From modest beginnings to global eminence, sugar king Robert Kuok turns 100 today

06 Oct 2023 12:19pm
Robert Kuok - FILE PIX
Robert Kuok - FILE PIX

SHAH ALAM - In a remarkable centenary celebration, Southeast Asia’s wealthiest figure and sugar magnate, Tan Sri Robert Kuok, celebrates his illustrious 100th year today.

Born in 1923 in a land still under the dominion of the British empire, Kuok was raised by his devout buddhist mother and shopkeeper father.

Kuok’s parents had migrated to Malaya from Fujian province in China and set up shop selling rice, flour and sugar.

Kuok and his two older brothers William and Philip, took over in 1948 after their father died under the Kuok Brothers label; the business flourished, especially in sugar trading.

The brothers decided to expand beyond the rice trade, and got into the sugar game, becoming active in cultivating, refining and exporting the sweet stuff.

Blessed with a keen eye for an opportunity, Kuok began to sell his products when the Malaysian economy opened up to the world in the early 1960s. By the middle of the decade Kuok was already a millionaire.

Kuok once controlled 5 per cent of the world’s sugar market, which earned the youngest son the moniker of “Sugar King”.

His empire has now spread to include interests in commodities trading, mining, shipping, logistics, publishing and property development.

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Kuok controls 55 per cent of Hong Kong-based builder Kerry Properties and founded the internationally renowned Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts chain in Singapore in 1971.

He also owns the South China Morning Post newspaper.

His nephew Kuok Khoon Hong runs Wilmar International, in which Kuok has a valuable stake.

His youngest son Kuok Khoon Hua is chairman and CEO of Hong Kong property company Kerry Properties.

Another string to his bow is Golden Screen Cinemas, and its 70+ multiplexes across Malaysia.

Johor-born Kuok, worth a net US$15.7 billion according to the latest Bloomberg Billionaire Index score yesterday, recently shifted his operations east to Hong Kong four decades ago, ostensibly for its lower taxes.

Despite reaching his centenary, Kuok showed no visibile signs of passing the baton. In fact, as of 2022, no clear line of succession has been made public.

He has eight children and a host of other suitable candidates among his wider family, such as his nephew, Khoon Hong, who runs the palm oil interests of the business empire.

Kuok is also something of a role model for the new generation of local entrepreneurs, his autobiographies frequently topping the best-seller lists in the bookshops here.

The tycoon is known for being quite low-profile and his affection for his birth country Malaysia is widely reported.

In rare interview with the Singapore Straits Times on the occasion of his 90th birthday, he had said that he had not lost his affection for Malaysia.

He had told the Singapore broadsheet that his home would always be Malaysia.

“Roots are roots, except that my other root is the root of my parents — and that is China.

“I am twin-rooted,” he had said