JOHOR BAHRU/KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian tycoon Robert Kuok has been thrust into the political spotlight after he was accused of funding the opposition in Malaysia in a bid to set up a Chinese-based government.
Kuok, the country’s richest man, created quite a stir after a news portal last week accused him of funding the Chinese-based opposition Democratic Action Party in a bid to bring down Prime Minister Najib Razak’s Barisan Nasional government.
The 94-year-old billionaire, dubbed Malaysia’s "sugar king", denied all allegations as untrue and defamatory.
He also threatened to sue the news portal Malaysia Today, operated by controversial blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin, for running a series of articles last week branding him a racist and a Chinese chauvinist, among other allegations.
The articles had sparked stinging remarks from senior politicians of the ruling party UMNO.
Umno leader Tajuddin Abdul Rahman accused Kuok of forgetting his roots while Tourism and Culture Minister Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz called Mr Kuok a "pondan" (effeminate man) and a coward, and challenged him to contest in the coming elections.
On Tuesday Malaysia's prime minister's office issued a statement saying Robert Kuok owed his success to government policies and reminding him of the monopoly he had enjoyed in the sugar and rice trade. Although he was driven, hardworking and disciplined, government assistance was still the "key" to opening opportunities which would lead to his success, the statement said.
LEADERS DEFEND KUOK
Some Chinese and business leaders in Malaysia have come to Kuok’s defence including PM Najib’s brother, Nazir Razak, who described the tycoon as a "first-class gentleman" and a Malaysia business icon.
In Johor, Kuok's birthplace, the Chinese community is upset over "Umno's attacks" against him as they see him as an entrepreneur who helped keep the prices of basic commodities low.
"Throughout decades of his business in Malaysia, Robert Kuok kept the prices of sugar, flour and rice low. He heeded the government's call for low prices and he never raised the prices of these items to help the government and the people," Lee, a 57-year-old Chinese businessman in Johor, told Channel NewsAsia.
Kuok exited from the sugar business in Malaysia in 2009 after more than 40 years when he sold it.
"These attacks against Robert Kuok really hurt the feelings of the Chinese community, not only in Johor but the rest of the country," said Lee, a member of the Malaysian Chinese Association, which is part of the ruling coalition.
"It once again shows that the Chinese contribution to Malaysia is not appreciated by the government," he added.
The Johor Chinese Chamber of Commerce called Robert Kuok the "pride of Johor" and one of the most respected businessmen in Asia.
"It is unfair that he's dragged into politics in this way. During this politically sensitive period, anything can be over-interpreted. I sincerely hope that all the politicians, regardless of (their political) parties, will not take advantage of this issue to win votes," Tan Seng Leong, president of the Johor Chinese Chamber of Commerce, told Channel NewsAsia.
Former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad has called him a patriot.
"He retains his citizenship as Malaysian ... despite making most of his money outside the country," Dr Mahathir said.
This is the second time in recent months that the Malaysian tycoon has ruffled the feathers of the establishment.
Late last year he released a memoir in which he implicitly criticised the government for the affirmative-action programme favouring the majority Malay population while expressing his concerns that the country may be on the wrong track - inevitably turning the heat on Mr Najib's government, which is seeking re-election soon.
PM Najib must dissolve the parliament by June or parliament will automatically dissolve itself, paving the way for elections within 60 days.
Political veteran and former finance minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah has downplayed the episode saying that Mr Kuok, whom he described as an old friend, was entitled to his own views and added that he has faith in the BN-led government.
“I know Robert for many years now, he is entitled to his own views and others too, at times we may sway here and there but we come back to (the) same route, I have faith in the government, I have faith in (the) future generation."
Robert Kuok’s empire includes hotel chain Shangri-La, Kerry Properties and plantation giant Wilmar International which he controls through His listed conglomerate PPB group in Malaysia.