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A tycoon who prefers to stay in the shadows

November 8, 2012

A biography gives some insights into this reclusive Kedah mogul who started his business in 1972.

By Habhajan Singh

KUALA LUMPUR: At 21, Syed Mokhtar Albukhary, a lanky lad from Kedah, was struggling with studies at an institute in the nation’s capital. He went back to what he knew best: business. It was 1972 and Syed Mokhtar registered his first company, Sharikat Kenderaan Sentosa.

The sole proprietorship was named after the hotel where he was staying. “When registering my company, I was asked for the name. I was taken aback as I had not given it a thought, and out of the blue, I said Sentosa,” the reclusive tycoon tells his story in his newly released biography.

In Syed Mokhtar Albukhary: A Biography, Syed Mokhtar was described as “just the kind of young and driven Bumiputera the government was looking to groom to raise the Malay participation in the economy under the newly launched New Economic Policy”.

For this first company under the now-tycoon who controls, among others, DRB-Hicom Bhd and MMC Corp Bhd, he had apparently applied for two lorry licences. He got four, instead, under the Bumiputera quota.

Today, Syed Mokhtar has plenty of cars, trucks and even ships at the command of his business empire. DRB-Hicom, which controls national carmaker Proton Holdings Bhd, has a defence arm called DRB-Hicom Defence Technologies Sdn Bhd, which makes armoured wheeled vehicles (AWVs).

It is now working on a RM7.55 billion contract to supply 257 AWVs to the government. This is so many times the value of his early break with the Ministry of Defence, in his mid-20s, to supply 120,000 pairs of safety shoes to the armed forces.

So, is he a crony of any politician? Or a self-made businessman? From the accounts captured by biographer Premilla Mohanlall, it looks that Syed Mokhtar has worked hard for his money.

From helping his father with cattle trading to selling leftover meat, and later to rice trading. “Nothing was given to me on a silver plate,” he tells the author.

When Dr Mahathir Mohamad came to office as prime minister in 1982, Syed Mokhtar was already well established in the world of business. When he turned 30 in 1981, he was already a millionaire, with several companies to his name.

Rare insights

In his 30s, his dinner buddies included Muhyiddin Yassin, now deputy prime minister and lawyer Megat Najmuddin Megat Khas.

The book says that Syed Mokhtar first met Muhyiddin in 1976. Muhyiddin was then managing director of Sergam Bhd, a Johor state agency handling government procurement.

They became good friends and “remain close till today”, it adds. Looking at his early days accounts in the book, you can see that the man had done his homework, and had worked hard. He is even said to have called some 100 people a day! Another interesting trait was how he developed his contacts and connections, inherent in any businessman worth his salt.

A Lembaga Padi Negara official he had met in his 20s had connected him to some Chinese businessmen. This led to Bukhary Sdn Bhd, a joint venture with him holding a majority stake. Along the way, his parents had to mortgage two plots of land to enable Syed Mokhtar to secure a loan from United Malayan Banking Corp.

He needed the money to retain his controlling stake when his partners decided to double the company’s paid-up capital to RM400,000.

While it does not penetrate deep, the book certainly provides some rare insights into the businessman who hardly agrees to media interviews.

“It is a ‘coming out’ of sorts for Syed Mokhtar, and this slim book strives to speak volumes about a towering Malaysian who prefers to remain in the shadows,” writes the author.

While the book provides some insight into Syed Mokhtar, you can sense that the subject has been handled cautiously. So, there is certainly room for another book.

This content is provided by FMT content partner The Malaysian Reserve.


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