As the Year of the Dog dawns, the key topic of conversation among the Chinese community in Malaysia is the upcoming general election this year.
But the sudden eruption of high-level political attacks on one of their number – Robert Kuok – has sent shockwaves through the community. The richest man in Malaysia is now talk of the town.
The onslaught can’t be taken lightly, since Kuok is no ordinary businessman but a tycoon held in high esteem in Malaysia, China and indeed by the global Chinese community.
Kuok helped lay the groundwork for the end of communist insurgency in Malaysia, played a role in easing racial tension after the May 13 racial riots and contributed funds to the ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno) and Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) during elections.
Dubbed the “Sugar King of Asia”, Kuok has built a huge international empire with businesses spanning from commodity trading to hotels, sugar and oil palm plantations, wheat flour milling, property development and entertainment. In Malaysia, he retains control of Shangri-La Hotels and the wheat flour business.
Hence, the Chinese community here feels hurt to see their business icon being smeared based on hearsay. They see grave injustice done to this man whose loyalty and commitment to the country is being questioned.
Criticism of the tycoon was based on three articles posted by blogger Raja Petra Kamaruddin at Malaysia Today.
The most startling allegation made by the controversial blogger, who has a record of stirring up racial hatred towards local Chinese, was that Kuok had donated hundreds of millions to the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) in a bid to overthrow the Umno-led government.
Without verifying the content, Malay critics and senior Umno politicians told Kuok to be grateful to the government since the tycoon had built his early sugar, rice and flour empire based on his good ties with Umno leaders.
Remarks by Tourism and Culture Minister Nazri Aziz were particularly scathing and included a demand that Kuok surrender his citizenship.
The critics might have misconstrued earlier statements by Najib Razak:
“If we look at the list of names of the richest people in Malaysia, such as Robert Kuok, who gave him the key to become the rice and sugar king? It was given to him by the ruling government,” said the prime minister on February 24.
Although DAP leaders promptly denied receiving money from Kuok, this failed to stop the tirade of aspersions.
Kuok finally issued a statement last Monday, saying all allegations against him were “untrue, unjustified and amounted to libel”.
The 94-year-old also denied that he was anti-government, a racist or a Chinese chauvinist.
While Kuok’s hint of legal action might have , the proposal by MCA president DatLiow Tiong Lai to the Prime Minister to intervene in the matter could have shut the mouths of Umno leaders.
Liow tweeted: “I have conveyed the feelings of the Chinese community to the PM. We hope that the PM will intervene to put this issue to rest. Mr Kuok has contributed greatly towards the development of the nation.”
The attacks on Kuok threatened the election hopes of the MCA and Gerakan, and ultimately Barisan Nasional, as angry Chinese could be provoked to vote against the ruling coalition.
The Prime Minister’s Office quickly issued a statement, saying Kuok’s success is “an inspiration” for other entrepreneurs.
However, the injustice done to Kuok on such a scale prompts questions that will linger.
Is there any hidden political agenda to vilify Kuok before the election? Do successful businessmen owe their allegiance to ruling political parties? Is it morally wrong to change your political stance?
Oh Ei Sun, former political secretary of Najib, offered some explanations on Sunday: “Robert Kuok has shown his contempt for the NEP in his book. This may be seen as questioning Malay supremacy and this attitude must be nipped in the bud.”
In his memoir, Kuok stated that although the Chinese have played a significant role in the economic development of Malaysia and other Southeast Asian nations, many have not received just and fair treatment.
Sin Chew Daily, quoting unnamed Barisan sources, says the bashing of Kuok also carried a warning message.
“These attacks also sent a message to the Malay community that they must be united to support Umno, which is being ditched by others it has helped to prosper,” said the report last Thursday.
Although a life member of the MCA, businessman Tan Sri Lee Kim Yew believes people owe no loyalty to political parties: “A businessman is expected to be loyal to his country, not to ruling parties. Politicians and political parties come and go.
“Whoever becomes the government has a duty to create a conducive environment for the people to prosper and live harmoniously. If politicians are not worthy of support, people are free to switch their political stand in a democracy.”