Farewell To Malaysia’s Casino King

Hong Kong – It all started with a stroll in a virgin highland jungle 5,900 feet above sea level 43 years ago for Lim Goh Tong.

On that site, he built his first casino and resort, modeled on the hill stations constructed by British expatriates who could not stand the tropical heat of their Asian colonies. From that resort, Genting Highlands, Lim built a vast gaming and tourism empire, the Genting Group, the largest company of its kind in Southeast Asia.

Malaysia’s casino king passed away quietly Tuesday morning at the age of 90 in a Malaysian hospital.

While the Chinese-born Lim was already making a modestly successful living trading secondhand heavy machinery and equipment for the construction and mining industries, it was that sudden stroke of business brilliance, a vision inspired by a short walk in the bush, that propelled him to the top tier of the corporate world.

Lim ended his extraordinary career as the third-wealthiest man in Malaysia and 204th on Forbes‘ list of the world’s richest people, with a net worth of USD 4.3 billion. He leaves behind six children and 19 grandchildren.

He introduced the first casino in Asia, foreseeing the Asian passion for high-stakes games of chance, a full four decades before the current casino boom sweeping across the region. He also founded the first Asian cruise line 14 years ago, Star Cruises, still the largest in the region.

His fortune was built from scratch in an adopted land the old-fashioned way, bit by bit. For that, he was revered in the Chinese diaspora as a living legend, who overcame the extreme political and economic hardships he and his fellow ethnic Chinese faced in the postwar period. Malaysia’s Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi described him as “hardworking entrepreneur” and a philanthropist.

Barely educated when he fled economic hardship in his birthplace in the southern province of Fujian to Malaysia in 1937 at the age of 19, he managed to learn the local Malay language and profited from the construction boom at the end of World War II.

When he spotted the resort potential of the Cameron Highlands region, the 58-km drive to the highlands took nearly five hours from Kuala Lumpur because of the lack of decent roads. The cost of creating road access at one point almost pushed him into bankruptcy, but the company’s fortunes revived in 1989, when the drive was shortened to less than one hour with the expansion of the highway linking the capital city to the mountain.

Genting listed on the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange (now the Malaysia Exchange) in 1971; it was the sole publicly traded gaming stock in Asia until recently, when a gold rush in Macau prompted Asian gaming tycoons to raise funds from capital markets.

Today, the company’s businesses span electric power generation, plantations, real estate and oil and gas exploration and production. Genting is now managed by Lim’s second son, Lim Kok Thay, who took the helm in 2003. Its expertise in gaming won it the Singapore government’s approval to build one of the city-state’s two casino projects; the other casino builder is Las Vegas Sands.

Last year, the elder Lim’s pet project, the giant First World Hotel at his resort base, was recognized in the Guinness World Records book as the world’s largest hotel, with 6,118 rooms.