8 richest men in Malaysia and how they made their billions

richest men in Malaysia

How do you become a billionaire? The education Robert Kuok, Quek Leng Chan, and Teh Hong Piow, the top three richest men in Malaysia, may offer some hints.

Research by INSEAD, Columbia University and Tel Aviv University has found links between going abroad to study and being more successful and knowledgeable.

Not only are international graduates better thinkers, but they are also more flexible, creative, and complex,

By mingling with foreign cultures, international studies are able to make connections among disparate ideas.

A classic example would be Elon Musk, who was born in South Africa. He went to college in Canada, and then transferred to the University of Pennsylvania in the US for a bachelor’s degree in physics and economics. Today, he is worth US$187.3 billion.

But while many are eager to jump at the opportunity to study abroad when given, not many others are offered the same choice, especially in Malaysia.

richest men in Malaysia

To the indigenous folk in Malaysia, secondary education is considered a privilege. Source: AFP

The less privileged don’t share the same opportunities

Chinese men dominate list of richest men in Malaysia — which raises two important questions:

  • Why aren’t there any women listed?
  • Why aren’t there men from other races?

Up until the 1990s, the common belief was that Malaysian women were better off being housewives.

Even if they were educated, families would sponsor them to study at local universities, as they were cheaper than American or British universities. 

Women were also encouraged to attain qualifications that’ll prepare them for “feminine” occupations, like teaching or nursing.

There are many other factors that contribute to the fact that in the lists of the richest women in the world, the majority of them inherited their wealth from their fathers or husbands.

In Malaysia, the richest woman is Tan Kai Yong, who has a reported net worth of US$554 million.

Tan is the wife of the late Yeoh Tiong Lay, founder of YTL Corporation, the country’s largest conglomerate, with interests in construction, utilities, hotels, property development and technology. 

Tan’s millions may seem little compared to the likes of L’Oréal heiress Françoise Bettencourt Meyers (2024 net worth: US$99.5 billion) — but still vastly more than what an Indigenous Malaysian household makes, i.e. US$835 per month.

Close to one-third of Indigenous villages are located in remote areas, while 61.45% are in the suburbs, and in the remaining 1.38% are located in the city.

Their social and economic position makes them some of the disadvantaged minorities in the nation with the majority living under the poverty line.

While 50% of Indigenous students attend secondary school, only 30% of them complete it. Even fewer go on to university and fewer still go on to make billions. 

Their fates and fortunes appear vastly different from the richest men of Malaysia — and seem to tell us that you have to be born with a certain gender, race or income group to be mega-wealthy.

How true is this assumption? We analyse the lives, education and careers of the 10 richest men in Malaysia to find out:

richest men in Malaysia

Robert Kuok (centre) just turned 100 years old in 2023. Source: AFP

The education and careers of the richest men in Malaysia

Robert Kuok

Net worth: US$11.5 billion

Education: Raffles Institution, Singapore

Born in Johor, the southernmost state of what was known as Malaya in 1923, Robert Kuok Hock Nien would grow up and attend an English primary school here, which was run by his father’s English-speaking clerk.

“Father spoke good bazaar Malay, but didn’t speak English; neither did Mother. He felt greatly handicapped in business because of it,” wrote Kuok in AFR.” So he sent his three sons to the same English school – the Convent Girls’ School.”

His parents were from Fujian, China and like most immigrants to Malaya, Kuok was determined not to lose his roots. Thus, after attending English school and college, he attended Chinese school to improve his Mandarin.

When older, Kuok studied at Raffles Institution in Singapore where he was classmates with the founding Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew. They weren’t alone either — the second Prime Minister of Malaysia, Abdul Razak bin Hussein, also attended Raffles around the same time.

“In fact, I think two-thirds or three-quarters of the top civil servants in Malaysia had been at Raffles College when I was there; many of the others were in school with me in Johor,” wrote Kuok in his memoir.

