomerate is difficult to grasp, but the 94-year-old tycoon sits in the center of it.

Kuok, who commands the multinational conglomerate, has accepted Mahathir's offer to be a member of the newly created Council of Eminent Persons, which first met on May 22. Led by Daim Zainuddin, a trained lawyer and former finance minister under the previous Mahathir administration, the council also includes former central bank governor Zeti Akhtar Aziz; the former head of state-owned oil company Petronas, Hassan Marican; and renowned economist Jomo Kwame Sundaram.

Kuok stands out among that group of prominent individuals not only because of his age -- the average of the other four is 70, with Daim the eldest at 80 -- but also because of his track record and acumen in dealing with China.

The Southeast Asian country's largest trading partner and source of investment is wary of the new coalition, which won last month's election on a campaign platform to re-examine all major infrastructure projects agreed to with foreign governments under the previous administration of Najib Razak. Putting his promises into action, Mahathir on May 28 announced the cancellation of a high-speed rail-link project between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, increasing the anxiety over the status of the East Coast Rail Link being constructed by Chinese state-owned China Communications Construction.

After being appointed as one of the five top advisors, Robert Kuok paid a courtesy visit to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad on May 23. (Photo from Mahathir Mohamad's facebook page)

The appointment of Kuok seems to have brought about relief for Beijing. On the day that he paid his courtesy call to the prime minister, the Chinese ambassador to Malaysia, Bai Tian, paid a courtesy visit to Kuok in his office in Malaysia.

According to the Chinese Embassy's website, Kuok said: "I am willing to push forward and continuously contribute to the friendship and cooperation between Malaysia and China." Bai responded by praising the ethnic Chinese tycoon to be an "outstanding role model for Chinese-Malaysians" and has moved people for his "sincere and utter innocence to Malaysia and his ancestral home China." A photo of their meeting showed the ambassador sitting amiably beside the nonagenarian and listening earnestly.

Kuok has a proven record with China. His collaboration with the Communist government traces back to at least 1958, when he struck his company's first major sugar deal, with Mitsui & Co. of Japan, to buy 30,000 tons of sugar from India in a triangular trade. At the same time, the Chinese government coincidentally decided to export sugar to Malaysia. The move was potentially devastating for Kuok's business, but he successfully cut a deal with Beijing to be its buyer and thus established his foothold as Malaysia's "sugar king."

Two decades later when China found itself with a dearth of capital and economic expertise following the ravages of the Cultural Revolution, Kuok was one of the few early movers to step in under the reform and opening-up policies that Beijing adopted in 1978. He made his first substantial investment, $20 million, in 1982 to refurbish the famed Hangzhou Hotel.

In 1984, Kuok signed a $300 million joint venture with the Chinese government to build the China World Trade Center in Beijing. After a series of twists and turns, the commercial complex opened in 1990 and remains to this day a prominent landmark in the capital, with a hotel, office buildings, shopping venues and residential spaces. In a memoir last year, Kuok himself described the deal as "one of the best investments anybody has made in China."

He added that the project "had a strong demonstration effect on Hong Kong property developers." Limited streams of investments were already pouring into China at the time, but "the floodgates opened after the success of the China World Trade Center," leading to waves of big ticket property projects after that -- the latest being a $1.7 billion land rights acquisition in Hangzhou by Hong Kong conglomerate Hang Lung Properties this week.

According to its latest annual report, published in April, Shangri-La Asia recorded $794.9 million in revenue from its hotel ownership business in mainland China last year, about 40% of total revenue, making it the largest contributor among the company's 13 reporting geographic regions. The chairman of the Hong Kong-listed company -- Kuok Hui Kwong, Robert Kuok's daughter -- said it is "targeting to open our 50th hotel in mainland China" this year in Suzhou, in eastern Jiangsu Province.

The company operates more than 100 hotels worldwide under the Shangri-La name and other brands.

The Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore, built in 1971 and the first hotel in the group, has been the venue for crucial events involving China. In November 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping and then-President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan met at the hotel. It was the first time that the leaders of both sides of the Taiwan Strait met since the Chinese civil war ended in 1949.

The hotel also is the location and name for an annual meeting of Asia-Pacific defense officials, political leaders and others: the Shangri-La Dialogue, which was first held in 2002. This year's three-day meeting opens on June 1.

Kuok's collaborations with China are not confined to business. A few days after the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement broke out in Hong Kong in September 2014, he was among a group of leading businessmen in the territory to be called in by President Xi to reaffirm their allegiance to Beijing's rule. In a widely publicized event, Kuok was pictured in the Great Hall of the People with Xi, along with former Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, who led the mission, and fellow tycoons Li Ka-shing, Lee Shau-kee of Henderson Land Development and Peter Woo Kwong-ching of Wheelock.

When China was under international economic sanctions following the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4, 1989, Kuok was one of a few overseas ethnic Chinese tycoons invited to Beijing by then-leader Deng Xiaoping. The "Deng Xiaoping Anthology," an official selection of his words compiled by Beijing, noted that the meeting took place in September 1990, when Deng called on all Chinese -- including overseas compatriots like Kuok -- to "jointly struggle" to unify Taiwan. Facing pressure from the West, Deng appealed to ethnic sentiment.

