JUNE 4, 2003 WED

Tycoon buying stake in Utusan Malaysia

This is second newspaper venture for port man Mokhtar, who is reportedly close to PM Mahathir

By Brendan Pereira

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's corporate figure of the moment, Tan Sri Syed Mokhtar Al-Bukhary, is getting a substantial piece of an influential voice in the Malay community - the Utusan Malaysia.
The Straits Times understands that the low-profile businessman - who holds interests in everything from ports to a bookstore chain - is buying a 20-per-cent stake in the top-selling Malay-language daily.
The deal will add prestige to his considerable business empire.
Umno, the ruling party, is a majority shareholder of the newspaper group, owning 58.31 per cent through a nominee.
The other significant shareholder is the Ministry of Finance, which has a 10-per-cent stake.
It is unclear if the businessman, 51, is buying his 20-per-cent stake from Umno or the ministry, or whether he is exercising rights over a bloc of shares not taken up by the ruling party.
This will be Tan Sri Syed Mokhtar's second major investment in the newspaper business.
The first ended badly during the peak of the Asian currency crisis in 1998, when shares worth RM400 million (S$182 million) in The Star, the country's top-selling English daily, were sold forcibly by his bankers after the businessman failed to provide extra collateral on loans taken.
Over the past few years, he has built up a considerable business empire.
Through a private nominee concern, he controls a 20-per-cent interest in Malaysia Mining (MMC).
The Far Eastern Economic Review (Feer) has reported that MMC will eventually become Tan Sri Syed Mokhtar's listed flagship company.
It will be through this company that he plans to manage his complex web of business interests, which associates say boast annual revenues of RM12 billion and more than 32,000 employees.
He is also widely considered as one of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's favourites - a classification he detests.
In a recent Feer interview, he scoffed at talk that his businesses somehow depended on his ties with the Premier.
'Apart from the technical know-how, business in Malaysia is also about the know-who,' he said. 'Knowing Dr Mahathir is, of course, a big plus but we have never abused this.'
He also pointed out that unlike other Malay businessmen, he survived the 1997 economic crisis without a government bailout.