Robert Kuok is a Malaysian-Chinese business magnate. His personal wealth of $18.9 billion puts him at 96 on Forbes’ 2018 The World’s Billionaires list. The 94-year-old began his career in British colonial Malaya where he ran a food trading business. He expanded his interests into property, among other things, and founded the Shangri-La hotel chain. In this extract from his memoir, he writes about his early life and the influence of his warring parents on his world view.
My earliest memory is of crying and feeling very heartbroken. It was 1925. I was one-and-a-half years old. Mother had left my brother, William, and me and taken my eldest brother, Philip, with her to China. Instinctively, we felt she wasn’t coming back.
Father had abused Mother virtually from the day they were married in 1920. He womanised even in the first few years of marriage. He smoked opium and gambled. Sometimes, he would disappear for two or three days. She had had enough. So she went back to Fuzhou and made up her mind never to return to Malaya.
Mother left us in Johor Bahru with a governess from Fuzhou, whom I always called Ah Poh. Ah Poh was illiterate, so she asked people to write letters to Mother on her behalf. She wrote, “Madame, you must come back! Your two children are pining for you!” Then, one day, after an absence of one-and-a-half years, Mother returned from China.
My father, Kuok Keng Kang, was born in Fuzhou in December 1893, the Year of the Snake. He was the youngest of six brothers and lost his parents when he was five or six years old. His father was a second son who, under the law of primogeniture, lost out to his eldest brother. The brothers’ families lived and ate communally. The eldest brother favoured his own sons and discriminated against my father very badly.
South-east Asia provided an escape. The first to go south was my fourth uncle. He sailed to Singapore in 1906 or 1907 at the age of 17 or so and soon landed a job as a clerk in a Chinese shop. Within two or three years, he became a favourite employee.
It came to his ears that my father was being bullied. He arranged for Father to be put on a boat to Singapore. He was about 15 years old when he arrived, scrawny and underfed.
Father was not erudite, but he was good with numbers and very shrewd, with a tremendous personality and way with people.
After several years, the two brothers had saved enough money to strike out on their own. This was some time during the First World War. Malaya produced spices that were in great demand. Prices shot up, they made money, and, by 1919 or 1920, Father and his brother were wealthy.
My mother, Tang Kak Ji, was born in December 1900, the Year of the Rat. Mother’s family was much better off than Father’s. She was the favourite of her father, who was scholarly and dabbled in Chinese herbal medicine. He was a very kind and well-educated man, a wise father who showed his daughter a great deal of affection. So, unlike Father, she grew up surrounded by warmth and love.
One day, when Mother’s father was away her mother brought in foot-binders to bind her feet. Luckily, within a few days of this, her father returned. On seeing what had happened to his beloved daughter, he cuffed his wife and cut off the binding. Mother’s feet ached for quite a few weeks, but they were not deformed.
Tang Kak Ji had an incisive mind and enrolled in a women’s college in Fuzhou – this in an era when very few women in China attended college. Her mother had a younger brother who befriended my father’s second brother after a kung fu bout.
One day, my second uncle boasted to Mother’s uncle, “I’ve just received a letter from my youngest brother. He is doing so well in the South Seas.”
To which Mother’s uncle replied, “Ahh, I have the most intelligent, beautiful niece, who is studying in college. Let’s make a match?”
So, Mother was plucked out of school to marry a complete stranger who had made good in the South Seas.
Father and Mother were not well suited. By about 1921, he had amassed a fortune of some 500,000 Malayan dollars. Father expected a docile and submissive wife whose role in life was to serve his needs. Mother had modern ideas. So there was a clash of wills from the start. Yet, it was a very one-sided marriage, and Mother was the one who suffered.
Around the time that I was born in 1923, my fourth uncle, who was by then a very sick man, left to go home to China. Father was the main achiever in the business, but the two brothers ran Tong Seng & Co as partners. Fourth Uncle called Father and said, “I want to go home for treatment. If I’m cured, I’ll come out again. Please reduce all our assets to cash and let me take it back. I’ll buy properties and erect new homes in our joint names in China.” He never came back and he did not keep his promises.
Having all the cash suddenly siphoned out of a company is like draining all the blood from the body. Mother was never given sufficient money to run the home – and sometimes none at all. We shampooed our hair with laundry soap and, as a result, broke out in sores from time to time. If a servant broke a dish, even Mother, who was so well educated and cultivated, would sometimes raise her voice in great anger.
