Cover Story: Sarawak’s long-standing business rivalry

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on April 24, 2017 - April 30, 2017.
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OVER the years, the wealthy Lau family, which owns KTS Group, has been a fierce rival of the Tiong family, which controls Rimbunan Hijau Group. Both are powerful Foochow families from Sibu, Sarawak.

Founded by patriarch Tan Sri Tiong Hiew King in 1975, Rimbunan Hijau is best known for its vast forestry and oil palm plantations in Sarawak. It also controls most of the mainstream Chinese newspapers in the country through Media Chinese International Ltd (MCIL).

Tiong’s sprawling business empire includes operations in information and communication technology (ICT), hotel and tourism, property development, trading and retail, plastic manufacturing, aquaculture, mining, biotech and insurance.

The diversified KTS Group was founded by the late Datuk Seri Lau Hui Kang and is known as a dominant player in the timber, plantation and media industries. Its other businesses include prawn farming, shipbuilding, food and glass sand making.

Hui Kang died in 2006 at the age of 83. He was the elder brother of the late Datuk ­Robert Lau Hoi Chew, who was deputy transport minister and Sarawak United People’s Party vice-president.

KTS Group is currently managed by Hui Kang’s sons, Datuk Henry Lau Lee Kong, ­Stephen Lau Lee Kiong and Temenggong Datuk Vincent Lau Lee Ming.

The low-profile Lau family ultimately controls Bursa Malaysia-listed BLD Plantation Bhd as well as media publications such as See Hua Daily News, The Borneo Post, Utusan Borneo, Oriental Daily News and The Busy Weekly.

Due to their similarities, Rimbunan Hijau and KTS Group have been competing in various business sectors for generations.

The long-standing rivalry supposedly intensified in September 2002 when KTS Group launched Oriental Daily News in Peninsular Malaysia in a move to break Tiong’s hold on the Chinese media.

To recap, MCA bought Nanyang Press Holdings Bhd from Tan Sri Quek Leng Chan’s Hume Industries (M) Bhd on May 28, 2001. Back then, there was widespread speculation that Tiong, who owns Sin Chew Media Corp Bhd, was the man behind the deal, considering his close ties with MCA.

In fact, a large number of journalists from Nanyang Siang Pau left to join Oriental Daily News because the transaction was seen as controversial and there were concerns about the newspaper’s objectivity.

Nanyang Press fell into Tiong’s hands in 2006 when he bought a 21.02% stake in it from Huaren Holdings Sdn Bhd, the investment arm of the MCA.

The acquisition sparked widespread protests within the Chinese community, which was already up in arms over MCA’s takeover in 2001 and had predicted Tiong would one day emerge in Nanyang Press.

Having assumed control of Nanyang Press, Tiong later merged it with Ming Pao Enterprise Corp Ltd and Sin Chew Media Corp in 2008. The merger led to the formation of MCIL. The rest, as they say, is history.

Coming back to the business rivalry, Tiong’s media business has been well established in Peninsular Malaysia for many years now while Lau’s has gained a foothold in Sabah and ­Sarawak.

The ambitious Tiong has always wanted to penetrate the Sabah and Sarawak markets via Sin Chew Daily but to date, KTS Group’s See Hua Daily News remains the highest circulated Chinese newspaper there.

According to data from Audit Bureau of ­Circulations (ABC), See Hua Daily News’ average net circulation per publishing day in ­Sarawak stood at 67,425 copies between ­January and June 2016 while Sin Chew Daily’ was 51,570 copies. Besides, See Hua Daily News sold 27,184 copies, eight times that of Sin Chew Daily’s 3,414 copies.

Interestingly, some media industry observers say Oriental Daily News was set up by KTS Group in Peninsular Malaysia to counter Tiong’s move to push Sin Chew Daily aggressively in Sabah and Sarawak.

Certain quarters in the Chinese community who remember Tiong’s infamous move to monopolise the Chinese media claim that Oriental Daily News is the only independent Chinese newspaper in the country that speaks for the people.

Today, however, Tiong’s MCIL appears to be unshaken in Peninsular Malaysia while Oriental Daily News still seems to be struggling.

Statistics from ABC show that MCIL’s Sin Chew Daily, China Press and Guang Ming Daily have a combined circulation of 602,081 copies. In comparison, Oriental Daily News has an unaudited circulation of 128,580 copies.

In other words, MCIL’s titles have cornered the market in Peninsular Malaysia with a collective share of more than 90%. The group has also secured a more than 70% share of the non-discounted advertising expenditure market in the Chinese newspaper segment.