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Robert Kuok Hock Nien born 6 October, 1923 is a Malaysian business magnate and investor. As of June 2019, according to the Forbes list, Kuok has an estimated net worth of $12.9 billion, making him the richest person in Malaysia and 104th richest person in the world.
Robert Kuok is media-shy; most of his businesses are privately held by him or his family. Apart from a multitude of businesses in Malaysia, his companies have investments in many countries throughout Asia. His business interests range from sugarcane plantations (Perlis Plantations Bhd), sugar refineries, flour milling, animal feed, oil, mining, finance, hotel (Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts), property, trading, freight and publishing. Biggest source of wealth is stake in Wilmar International, the world’s largest listed palm oil trader company.Kuok is in the sugar business. Kuok’s father arrived in Malaya from Fujian, China, at the beginning of the 20th century, and Robert was the youngest of three brothers, born on 6 October 1923, in Johor Bahru. He grew up speaking his parents’ Chinese Fuzhou dialect, English and Japanese during Japan’s wartime occupation of Malaya. He was a student from Raffles Institution and English College Johore Bahru.
He claims he began in business as an office boy, and later started a business with relatives’ support. Upon graduation, being a collaborationist with the Empire of Japan, he worked as a clerk in the rice-trading department of Japanese industrial conglomerate Mitsubishi Shoji Kaisha between the Japanese occupation period between 1942 and 1945, in Singapore, a conglomerate which with the help of Japanese military unit monopolized the rice trade in Malaya during the occupation period. He was soon promoted to head the rice-trading department. After the war, he took the skills he learned from the Japanese back to the family’s business in Johor.
Kuok senior died in 1948, and Kuok and his two brothers and a cousin Kuok Hock Chin founded Kuok Brothers Sdn Bhd in 1949, trading agricultural commodities. Kuok relationship with the Japanese continued after Malaya gained independence. In 1959, Kuok formed Malayan Sugar Manufacturing Co. Bhd. together with two prominent Japanese partners. He also brought many influential Malay elite into his company as directors and shareholders which include UMNO politician and Malay royalty. In 1961, he made a coup by buying cheap sugar from India before the prices shot up. He continued to invest heavily in sugar refineries, controlled 80% of the Malaysian sugar market with production of 1.5 million tonnes, equivalent to 10% of world production, and so earned his nickname “Sugar King of Asia”. Establishing monopoly was not easy. “Have you ever seen Michael Jordan play when he’s on a rhythm run? It was exactly like that” Kuok says modestly. Naturally, this ambitious and immensely clever businessman did not just stop at that. He started a chain of hotels, the famous ‘Shangri-la’ which is now spread out through the world and is all set to open its 71st hotel.
In 1971, he built the first Shangri-La Hotel, in Singapore. His first foray into Hong Kong property was in 1977, when he acquired a plot of land on the newly reclaimed Tsim Sha Tsui East waterfront, where he built the second hotel, the Kowloon Shangri-La. In 1993, his Kerry Group acquired a 34.9% stake in the South China Morning Post from Murdoch’s News Corporation. Kuok officially retired from the Kerry Group on 1 April 1993.
His companies have investments in many countries, including Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand, Mainland China, Indonesia, Fiji and Australia. Businesses in China include 10 bottling companies for Coca-Cola, and ownership of the Beijing World Trade Centre.
Freight interests include Malaysian Bulk Carriers Berhad and Transmile Group.
His political influence is attested by his having been selected as one of the Hong Kong Affairs Advisors in the run-up to the transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong, and his minority stake in CITIC Pacific. He was also instrumental in conveying information and setting up the meetings between Malaysia and China governments leading to full diplomatic cross recognition of the two countries.
In 2007, Kuok combined his plantations, edible oil and grains businesses with Wilmar International, hence making it the world’s biggest palm-oil processor.
On 31 October 2009, PPB Group under the flagship of Robert Kuok issued a statement to the Bursa Malaysia that it had decided to dispose of its sugar units along with land used to cultivate sugar cane for RM 1.29 billion to FELDA. The sales resulted in a one-off gain for the company. The sugar unit and sugar cane plantation were the second largest business segment upon its grain and feed which were topping the sales.
Experts would often say that his speed and cleverness led to that near-impossible success. Also, the man, they say, was never afraid to collaborate with the rest of the world unlike the eastern businessmen of the early 20th century and that was one more thing that led to him being one of the most successful businessmen of the east.