Yale Daily News

Over 2,000 people have signed a petition demanding that Yale-NUS College remove Kay Kuok Oon Kwong from its Governing Board over allegations that she has business ties to war criminals in Myanmar.

Kuok, who currently chairs the Yale-NUS College Governing Board, is a director at the Kuok Group of Companies, which is involved in trading, manufacturing, property and shipping, as well as managing the Shangri-La Group of hotels. She is also the niece of Robert Kuok, who, according to Forbes, is the richest man in Malaysia and the 171st richest person in the world.

According to the petition, she directed the project company that built Myanmar’s Sule Square mall and office complex. The complex, which opened in October 2017, was built on land leased from the quartermaster general of the Myanmar army, who is in charge of purchasing the army’s weapons. The petition points out that Sule Square’s opening coincided with the military’s 2017 genocide against the Rohingya people and alleges that Kuok’s development of the complex helped give money to the military. Kuok could not be reached for comment.

The Myanmar army, or the Tatmadaw, most recently took control of the government in a Feb. 1 coup d’état, after expressing dissatisfaction with the results of the November 2020 general election in Myanmar. The election resulted in a victory for the National League for Democracy, which had been the country’s ruling party since a landslide victory in the 2015 election. As of April 12, the Tatmadaw — who seized power the day before the 2020 electees were to be sworn in — have killed at least 707 people, with thousands more injured, as reported by the United Nations.

“Kay Kuok Oon Kwong is directly in business with the Myanmar army, overseeing a real estate development on land leased from the quartermaster general, the same office that purchases arms used in the military’s atrocity crimes,” Justice For Myanmar spokesperson Yadanar Maung wrote in a statement to the News. “Kay Kuok’s real estate venture not only finances a military that is responsible for international crimes including genocide against the Rohingya, but it also creates a lucrative future asset for the military.”

According to Yale-NUS President Tan Tai Yong, Kuok was appointed to the Governing Board by the Singaporean Ministry of Education. Tan wrote in a statement to the News that Kuok’s service at Yale-NUS is “voluntary” and is “distinct” from her group’s business dealings.

Yet Maung said that she “strongly” disagrees with the claim that Kuok’s business in Myanmar is unrelated to her role on the board.

“Allowing Kay Kuok to continue as the Chair of the Governing Board sends a clear message to the people of Myanmar that Yale condones Kay Kuok’s complicity in the murder, rape and torture that is enabled by business ventures such as Shangri-La,” Maung wrote to the News.

Maung said that Kuok is “complicit” in funding a “brutal military” by conducting business with the Myanmar army and allowing them to profit off of her business partnership.

“The College is deeply saddened by and concerned about the situation in Myanmar,” Tan wrote to the News. “We are aware of the views being shared online regarding Mdm Kay Kuok’s business dealings. We have been in close communication with Mdm Kuok, members of our Governing Board as well as our institutional stakeholders regarding this matter.”

Tan said that Yale-NUS has facilitated a “dialogue” between Kuok and members of the Yale-NUS community on April 23. According to Yale-NUS spokesperson Jeannie Tay Meow Sein, this was a “closed-door meeting” where students were able to directly ask Kuok questions.

He added that she expressed “deep affinity with and sympathy for” the people of Myanmar at this dialogue.

“[Kuok] said her Group’s business interests entered Myanmar with the long-term aim and commitment of helping to build their economy, provide long-term and sustainable employment, and to continue with the ongoing community and public welfare initiatives that were started,” Tan wrote to the News.

But according to a 2018 report from the United Nations Human Rights Council, economic links with the Tatmadaw risk connection to “violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law.” The mission found that the violations in part come from the army’s involvement in jade and ruby mining in the Kachin and Shan states of Myanmar, where the Tatmadaw’s counterinsurgency strategy targets non-state armed groups. As such, the council recommended that no enterprises should continue a business relationship with any “security forces” of Myanmar, specifically mentioning the Tatmadaw.

“[Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited] and [Myanmar Economic Corporation] subsidiaries, as well as the Tatmadaw directly, own sizable amounts of land throughout Myanmar — much of it highly valuable real estate, generating a major revenue stream,” the report states. “The Mission received credible information that these include … the Quartermaster General Office-owned land leased to the Sule Shangri-La Hotel and Sule Square commercial project.”

Tan did not provide any insight into whether Kuok will remain in her position as chair of the Governing Board, which makes overarching administrative decisions for Yale-NUS College.

Seven Yale affiliates serve on the 14-person board, including University President Peter Salovey, former University President Richard Levin, Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun and former University Vice President for Global and Strategic Initiatives Linda Koch Lorimer.

“Yale leadership has been in touch with Yale-NUS leadership on this issue, and we understand that Ms. Kuok has discussed her company’s policies, including corporate social responsibility commitments, with members of the Yale-NUS student body and faculty,” University spokesperson Karen Peart wrote in an email to the News.

Yale-NUS College was established in 2011.

Correction, April 30: The article has been updated to correct a misspelling of Maung’s name and incorrect use of he/him pronouns — Maung uses she/her pronouns. Further, Kuok is the richest man in Malaysia, not Myanmar. The News regrets the errors.

Julia Brown served as University Editor on the Managing Board of 2023. Previously, she covered the University's graduate and professional schools as a staff reporter. She graduated cum laude from Yale University with a B.A. in Economics & Mathematics.