Kwek Leng Beng is part of a vanishing species. Not many local business scions have the ability or opportunity to help grow a business group to one with combined assets totalling $40 billion. Yet, not all that much is known about the Hong Leong Group chairman. A just released book, Strictly Business: The Kwek Leng Beng Story by Peh Shing Huei (publishers: Nutgraf Holdings and World Scientific Publishing), offers some fascinating insights as it attempts to capture the essence of one of the more successful second-generation business leaders in Singapore and also clarify some questions relating to Kwek.

The biggest takeaway from the book is that Kwek is the product of a strict upbringing by a father (Kwek Hong Png, the patriarch of Hong Leong) whose own rags-to-riches journey from China to Singapore taught him to take life seriously. And the father adopted an overly strict attitude towards his son. Leng Beng, who worshipped his father, took all the scolding meted out until he decided one day to escape to Penang, where an old friend of his father assured him that Kwek senior was only trying to teach him about life and how to do business. When he returned, his father kept quiet. The hatchet was buried. It was a turning point that would set him on a two-decades-long learning journey under his father until he took over Hong Leong in 1990.

The second important takeaway, in my view, is that Kwek Leng Beng grew from being a well-known successful property developer to a somewhat passionate hotel owner.

His roots were in finance, though.

When I was a business journalist covering hotels and property, I used to see him at Hong Leong Finance in Hong Leong Building along Robinson Road. He told me I was welcome to pop in his spacious office any time and use any desk for work or rest, and his secretary would get me a coffee. Wow.

From Hong Leong Finance, Kwek also became responsible for City Developments Ltd (CDL). And that was quite an enlargement of responsibilities. CDL is a leading global real estate company with a network spanning 143 locations in 28 countries and regions. Listed on the Singapore Exchange, the group is one of the largest companies by market capitalisation.

Still, as the book says, quoting Kwek – “I used to pine for the day when I would own a hotel” – the group was keen on building hotels…”Once there was this (government) commitment to grow tourism, you can never go wrong to be involved in hotels.” Hong Leong won a tender in 1968 and up came the King’s Hotel in 1970. King’s is pitched at the off-Orchard Road tourists. Even the food it offers is for a certain group of regional travellers. Its well-known buffet is distinctly Penang Peranakan.

That was the start of Kwek’s love affair with hotels and serviced apartments through the Millennium & Copthorne Hotels and St Regis.

And indeed, there are so many stories about Hong Leong’s or Kwek’s hotels.

Just three are enough; all worth a totally new book.

One would be that of 9/11 and the destruction of Millenium Hilton – wrong spelling and all – and the fight over who was going to pay for the restoration.

The other two are, in fact, legends in the making. I will just mention them. You will have to read the book.

First is Kwek and his fight for the Plaza Hotel in New York, involving him and the owner, a certain gentleman called Donald Trump. The other is what Kwek did for the Marina Bay Sands.


Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.SG is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a magazine publishing company