MALAYSIAN businessman Robert Kuok Hock Nien yesterday signed an agreement worth almost HK$2.7 billion to buy a 34.9 per cent stake in South China Morning Post publishing group. The seller is Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, which is reducing its holding from 50 per cent to 15.1 per cent. Kerry Media Ltd, described as an associate of Mr Kuok's Kerry Group, is paying US$349 million for its holding, according to a statement that News Corp submitted to the Australian Stock Exchange yesterday. At Friday's closing exchange rate of HK$7.73, the stake is valued at $2.697 billion. These terms put a value of HK$7.73 billion on the Post group, which includes the South China Morning Post, Sunday Morning Post and Wah Kiu Yat Po. At this price, SCMP shares are valued at around HK$5.15 each - below the $5.35 at which they were suspended on September 3, after hectic trade on the stock market. At the time of the suspension it was announced that talks were taking place over the sale of News Corp's controlling interest in SCMP, and this would have meant a general offer would have been triggered under Hong Kong's Mergers and Takeovers Code. Now Mr Kuok is planning to buy a fraction under the 35 per cent which would make a general offer obligatory. The News Corp statement, issued by company secretary Keith Brodie, said the agreement was conditional on Kerry Media being satisfied that no general offer would be required, and clarification was being sought from the Executive and Panel administering the code. The length of the suspension prompted the Securities and Futures Commission last week to ask SCMP to make an announcement clarifying the company's position, so that trading might resume in the shares. A Hong Kong Stock Exchange spokesman said last night that it would be looking for an announcement from the advisers to the deal this morning so that trading could resume as soon as possible. The deal, if confirmed, would mean that Mr Murdoch, as well as maintaining an interest in publishing in Hong Kong, would have formed a relationship with another key businessman in the territory. The News Corp chairman and chief executive already shares ownership of the STAR TV group with Li Ka-shing, having bought a 64 per cent interest from Mr Li and Hutchison Whampoa in July. Mr Kuok, 69, has built extensive business interests in the region and China. The interests of his Kerry Group range from the Shangri-La hotel chain, to public companies in Malaysia, where he is said to be a close friend of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad. He has been one of the most active overseas Chinese investors in the mainland and has good relations with Beijing. As well as large commercial and property developments in Beijing and Shanghai, Kerry Group has become involved in Coca-Cola bottling and oil and vegetable oil refining. Mr Kuok's interests also control 32 per cent of TVB, in which News Corp tried to buy a 22 per cent stake in June but was frustrated by regulatory obstacles. Media watchers point out that STAR TV would benefit from access to TVB's extensive Chinese film library.