By Kua Kia Soong, SUARAM Adviser 16 October 2017
Now that the slugfest over kleptocracy is over, it is time for sober reflection on how we can prevent institutionalised kleptocracy in the Malaysian political economic system.
The present prime minister of Malaysia is mired in a scandal that involves hundreds of millions of dollars allegedly siphoned from 1MDB and Malaysian tax payers certainly hope that the culprits get their just desserts. Nonetheless, we expect Pakatan Harapan leaders to tell us how they will reform this political economic system so that these scandals do not keep recurring to bleed our coffers dry.
It does not give cause for putting our hearts at ease when former kleptocrats are sharing the moral high ground with the Pakatan leaders in an “Anti-Kleptocracy” rally.
Were other kleptocracy scandals besides 1MDB in recent Malaysian history even mentioned?
What reforms will Pakatan bring in to ensure they never happen again?
What will they do about the growing wealth concentration which is only one aspect of our increasingly kleptocratic system?
In case they have forgotten, some of the most fabulous financial scandals happened during Dr Mahathir’s term as prime minister.
Maminco-Makuwasa scandal 1981
Soon after Mahathir became the PM in 1981, the Maminco-Makuwasa scandal occurred, incurring a loss estimated to be RM1.6 billion or more. In this scheme, a RM2 company Maminco Sdn Bhd was set up and used to buy tin future contracts in order to push up prices on the London Metal Exchange. Maminco obtained financing up to RM1.5 billion from Bank Bumiputra. The tin price could not be maintained at the artificially high level for long and eventually the tin market collapsed. In the process, MAMINCO lost RM600 million of national funds. (The Star 15.10.84) In an attempt to hide the losses incurred by Maminco from the Malaysian public, another RM2 company, Makuwasa was set up. It acquired shares cheaply from funds allocated to EPF for bumiputras and sold them for a profit at market price. These profits made by Makuwasa were used to cover Maminco’s losses. In 1986 Mahathir publicly admitted that Makuwasa was created to recoup the government’s losses from the Maminco debacle and to repay its loans to Bank Bumiputra. (FEER 18.12.86)
BMF scandal 1984
The Bank Bumiputra Malaysia Finance (BMF) was also one of the earliest scandals when it surfaced in 1984. BMF gave out loans in amounts that exceeded its capital, losing RM2.5 billion in the process and a bank official sent to investigate the scandal was murdered in Hong Kong. In the 15 years following that, Bank Bumiputra had to be bailed out at least four times until it was merged with Commerce Asset-Holding Bhd to form Bumiputra Commerce Bank.
Bank Negara forex losses 1992
In the early nineties, the botched attempts by Bank Negara to wager vast amounts of its assets on the forex market left the country between RM16 billion to RM31 billion poorer after George Soros “broke the Bank of England” on 16 September 1992. Clearly a reckless (moronic?) gamble using Malaysian taxpayers’ money, Mahathir then called Soros a “moron”. Then Finance Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim assured Parliament that it was only a “paper loss”. Former finance minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah reckoned that the amount of money Malaysia lost was closer to RM31 billion over the two years from 1992 to end 1993. (Aliran Monthly 1994:11, p.36) It was easily Malaysia’s biggest scandal at the time.
Perwaja steel 1996
It was Perwaja Steel which made accumulated losses of RM9.9 billion by 1996 and thus had to be privatized. But that was not all:
“An unknown portion of the RM15 billion or more that the company consumed was ripped off in various rackets and ruses. Although both internal and external reports confirmed that the company was bled white, almost nothing was done to bring the culprits to justice and recover the funds. Eric Chia, a former CEO, was arrested only after Dr. Mahathir left the prime minister’s office, and he was eventually found not guilty of criminal breach of trust involving the relatively paltry sum of RM76.4 million.” (Barry Wain, ‘Malaysian Maverick, p158)
These sensational financial scandals characterized the Mahathir era. They were the outcome of an ascendant capitalist class in charge of the state that was using “Bumiputeraism” as the carte blanche for maximizing its business exploits with little regard for accountability.
