Pushing the business and political nexus too far is bad

  • Business
  • Saturday, 03 Mar 2018

Richest man: Based on listed companies, Kuok is the richest man in Malaysia, worth almost RM50bil as at the end of last year.

JUST a few months ago, we had an Umno division leader smashing beer bottles at the gates of the Selangor Government’s state secretariat over its decision to allow Octoberfest to be held in the state.

To refresh the memory of those who may have forgotten, Sungai Besar Umno division leader, Datuk Jamal Yunos, smashed a few beer bottles outside the state secretariat of the Opposition-controlled state as a symbol of protest against the state condoning the consumption of alcohol.

He forgot that Malaysia’s two major breweries – CARLSBERG BREWERY MALAYSIA BHD and HEINEKEN MALAYSIA BHD that contribute millions in taxes to the federal government coffers - are both located in Selangor. Further, Malaysia can do with all the investments it can get now.

Now, we have another storm in a teacup – involving Robert Kuok, Malaysia’s best-known businessman - no less. Based on listed companies, Kuok is the richest man in Malaysia, worth almost RM50bil as at the end of last year.

Nobody can dare say with certainty that he is indeed the richest man in Malaysia, as there could be others who are wealthier than Kuok. However, based on what is tangible and can be accounted for, Kuok tops the list.

He does not carry any honorific title such as “Tan Sri”, which many would love to be addressed as, nor does he sit on the boards of listed companies in Malaysia.

In recent times, he is only known to have sat on the advisory panel of the Iskandar Regional Development Authority (Irda) in 2007.

Tourism Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz hitting out at Kuok for supposedly supporting the Opposition came under heavy fire and received negative response from corporate figures to politicians all the way from Sarawak to Selangor.

The normally docile corporate figures, who rarely state public opinions, especially against a serving minister, were aghast at the tone of language used on Kuok. In an unprecedented manner, they issued public statements in support of Kuok.

Kuok is a different breed of businessman. He is a cut above the rest. He could spot a trend when others were still hazy about the future.

For instance, after his company PPB Group Bhd exited the sugar refinery business – selling it to Felda Global Ventures Holdings Bhd – he went upstream into the raw sugar business, which commanded better margins and was less volatile.

He went into the food distribution business in China in the 1990s when others were still pussyfooting on investment opportunities in Asia’s economic powerhouse.

In his book, Kuok speaks highly of Malay leaders, especially those from Johor such as Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman and Tun Hussein Onn.

The state of Johor is close to his heart, which is probably why he accepted the seat as adviser to Irda in 2007.

He did not agree with the New Economic Policy (NEP). Nevertheless, Kuok paid tribute to Malay leaders for helping him in his business ventures.

In the 1980s, when Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was in power, Kuok gradually shifted his business to Hong Kong and China. Considering his views on the NEP, it is easy to fathom why the 94-year-old businessman adopted the strategy.

Now, more than 30 years later, Kuok has firmly established himself on the global stage. His chain of Shangri-la Hotels is a global brand.

Wilmar International Ltd, which is listed in Singapore, is the world’s most expensive plantation group with extensive operations in both the upstream and downstream business of the palm oil industry.

In the next few months as the general election (GE) nears, the intensity of politicking will pick up significantly.

Businessmen generally give donations to both sides of the political divide. However, it is done in a rather opaque manner, unlike other countries where political donations are transparent.

For instance, in the United States, in the run-up to the presidential election, the probability of who would win the race is determined by the amount raised through contributions.

A corporate leader once said that in Malaysia, the usual practice is for donations to be handed directly to the party president himself and not to any intermediary before nominations.

Ask any businessman in town and they would tell you that the practice of handing out donations to politicians, especially during elections, is a common occurrence. The ones that get caught by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission are only a fraction of the transactions that take place in the real corporate world.

However, politicians generally stay away from hitting out at businessmen, even during the height of political campaigns. They know that donations and support from the businessmen will always be important in both the good and bad times in their political career.

When the chips are down for politicians, the party and supporters tend to abandon them, but the businessmen who had benefited when the politician was in power would tend to stay loyal.

A former senior minister once said that when he was booted out of office, only the corporate figures came to his assistance, providing him with a car and allowances to keep up his lifestyle.

Generally, this is because the businessmen tend to have a view that the politician might one day come in handy.

However, in today’s world, businesses are mobile. They are not loyal to politicians. They tend to move to places where they can raise the most amount of money.

New business ventures take advantage of digital technology to generate the highest growth.

In this region, the biggest and most successful name in the digital economy is Grab, the app-hailing technology company that provides transport and logistics services. It started in Malaysia and now has made Singapore its base.

One reason is because Singapore attracts the most amount of money for technology companies. This could be true, as Grab has successfully raised billions over the last year or two.

Already, Malaysia is fighting an uphill battle to prevent more companies such as Grab from relocating. Strong political statements and actions do not help in the battle to keep the big names here.

Politicians must remember that the GE comes once in five years, but businesses, when they relocate, usually never come back.

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