I have many fond early memories of my mother and my governess. But Father neglected his three boys. We hardly saw him and he barely spoke with us. Naturally, my two older brothers and I grew up loving Mother more. I clung to Mother. She noticed it and started taking me on virtually every outing to visit her friends or relatives. I became very close to her because of that.
Growing up, I felt ignored by most of the people around me, especially by Father and his third brother.
I take insults – insults to my physical being, to my mental being, to my pride – very deeply. I can’t shake them off! I bear these insults to my sense of fair play and justice to this day. It’s almost an inextinguishable flame, which is why I make a very bad enemy. I just felt: “I want to show you. I will show you.” From early on, I developed this strong anger which, in many ways, propelled me forward in life.
I should point out that Father had a good side, too. He could endear himself to any new person he met. In business, he was shrewd and a cut above his peers. He had a naturally intuitive mind, and possessed a great deal of native wisdom and business sense.
Father spoke good bazaar Malay, but didn’t speak English; neither did Mother. He felt greatly handicapped in business because of it. So he sent his three sons to the same English school – the Convent Girls’ School.
The school’s Irish nuns asked us to acquire English names. Since father didn’t know any English, he asked his only English-speaking clerk to select names for us. This man had studied some history. So the clerk said, “Okay, let’s call Hock Khee ‘Philip’, after King Philip of Spain. Let’s call Hock Ling ‘William’, after William the Conqueror. And let’s call Hock Nien ‘Robert’, for Robert the Bruce of Scotland.” So we were called by those names from early primary school.
I have unhappy memories of the aggressive Catholicism in Convent Girls’ School. You weren’t to be superstitious, yet, when there was thunder and lightning, the nuns shouted, “Quickly, get down on your knees and pray the ‘Hail Mary’!”
My brothers and I owe our upbringing completely to Mother. She laid down key principles: Be faithful, have gratitude and – one of the most important ones – never boast. She was in my mind the epitome of a refined person. She believed that nobody should flaunt wisdom, success and wealth. Through words and through example, she laid strong foundations in our minds and in our psyches of how to live our lives, how to differentiate between good and evil, and even how to comport ourselves during adulthood.
There was happiness with Mother although she had more than her fair share of worries. Even when she had those big rows with Father, she would always remind us the quarrels were that of husband and wife, and that filial piety should on no account be impaired. She was such an intelligent, caring person that Father’s Jalan Trus shop employees always came running to her with business or personal problems. She displayed great leadership qualities right through to her death in 1995.
Mother made us do much of the housework. She would say, “Do you think you’re going to grow up as squires, as a rich man’s sons? Even if your father were rich, I would not allow it. Don’t expect the house to be run by the servants!”
Mother was very strict and continually preached thrift. She humbled us. But we realised later in life that she was just making us strong. The conditions of poverty compelled her to treat us that way, although she also saw merit in that situation. It taught me thrift; and by being thrifty, through a parsimonious existence, you become streetwise very quickly.
As a disciplinarian parent, there was no one fiercer or more demanding than Mother. She cracked the whip. If we were naughty, she’d make us take off our pants, and she’d wield a mean rattan on us, which of course left welts on our buttocks. Or she would purposely cane us on our lower legs when we wore shorts to school, just to embarrass us and to remind us to refrain from doing naughty things.
We felt outraged by the caning, but later we realised the wisdom in what she did. Financial misery and deprivation drove me on in life. But the greatest single influence on me must have been my strict upbringing by Mother.
Price of success
I hardly saw my five eldest children grow up, the children of my first wife, Joyce Cheah. I was always travelling. I might return to Singapore, only to dash down to Jakarta. After 1963, there would be many years when I would run the businesses in Malaysia and Singapore from a hotel room in London for weeks on end. I strayed from my marriage with Joy in the early 1970s, around the time of our initial corporate move to Hong Kong as I focused on building up my business. I had developed a strong feeling of fondness for a young lady named Ho Poh Lin, Pauline, who is now my wife.
Joy helped to shape my life. From the 1940s, she was a wonderful wife and mother to our five children. She was also one of the most non-judgmental persons I have ever known.
Among Asian societies, there has always been a reluctance to divorce. When I left the home I had founded with Joy, she said, “Nien, I will not let you divorce me. I will not divorce you. We will just live separately.”
I respected that decision. Joy was a noble person. And that is how it was until the day she died. Tragically, she developed breast cancer and, after a five-year battle, passed away in 1983. I cared for her up to her last breath.