The economic recession during the mid-eighties hastened the process of privatization with the passage of the Promotion of Investment Act 1986 in order to open up the economy to private investments. Thus, one state sector after another became corporatized followed by privatization: Telekom in 1987, followed by Malaysian Airlines (MAS), MISC (the shipping corporation), TV3, North-South Highway, Pos Malaysia, the electricity board (TNB), the railways (KTM) and HICOM (heavy industries).
In reality, the privatization policy involved UMNO-linked businessmen using personal connections to influence the allocation of those favors. Since that time Bumiputeras have been given, among other privileges, priority for government contracts, increased access to capital, opportunities to buy assets that are privatized and other subsidies. Those who benefited most from these privatization transfers were the UMNO state capitalists. (Gomez, E.T. 1990: 59-104)
From the start of the NEP, UMNO had begun to appoint trustees in charge of investments in corporations such as Fleet Holdings. This was a strategic move to exert control over the media besides generating revenue for its political fund. One of the largest and most controversial of the privatization projects was the North-South Highway, which was given to United Engineers Malaysia (UEM), over which UMNO had a controlling share. The company had apparently access to the plans long before the tender was called. (AWSJ, 18.1.88) Other controversial contracts involving UMNO conflict of interests included the National Sports Complex, a gas processing plant, privatization of pharmaceutical stores and services and the RM6 billion sewerage project. (Gomez, op cit p.129)
Mahathir was criticized for handing these multi-billion projects to UMNO controlled companies without any competitive tender. His response to these criticisms was bewildering and typically cynical:
“We agree…but who is going to pay for the RM360 million for the UMNO complex?” (The Star, 29.8.87)
The projected toll collection was estimated to amount to RM54 billion over the 30-year concession period, with the burden of toll to be borne by the public. (NST 10.12.92)
With the adoption of the Privatisation Master Plan in 1991, a total of 246 government companies and projects were targeted for transfer into private hands. Likewise the price paid for MAS (RM1, 202 million), MISC (RM1, 329 million), FIMA (RM189 million) and PEREMBA (RM171 million) was extremely low, while consultancy charges were high (RM400, 000 for privatizing MAS). (Bank Negara 1991:197)
Thus, the continued domination of these strategic and profitable industries by multinational companies meant further dependence on them for technology, managerial and financial knowhow. As a consequence, much of the industrial inputs have had to be imported which in turn further aggravated the outflow of capital and dependence. Mahathir’s vast privatization drive was accompanied by deregulation with further incentives provided for foreign capital. These included 100 per cent equity holding, tax concessions and others. Before long, manufacturing employment increased to almost 18 per cent by 1990. (43) Foreign capital investors were also allowed to bring in their polluting industries such as the storage of radio-active wastes by the “Asian Rare Earth” plant run by Mitsubishi in Perak. It led to a campaign of protests by the affected residents which caught the attention of the whole country.
The neglect of small Bumiputera entrepreneurs was highlighted by the Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in 1996 when he criticized certain giant Bumiputera companies and government agencies for monopolizing certain industries and depriving small Bumiputera entrepreneurs of opportunities. He said these corporate giants would set up subsidiaries by the hundreds to take over all related aspects of the industry which they monopolized. (NST 30.6.1996)
Thus, Mahathir’s privatization drive was a boon for crony capitalists, especially those linked to UMNO. Malaysian tax payers were the losers since these erstwhile profitable public utilities were sold for a song to the private capitalists and we became captive to UMNO-linked monopolies, such as the North-South Highway operator. The lack of competitive tenders for many of these privatization projects not only penalized tax payers but also discriminated against the smaller Bumiputera entrepreneurs. The leader of the Opposition called this ‘piratisation’.