He began his career as an office boy despite being born into a wealthy family. During the Japanese occupation of Malaysia, he worked his way up as a clerk in a rice-trading department of Japanese industrial conglomerate Mitsubishi Shoji Kaisha.

Then, he took his new skills back to his family in what was then known as Malaya to grow the business. 

“One thing I learned from the Japanese is that you should focus on products for which there are large, established markets, and for which demand is uniform and sustainable,” he said in his book, Robert Kuok: A Memoir.

Today, Kuok holds ownership of multiple businesses spread across numerous industries in Malaysia, ranging from sugar refineries, animal feed, oil, mining, hotels, and more. He earned the nickname “Sugar King of Asia” thanks to his heavy investment in sugar refineries in the 1960s, even controlling 80% of Malaysia’s sugar market at one point. 

richest men in Malaysia

Before Teh Hong Piow founded Public Bank Berhad, he helped Maybank expand extensively. Source: AFP

Quek Leng Chan

Net worth: US$8.8 billion

Education: Victoria School, Singapore

Quek Leng Chan is best known for co-founding Hong Leong Group Malaysia, a conglomerate comprising banking, manufacturing, and property development. 

When he was young, he studied at Victoria School in Singapore. The school proudly features him on their League of Extraordinary Victorians, referring to him as a Malaysian tycoon among fellow prominent business leaders and powerful individuals.

Soon after, he headed to the UK to become a qualified Barrister-at-Law from the Middle Temple, one of the four Inns of Court which have the exclusive right to call students to the Bar. 

His experience with law helped him acquire the means necessary to expand the business — Hong Leong Group had no banking licence in Singapore back then, and he crossed the Johor–Singapore Causeway determined to carry out his plans.

Since then, he has grown Hong Leong Bank into one of the largest banking groups in Malaysia, with presence in Singapore, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and China.

Before Teh Hong Piow became one of the richest men in Malaysia, he was an international student in California. Source: AFP

Teh Hong Piow – Teh siblings 

Net worth: $5.4 billion

Education: Pacific Western University, California

The late Teh Hong Piow was the founder, chairman, director, and adviser to Public Bank Berhad in Malaysia.

After his passing in 2022, his children (Lilian Teh Li Ming, Lillyn Teh Li Hua, Diona Teh Li Shian, and William Teh Lee Pang) received a hefty stake in the company and moved up the fortune ranks. 

Born and raised in Singapore, Teh completed his formal primary and secondary education at the Anglo Chinese School. He obtained three degrees from Pacific Western University in California, along with two PhDs at Clayton University and University Malaya, respectively. There is no known record of his degrees, however it’s listed on Forbes that he graduated with an Arts/Science degree from University Malaya.

He also holds an Honorary Doctorate of University from Sunway University for his outstanding contribution in overseeing the evolution of Public Bank into a modern and integrated financial institution, and to the growth of the banking and finance industry in Malaysia. 

His story is one of hard work and success. He began his banking journey as a clerk with Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp Ltd (OCBC Bank) at the age of 20, earning just 130 Malaysian Ringgit (US$27) a month.

Within five short years, he was promoted to officer. 

In 1960, he joined Malayan Banking Berhad (Maybank) as a manager, and was promoted to general manager at the age of 34.

He led Maybank’s branch network expansion before leaving to set up Public Bank Berhad.

richest men in malaysia

Malaysia is the world’s second-largest producer of palm oil after Indonesia, making it a lucrative industry. Source: AFP

Lee Shin Cheng – Lee family

Net worth: US$5.35 billion

Education: –

The late Lee Shin Cheng started out with an ordinary life. He grew up northeast of the country capital Kuala Lumpur on a rubber plantation, helping his father run a small Chinese food shop.

At 11 years old, he left school to help support his family, selling ice cream on a bicycle for four years before returning to finish high school. When he was 22, he tried applying for a job at the Dunlop Estate – a European-owned oil palm plantation company – but was turned down because he did not speak fluent English.

Twenty years later, he returned and bought the company.

In an interview with a local newspaper, he cited it as the happiest day in his life. “If they had employed me, I would probably not have owned the entire asset of Dunlop Estate today,” he said.

