KUALA LUMPUR: At the Gohtong Memorial Park, an exclusive cloud-shrouded hilltop family burial ground on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, resting plots have been earmarked for unborn clan members.
“My grandfather was illiterate, but he thought about everything,” said Joey Lim Keong Yew, the eldest grandson of the late Lim Goh Tong, founder of the international casino-based conglomerate Genting Group, whose remains occupy the prime spot in the memorial park.
“That he would want to have a legacy that would not include all of his family members is unthinkable,” the 39-year-old businessman told The Sunday Times.
The late Lim’s legacy is now at the centre of a bitter intergenerational court battle in Malaysia over ownership and the financial allocations to family members from the multi-billion-dollar global corporate empire.
The empire boasts assets such as Resorts World Sentosa in Singapore, casinos in the United States, luxury liners in Europe, ski resorts in China, plantation holdings in Malaysia and offshore oil and gas fields across South-east Asia.
Keong Yew, together with his younger brother Keong Hoe and sister Seok Leng, are suing their uncles - Genting chairman and chief executive Lim Kok Thay and Datuk Lim Chee Wah - over a family trust that their grandfather had created for their late father Lim Tee Keong, the eldest of the Genting patriarch’s six children.
The dispute over the trust, one of several created as corporate vehicles for the family inheritance, has spawned other legal battles.
They include challenges to the validity of a will Tee Keong allegedly prepared before he died and a thumb-printed power of attorney that the late matriarch of the Genting clan, Madam Lee Kim Hua, is claimed to have authorised for a token sum of RM10.
Separately, Kok Thay is facing a suit from his sister Lim Siew Kim over the beneficial interest in a block of Genting stock.
The family feud that began four years ago has far-reaching ramifications for the Genting Group, which has publicly listed entities in Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Australia and the Nasdaq exchange in the US.
The unfolding courtroom drama is bringing into public glare the opaque ownership structures and elaborate trust entities that bind the domestic and international business holdings of one of Asia’s wealthiest and intensely private families.
Bankers and lawyers said the legal battle could lead to challenges to Kok Thay’s control over the Genting Group.
How the Genting patriarch divided the family inheritance among the trust entities is not known.
But the stakes are huge.
The Genting Group has a combined market capitalisation of more than RM135bil (S$45bil) and the family is estimated to control close to 45% of the group.
“This whole business with the courts is going to be very lengthy and messy,” said a senior partner of a Malaysian law firm, which has relations with the group going back many years.
Because of the group’s financial heft and its clout over professionals that offer services to Genting, the lawyer, like several bankers and investment analysts that track the group, refused to be identified for fear of being cut off from future business opportunities.
Kok Thay’s office referred requests for comment for this article to Mr Gerard Lim, the general manager of Kien Huat Realty, a family-controlled private investment vehicle that owns commanding stakes in the Genting Group.
Lim (no relation to the Genting Lim clan) declined to comment on grounds that the matter is before the courts.
The Genting Group is clearly aware that the deepening family dispute is causing investor skittishness.
In a statement to the Malaysian stock exchange late last year, Genting said that legal opinions obtained by the group show that the 65-year-old Kok Thay has “reasonable grounds” to believe that he has direct control of 42.62% of Genting shares through his direct holdings and control over private entities.
These include Kien Huat Realty and Parkview Management, which control the family’s holdings in the group through an elaborate and complex network of trust entities and nominee concerns.
The Genting empire that the late Lim Goh Tong built is easily one of corporate Malaysia’s most storied rags-to-riches sagas.
He left China’s Fujian province in 1937 at 19 to find work in Malaysia and was soon trading second-hand heavy machinery in the construction sector, a business that helped him secure the seed capital for his big gamble.
In the mid-1960s, he convinced the Malaysian government to award him rights to build a hilltop resort and a casino to attract locals and foreign tourists.
The hotel and casino opened its doors in 1971 and since then, the Lim empire has been raking in the profits.
The group has also broadened its horizons, venturing overseas through an aggressive investment strategy and forging collaborations with brand names such as Universal Studios, Twentieth Century Fox and Hard Rock Cafe.
But like many successful Asian business families, the touchy question of wealth distribution in Genting after Lim Goh Tong’s death in October 2007 is turning out to be both complex and ugly.
Unlike his other siblings, who were more reserved, Tee Keong, the eldest of Lim Goh Tong’s six children, fancied himself as somewhat of a bon vivant, according to several Malaysian businessmen who knew him well.
He was given positions within the Genting Group, but the businesses he presided over did not perform well. He also became estranged from his first wife, left their family home and got involved with another woman, with whom he had two children.
In early 2003, Tee Keong was declared bankrupt due to his failure to repay debts of more than RM200mil owed to two stockbroking companies, including TA Securities, for losses he suffered in share trading.
The bankruptcy forced patriarch Lim Goh Tong to change a carefully designed inheritance structure he had created around a clutch of trust entities for each of his children and their families.
Each trust was controlled separately and, according to court documents reviewed by The Sunday Times, control of the entity known as the Tee Keong Family Trust was transferred to his brothers, Kok Thay and Chee Wah, after Tee Keong’s bankruptcy.
Despite the bankruptcy and the change in control of the trust entity, Tee Keong and his family were never deprived of the comforts they were long accustomed to.
His children received comfortable allowances during their studies overseas.
Tee Keong himself continued to live well and was regularly seen in public being driven by a chauffeur in a Bentley sedan bearing the number plate TK18, court documents claim.
Tee Keong was diagnosed with cancer in February 2014 and died two months later. From then on, the family affairs at the Genting household became contentious.
According to court documents, his sons Keong Yew and Keong Hoe discovered that they had been struck off the family trust and a will their father executed a month before he died also excluded them from any family inheritance.
The will, which named Kok Thay and Chee Wah as sole trustees, also assigned a collective 20 per cent interest to Keong Yew and Keong Hoe’s mother, Agnes Tan Bee Gaik, and their sister Seok Leng.
The remaining 80% was left to the son and daughter Tee Keong fathered with his mistress.
The will, which Keong Yew and Keong Hoe are claiming in court was executed under “suspicious circumstances”, is now at the heart of the clutch of court challenges over the Genting empire.
The brothers want the Malaysian courts to invalidate their father’s will, which they insist was executed without his knowledge because of the advanced stage of his terminal illness.
For their part, Kok Thay and Chee Wah have rejected the allegations and insisted in court affidavits that the claims made by the nephews are “highly irresponsible accusations”.