Pent-up demand for Sugar King of Asia's story

Ex-journalist Andrew Tanzer (left) recorded more than 100 hours' worth of material to write Malaysian tycoon Robert Kuok's biography.
Ex-journalist Andrew Tanzer (above) recorded more than 100 hours' worth of material to write Malaysian tycoon Robert Kuok's biography.PHOTO: COURTESY OF ANDREW TANZER

100,000 copies sold 34 weeks on the ST bestsellers list

ROBERT KUOK: A MEMOIR

By Robert Kuok with Andrew Tanzer

Landmark Books/Hardcover/ 376 pages/$49.90/Major bookstores and localbooks.sg

The tale of Malaysian tycoon Robert Kuok, dubbed the "Sugar King of Asia", was expected to sell about 4,000 copies. Within the year, it had hit six figures.

"No one in the book trade expected this result, not me, our distributors or the bookshops," says its publisher Goh Eck Kheng, 63, of Landmark Books.

A year on, he estimates that the English edition has sold about 100,000 copies worldwide. The book is now sold in eight other territories besides Singapore, including Malaysia, Indonesia, Britain and the United States.

The famously reclusive Mr Kuok, 95, opens up in the book to former Forbes journalist Andrew Tanzer on how he built up his business empire and his thoughts on everything from Malaysian politics to investing in China.

Tanzer, 61, who now works for a private wealth management company, first interviewed Mr Kuok for Forbes magazine in 1997.

"After the article came out, he started inviting me to lunch," he says over the telephone from the US. "And he just started asking if some day I might be able to take down his life story."

He ended up recording more than 100 hours' worth of material over close to six months.

Mr Kuok spoke at length about his childhood, during which his father ill-treated his mother and started a second family.

Tanzer says he was surprised at how frank Mr Kuok was about personal details, such as how he strayed from his first marriage. He married his mistress after the death of his first wife from breast cancer.

It took more than 14 years to bring the book to fruition.

After Tanzer produced a first draft in 2003, the project stalled as Mr Kuok came out of retirement after his long-time aide Richard Liu died suddenly of a heart attack.

Due to sensitivities in the text and Mr Kuok's desire to have it translated into Chinese, the book remained incomplete until 2016.

Although Tanzer suggested taking the book to a British or American publisher with a global reach, Mr Kuok chose Landmark Books, a Singapore-based boutique publisher mostly known for its literary offerings. Its founder Mr Goh is a family friend of Mr Kuok's.

Tanzer is unsurprised by the popularity of the book, which won Book of the Year at the Singapore Book Awards this year.

"Mr Kuok is extremely low-profile and, in his entire career, gave very few interviews. It was like pent-up demand for more information about him. He has a very good story to tell," he says.

Olivia Ho

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 11, 2018, with the headline 'Pent-up demand for Sugar King of Asia's story'. Print Edition | Subscribe