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Rich not richer in Malaysia as billionaire numbers shrink

[KUALA LUMPUR] Malaysia's richest saw their fortunes slump by up to half last year, Forbes said on Thursday, as the country grapples with weak oil prices and a financial scandal.

The number of billionaires shrunk by a quarter last year, to 12 from 16, according to the ranking of the 50 wealthiest Malaysians, while only six people on the list grew their fortunes.

Energy-dependent Malaysia's economic outlook has been a source of major concern since oil prices began to plunge in mid-2014. They are now trading around US$30 a barrel, down some 70 per cent.

A slump in the ringgit, Asia's worst-performing currency last year, along with a scandal involving Prime Minister Najib Razak and a state-owned investment company have further rattled financial markets. Both have denied any wrongdoing.

"With the stock market falling 8.7 per cent and the ringgit losing 12.6 per cent of its value against the dollar, it was a difficult year for Malaysian tycoons," Forbes said in a statement.

"The slowdown in China and the continuing political showdown in the capital also hurt business. The worldwide oil and gas depression also took a toll on fortunes related to that industry." Forbes calculates the rankings in US dollars, which means fortunes held in ringgits are worth less when the Malaysian currency falls.

Among the biggest losers were Goh Peng Ooi, owner of financial-software company Silverlake Axis, whose net worth plunged some 50 per cent to US$725 million.

Tycoon Syed Mokhtar AlBukhary also lost half his fortune, but sneaked into ninth position with US$1.45 billion.

Businessman Robert Kuok topped the list for the eleventh year in a row with a net worth of US$10 billion, although this was down from US$11.3 billion in last year's list.

One of the few winners was glovemaker Kuan Kam Hon, who joined the ranks of billionaires with US$1.1 billion worth of assets.