He entered Raffles College, Singapore in 1941, and found work with Mitsubishi between 1942 and 1945 when the Japanese invaded Singapore in 1942.
After Kuok’s moderately wealthy father died in 1948, Kuok and his two brothers founded Kuok Brothers Limited in 1949 in Malaysia trading rice, sugar, and wheat flour. The firm expanded in 1953 with the opening of a branch in Singapore. In the 1960s, Kuok invested heavily in sugar refining. At times, he controlled significant portions of the Malaysian sugar market and sugar production in Asia, and so earned his nickname, ‘Sugar King.’ From these humble beginnings, the Kuok Group now has investments in major Southeast Asia countries, Hong Kong, mainland China, Fiji, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, and Chile.
Kuok expanded into hotels in the 1970s. Anticipating Singapore’s prosperous future and the potential shortage of hotel space on the island, he partnered with other local rice traders on land he owned, and in 1971 started building a hotel named Shangri-La, which turned out to be immensely profitable. Kuok built the second Shangri-La in Hong Kong in 1981 on a plot of land on the Tsim Sha Tsui East waterfront. The Kualu Lumpur Shangri-La was not completed until 1985 in part due to the economic slowdown in the early 1980s and the fourth Shangri-La in Bangkok opened in 1986. Kuok continued to build hotels in different locations in Asia including mainland China, Fiji and South Korea, and also runs a hotel in Vancouver, Canada. Initially, the prominent American hotel firm, Westin, managed the hotel chain, but in 1983 Kuok formed Shangri-La Hotels & Resorts to manage his hotels. Kuok’s close personal ties with key political and business figures such as Lee Kuan Yew (Li Guangyao), Tun Hussein Onn, Surharto, Ferdinand Marcos, and Liem Sioe Liong in Southeast Asia to an extent smoothed his business dealings in the region and across Asia. Lee and Tun were Kuok’s contemporaries at college.
Between the late 1970s and the 1990s Kuok focused on regional expansion in Hong Kong and China. Kerry Holdings Limited was established in Hong Kong in 1974 and ‘Kerry’ has since become identified with the Kuok Group’s extensive operations in both Hong Kong and China. Kuok ran his Hong Kong sugar and other commodities trading business principally through Kerry. He bought properties and built hotels in Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen in the early 1980s. His companies, mostly in partnership with local Chinese firms, built office blocks, apartments, and car parks, often clustered around the hotels. In 1989 Kuok developed the Traders hotel chain, a sister brand of the Shangri-La hotel group, to cater mostly to business travelers with first-rate yet affordable accommodation. There are now Traders hotels in China, India, the United Arab Emirates and major cities throughout Southeast Asia.
In 1993, Kuok acquired about 35 percent of the South China Morning Post, the largest English-language daily paper in Hong Kong, from the News Corporation, owned by Australia media magnate Rupert Murdoch. In the same year the Chinese authorities selected him as one of the advisers on the future of Hong Kong, and also appointed him as shareholder and director of China International Trust and Investment Corporation (CITIC), the Hong Kong-listed arm of a Beijing-based government agency to secure foreign investments. Kuok is also a major shareholder of TVB, the world’s largest library of Chinese-language commercial programming. He also controlled TVE, a media conglomerate, in 1996 in a takeover bid. Both media companies are based in Hong Kong. Around the same time, the Chinese authorities selected Kuok to sit on the Preparatory Committee established to oversee the return of Hong Kong to China.
For Kuok, relationship-building is essential to any growth strategy. He had traded with China during the Cultural Revolution and began investing in China before it was fashionable to do so. Kuok seems to have invested on China’s terms rather than simply relying on his entrepreneurial capacity. Through a joint venture between Kerry and China Foreign Economic and Trade Consultants, Kuok made a sizeable investment in 1984 to construct the World Trade Center, initially estimated to cost US$300 million, in Beijing. Despite his own financial losses, he injected more capital into the project, which was delayed as a result of civil unrest in Beijing in the late 1980s and was only completed in 1990 at a cost of about US$530 million.
Two executive directors of Kerry, quoted on the Hang Seng Index in 1996, sit on the board of China World Trade Center Co. Ltd, which is listed on the Shanghai Stock Exchange. Kuok’s commitment to China has won him many large construction projects. In 1993, Coca-Cola chose Kerry as its franchiser in mainland China. Kerry used its special relationship with the Chinese authorities to get a Coca-Cola bottling plant up and running within eight months (12 is more usual). Nonetheless, Kerry disposed of its majority stake in the bottling venture to Coca-Cola in 2006 so as to be more focused on its own core business.
As a patriotic Chinese, Kuok donated US$50 million through Kerry in 2005 to the Hope Project, a national charity in mainland China that helps young school drop-outs in poor areas return to their education. The Kuok Group has built up a management team with great experience and knowledge. In the early 1990s, Kuok’s sons take over most of the day-to-day operations of his businesses. Though retired from formal positions of authority, Kuok continues to wield substantial influence over the group.
Kuok married twice with eight children.