Lee later led IOI Corporation Berhad, a successful conglomerate managing oil palm plantations that catapulted his net worth into billions.

Part of his wealth was used to send his six children to law schools abroad. His son Lee Yeow Chor holds a law degree from King’s College London.

Koon Poh Keong and siblings

Net worth: US$5.3 billion

Education: University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma

When Koon Poh Keong returned to Malaysia after graduating from the US, he couldn’t find a job and decided to start his own company.

After he graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering from the University of Oklahoma, Koon found himself in the midst of a recession and returned home to Malaysia.

He couldn’t find a job and eventually got so frustrated he decided to start his own aluminum company.

Why aluminum? He barely knew anything about the metal, but he had worked at his family’s small hardware business, which traded aluminum bars.

“We thought that since we’re trading these bars, why not make them?” he said.

He rallied his older brothers and pooled together US$50,000 to start an aluminium-producing company. Even though they started out in a rickety, rented factory, his engineering degree came in useful, and he was able to work well even with old equipment and secondhand machines.

Now, Press Metal Aluminium Holdings is the largest integrated aluminum-producing company in Southeast Asia, supplying leading tech giants, automotive and aviation industries, and food and beverage companies globally.

richest men in Malaysia

Ananda Krishnan is widely respected for being the only Malaysian-Tamil billionaire to make the ranks. Source: AFP

Ananda Krishnan

Net worth: US$4.8 billion

Education: Harvard Business School

Tatparanandam Ananda Krishnan is a Malaysian entrepreneur, known as the chairman of Usaha Tegas Sdn. Bhd. and founder of Yu Cai Foundation

He studied at Victoria Institution before attending the University of Melbourne for a bachelor’s in political science.

In 1964, he graduated with a master’s in business administration from Harvard Business School before returning to Malaysia to start his entrepreneurial ventures.

The self-made tycoon made his fortune as the captain of Usaha Tegas, which holds stakes in telecoms, media, and oil services.

Some of his best-known business interests include television company Astro, satellite operator MEASAT, and broadband provider Maxis.

Francis Yeoh & siblings

Net worth: US$4.7 billion

Education: University of Kingston and University of Nottingham, UK

Francis Yeoh is the eldest son of the late Yeoh Tiong Lay, who was the founder of YTL Corporation, Malaysia’s largest conglomerate. Together with his siblings and children, they run the family business, leading YTL’s expansion into utilities, hotels, and communications in Malaysia, Singapore, the UK and more.

Despite being born into wealth, Yeoh was never complacent. He dedicated himself to his studies and graduated with a Bachelors of Science in Civil Engineering from the University of Kingston, even receiving an Honorary Doctorate of Engineering. He was also conferred an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws by the University of Nottingham.

After entering the company, he grew YTL Corporation into a multi-disciplinary conglomerate. Thanks to his hard work, the group grew to comprise six entities, having a combined asset of US$17 billion.

He is also a devout Christian, and he has even become an inspiration to many of his fellow Christians for his dedication and success.

Jeffrey Cheah

Net worth: US$2.4 billion

Education: Victoria University, Australia

Jeffrey Cheah is a name many know as the founder and current chairman of the Sunway Group, a Malaysian conglomerate operating in 12 industries with core businesses in property and construction.

He moved to Australia in his teens to pursue a business degree at Victoria University (then Footscray Institute of Technology) in Melbourne. After graduating, he returned to Malaysia and worked as an accountant in a motor assembly plant.

Dissatisfied, he soon left, and started his own tin-mining company with a startup capital of only RM100,000 (US$20,000). Today, Sunway Group engages in the investment and development of residential, commercial, retail, leisure, and healthcare properties in Asia.

Education in particular has always been a big focus for Cheah. He founded Sunway University, one of the top-ranking private universities in Malaysia. He also founded the Jeffrey Cheah Foundation, which has donated almost US$39 million to fund scholarships and educational causes since 2018.