Kuok even played a role in bringing peace between the Malaysian government and the local communist party, which had been engaged in decades of guerrilla warfare and was backed by Beijing.

Kuok wrote in his memoir that a mainland Chinese agent in Hong Kong approached him to make a secret trip to the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou in the late 1980s to examine a draft document for a truce, for which he offered advice to Chinese officials. A few months later, in December 1989, the cease-fire agreement was signed by the Malaya Communist Party and the governments of Malaysia and Thailand. The conflict had personal resonance for Kuok: An elder brother, William, whom he deeply admired, had decades earlier joined the local communists and was killed by British forces in 1953.

"I think it is fair to say that Malaysia regards me as the Malaysian with the best contacts in China," Kuok said in his autobiography. "Because of my connections on both sides, I was called upon several times to act as a conduit between the two governments."

Jingan Kerry Center, a commercial development complex with office, shopping and Shangri-La Hotel combined, is a landmark in central Shanghai. (Photo by Kenji Kawase)

Being well-connected has benefitted his business empire. Along with the conglomerate's hospitality business under Shangri-La, its Hong Kong-listed developer Kerry Properties has also expanded in mainland China. Most notably recognized by its commercial complexes under the brand name "Kerry Center" in major cities, the company's noncurrent assets in the mainland is 61.77 billion Hong Kong dollars ($7.87 billion), which brought in about HK$5.78 billion in gross profit last year.

As a spin-off from the property unit, Kerry Logistics Network has been gearing to capitalize on Xi's Belt and Road Initiative. On top of its existing operations in mainland China and more than 50 countries, the Hong Kong-listed company this week said it acquired Shipping and Airfreight Services, a South African freight-forwarding and logistics company, for an undisclosed amount.

Prior to that, on May 17, Kerry Logistics formed a strategic partnership with train operator Bangkok Mass Transit System to enhance its existing delivery services. Kerry Logistics Chairman George Yeo Yong-boon, a former Singaporean politician who joined the company in 2012, stressed in its annual report in April that the company will "follow closely the trade momentum generated by China's Belt and Road Initiative."

Wilmar International, the Singapore-based agribusiness company in which the Kuok/Kerry group holds a roughly 30% stake, churned out $22.39 billion in revenue in mainland China last year, more than half its total sales. Its edible oil, Jinlongyu, is China's leading brand, with production plants spanning more than 46 cities in the country.

In the case of Wilmar, Robert Kuok merged his existing business with a company that his nephew, Kuok Khoon Hong, co-founded in 1981, after learning the commodities trade under him and expanding it on his own. "For the first time, I saw in one of my nephews a businessman who was at least as able as myself," Robert Kuok wrote in his memoir. "It appeared that in Khoon Hong I had the most capable Kuok ever."

Kuok Khoon Hong, co-founder, chairman and CEO of Wilmar International, is given extraordinary high mark by his uncle Robert Kuok. (Photo by Mayuko Tani)

That was an extraordinary admission, given that Robert Kuok has eight children from his two marriages, many of whom have senior positions at the conglomerate. A longtime business partner, requesting anonymity, told the Nikkei Asian Review that there are common traits in Robert and Khoon Hong, 69, such as choosing substance over appearance, and avoiding redundant spending of money and time.

"Robert Kuok's acceptance of his role as a top advisor to Mahathir is probably to reboot his position to the Chinese," said Ryoichi Hisasue, research fellow at the Institute of Developing Economies at the Japan External Trade Organization who specializes in overseas Chinese and the interconnection of Asian economies. Even though the scale of Kuok's mainland Chinese business is already substantial, Hisasue says momentum has been decelerating in the face of rising competition from local players in hotels, real estate and logistics.

Hisasue believes gaining this new advisor position in Mahathir's government will enhance Kuok's position vis-a-vis Beijing, which would help his business and prepare for future succession. "As China is such an important market for the conglomerate, he would want to pass that on in a better shape," he told Nikkei.

Kuok had semi-retired in 1999 and turned over the helm of his empire to his eldest son, Kuok Khoon Chen, known as Beau, and placing the elder Kuok's longtime aide and nephew-in-law, Richard Liu Tai-fung, on his son's side. Kuok wrote in his memoir that he decided to push himself away from his business because he was suffering from spinal pain, a condition from which he was later to recover through surgery. But the sudden death of Liu and the spread of the deadly SARS virus in Asia in 2003 brought Kuok out of retirement.

He strikes a philosophical note when comparing his business empire to a banyan tree, saying it now has numerous boughs and branches. Even though his sons and their senior managers are now taking care of the group's various companies, "they turn to me before making major decisions." And since there are so many branches, "I am kept busy day and night," adding that he is willing to carry on like this "as long as I live," he wrote. "So much for retirement."

Unlike Li Ka-shing -- Kuok's neighbor in an upscale Hong Kong district who passed his own business empire to his eldest son, Victor Li Tzar-kuoi -- retirement and succession appear to be out of the picture for Kuok as he finds himself reinvigorated by his new political appointment.

"I kept getting dragged into Malaysian politics, even after I had relocated to Hong Kong," Kuok wrote in an enormously prescient passage in his memoir the year before Malaysia's recent upset election.

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