Syed Mokhtar Albukhary, A Biography
Author: Premilla Mohanlall
Publisher: PVM Communications
MY first meeting with tycoon Tan Sri Syed Mokhtar Albukhary went off in a rather unusual way. The year was 2004 and he had wanted to meet someone from The Star to make known his views over his fight with another tycoon, the late Tan Sri Nasimuddin SM Amin, over DRB-HICOM.
Syed Mokhtar felt the media favoured the Naza Group boss over him and he wanted to give his side of the story.
Both were battling over a strategic 15.8% block of shares in DRB-Hicom held by three parties, including the estate of the late Tan Sri Yahaya Ahmad, and the rivalry was billed as the “Fight of The Big Boys.”
The series of newspaper headlines had forced the reclusive Syed Mokhtar to come out and talk to this writer to put the record straight.
Our meeting at the business centre of a five-star hotel at Jalan Sultan Ismail was fixed at 9pm but he only turned up near midnight. Although he was dressed in a white long-sleeved shirt, I noticed that he only wore sandals. He was over two hours late.
His aides had warned me that he would probably be “waylaid” on the way there by businessmen and politicians, most of whom would ask for business deals or favours.
To avoid such disruptions, he shuttles between his house at affluent Bukit Tunku which he bought since he became a millionaire bachelor and the hotel to meet his associates and contacts. The other meeting point is the Islamic Arts Museum near the National Mosque.
The other rather unusual meeting spot is an Indian restaurant at Jalan Pahang. To this day, he carries with him a tumbler of tea, made by a particular waiter, from the eatery.
“If (the late Tan Sri) Loh Boon Siew can meet his friends at a coffeeshop every morning, I see no reason why I cannot enjoy my teh tarik at the shop, saya pun tong san mali, like him,” he told me, referring to Boon Siew's ancestral roots from China. Syed Mokktar's ancestral roots, on the other hand, can be traced to Central Asia.
By the time we finished our conversations, it was close to 2am. As I put down my pen and was about to close my note book, he suddenly told me that our discussions were entirely off the record and he was not to be quoted.
The publicity-shy businessman has never been at ease with journalists but I wasn't going to allow Syed Mokhtar to have his way. I told him, in no uncertain terms, that if that were so, I would have wasted my entire evening with him, and whether he liked it or not, I was going to put him on record.
I must have made an impression on him because as we got to know each other better, he was prepared to share his private thoughts with me regularly but still never on record.
But the media is still biting on Syed Mokhtar and, in some ways, he is to be blamed as he has never made himself available to journalists, preferring to let his aides do the talking. In fact, bankers also complain that he never meets them!
Interestingly enough, a whole chapter is devoted to his dealings with the media in his biography that has just hit the bookstores written by Premilla Mohanlall, a writer and a public relations practitioner.
“I wonder why I get bad press when others who have abused the system for personal gains have not been subjected to such media scrutiny. Perhaps it is time to come out and defend myself,” he said in the book.
The 180-page book is very readable, starting with his childhood days in a village attap house with no piped water and electricity, where the toilet was a pit latrine. It traces Syed Mokhtar's first experience of doing business under his cattle trader father in Alor Star. His father migrated to Kedah from the Afghan region of Central Asia via India and Thailand.
The book gives a rare peek into his family life and how the family's financial constraints forced Syed Mokhtar to stop schooling after Form Five, while his siblings were able to continue. There was also his early growing-up years with a soldier uncle in Johor Baru.
He takes pride calling himself a businessman with no diplomas, and his ability to speak the layman's language is obvious in the book. Much space is dedicated to his early days as a travelling salesman, when he had to sleep in the lorries and on bug-infested beds in cheap hotels.
The point that Syed Mokhtar seems to want to tell his readers is that he did not get his wealth on a silver platter. While the affirmative action of the New Economic Policy had helped him, he worked hard and fought hard. He was not the type who cashed out after getting the pink forms.
In short, he went through the good and bad times, like many well-tested businessmen. The 1997 financial crisis saw his assets shrank from RM3bil to RM600mil.
“Eighty per cent of my market capitalisation was wiped out. There was a lot of pain and hardship. Many people thought I would pack up and leave. I am a fighter, with a strong will to survive.
“I lost countless nights of sleep, I lost hair, but I did not lose sight of one thing: my responsibility to safeguard strategic bumiputra assets and to protect the interests of my staff.”
Today, he has 110,000 staff under his payroll and indirectly about 250,000 other Malaysians, particularly vendors, since he acquired Proton this year.
Syed Mokhtar's close ties with Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad is well documented but in this book, Syed Mokhtar spoke vividly, if not humorously, of their first encounter.
It was Thursday, Jan 16, 1997 and the time was 2.30pm Syed Mokhtar entered the office of the former Prime Minister.
“I greeted him with a salam and he stood before me, with his hands folded across the chest. He did not wave for me to take a seat when he sat down. I was sweating, and decided to sit down to present the documents I had prepared to explain all my businesses in Kedah, Kuala Lumpur and Johor.
“It included building plans for a new project in Alor Star, a sprawling development with a mosque and a health and welfare facilities for the poor as well as an international university for disadvantaged communities around the world.
“The Prime Minister listened carefully, without saying a word. By the time I was done, it was an hour and ten minutes. Still, not a word. I left the documents on his desk and took leave.”
Not long later, Syed Mokthar, who was still asleep, received a call from Dr Mahathir himself with a simple message: “Your matter in Kedah is settled.” That is of course vintage Dr Mahathir, the man who has no time for small talk and offered few words.
Apart from his numerous business ventures, Syed Mokhtar also writes in detail of his numerous charitable works.
Almost every year, his Albukhary Foundation hosts two iftar or fast-breaking dinners for over 3,000 needy people. The foundation currently has a few flagship projects, including the Islamic Arts Museum built in 1998.
In 2001, the foundation launched the Albukhry Tuition Programme to help the underachieving rural school children pass their final high school examination. At the end of the programme, nine years later, about 80,000 students from 500 schools had benefited from these remedial classes.
His foundation has also extended help to survivors of earthquakes in China, Pakistan and Iran, and the tsunami in Indonesia. It has also built an AIDS hospital in Uganda and a girls' school in Nepal as well as helped support the Sarajevo Science and Technology centre.
An interesting chapter is on his role as a family man. Syed Mokhtar has never touched on his private life in any interview, which has been rare, in any case.
The father of seven children, between the ages of two and 18, revealed how his typical meetings start at 10pm and finish at 3am “and is held seven days a week and has been a routine for more than 20 years.”
“Fortunately, my wife comes from a business family and understands this. Initially, I had to explain the arrangement to her, and she accepted it. Except for family holidays, in our 20 years of marriage, I don't think I have spent many evenings at home after 10pm,” he wrote.
Syed Mokhtar married in 1992 at the age of 41 to then 24-year-old Sharifah Zarah. There are also rare pictures of his family in the book.
Although the book is, no doubt, a public relations exercise, the right questions have been posed by the writer, including the public's perception of his many acquisitions and the common criticism that he has more than he can chew.
He also answered the issue of the shareholding structure of his companies that could not be traced to him, acknowledging “it is an old habit that has to change.”
Syed Mokhtar hasn't changed much. He is rarely seen in public functions. He is still more at ease in short-sleeved shirts and sandals. The billionaire now travels on a private jet but in town, he still drives around in his old Proton Perdana.