Mahathir’s mission to transfer state capital to private Malay capitalist hands was well on target. His justification for doing needed no accountability:
“The best way to keep the shares in Bumiputera hands is to hand them over to the Bumiputeras most capable of retaining them, which means the well-to-do.” (FEER 13.4.89)
Thus, in the mid-1980s, Tajudin Ramli’s Technology Resources Industries was given an effective monopoly of the mobile-phone market. Then he was allowed to buy state-owned carrier Malaysia Airlines for 1.8 billion ringgit in borrowed funds. Invariably, Umno-linked corporate entities would get the benefit of the mandatory 30 per cent of share allocation for bumiputeras during any corporate public listing or restructuring:
“With privatization, too, UMNO was used as a vehicle to transfer government holdings to private or semi-private ownership, mostly for the benefit of the same clique.” (Barry Wain, op cit p.114))
The extent of UMNO’s investments was not clear because under the Societies Act 1966, UMNO was not allowed to be in business:
“To conceal its assets, the party used the common practice of nominee companies or executives, or alternatively, trusted individuals, prominent businessmen who surreptitiously held stakes in various companies on UMNO’s behalf.” (ibid, p.115)
During Mahathir’s tenure as Prime Minister, three main UMNO officials focused their attention on building “Bumiputera capitalists”. This was facilitated after UMNO was declared illegal in 1988 and its assets were required to be sold off. The three were Mahathir himself, Daim Zainuddin who was his finance minister during two phases in Mahathir’s term and thirdly, Anwar Ibrahim who, before his downfall in September 1998, was second in power to Mahathir. All three had their respective corporate connections. Fleet Holdings under Daim, took over TV3, Faber Merlin, Cold Storage and CIMB: (Peter Searle, ‘The Riddle of Malaysian capitalism 1999: 106)
“By the mid-80s, the number of companies had almost doubled, extending the Fleet Group’s reach into construction, plantations and management services as well as print and electronic media, telecommunications, banking, insurance, retailing, property and hotels.”
In 1993, during the power struggle within UMNO, Halim Saad had to relinquish Renong’s interest in TV3 and New Straits Times Press to businessmen linked to Anwar Ibrahim since Anwar wanted control over the media in his bid for the deputy presidency of UMNO. It provoked an academic observer, Terence Gomez to ask:
“How could a company with only RM100,000 paid-up capital seize control of an RM800 million media empire overnight?” (Gomez, ET, ‘Political Business’ 1994:159)
With the overnight affluence among the UMNO leaders, money politics became the norm in the party elections and the stock market was blatantly manipulated to raise funds for the political campaigns: (Aliran Monthly 1993:3(3)
“Amidst speculation about a snap general election in the second half of 1989, for example, the share price of several UMNO-linked companies rose spectacularly for no other apparent reason. Kinta Kellas PLC, Time Engineering and United Engineers soared between almost three- and eight-fold within six months.”
The periodic power struggles within UMNO often produce unexpected revelations of great interest to the people. Thus, in November 1994 it was revealed that relatives of prominent UMNO politicians had been profiting from the preferential share-allocation scheme originally designed to help ordinary Malays under the NEP. Among these were Mirzan Mahathir, son of the Prime Minister; Marzuki Ibrahim, brother of the Deputy Premier Anwar Ibrahim, and Fazrin Azwar, son-in-law of International Trade and Industry Minister Rafidah Aziz, who happened to chair the allocation committee. (Asiaweek 30.11.94) This information was only leaked to the public by Rafidah Aziz because she wanted to show that it was not just her son-in-law who had gained from the allocations.
Once Anwar Ibrahim was regarded by Mahathir as a potential rival and from the time of Anwar’s demise at the hands of Mahathir in 1998, the firms linked to the former deputy Prime Minister were either taken over by pro-Mahathir management or had switched allegiance to Mahathir. Likewise, after the Mahathir-Daim split in 2001, Halim Saad lost control of Renong. This has typified the vagaries of power struggles in UMNO and the economic consequences for these Bumiputera capitalists.
After Anwar Ibrahim was arrested, the UMNO-owned New Straits Times began to spill the beans regarding his cronyism. The newspaper revealed that one of his allies, former Penang UMNO Youth Chief, Abdul Rahim Ghouse was a director and/or shareholder of 44 companies. (NST 6.12.1998) This was followed a few days later by revelations of other aides and allies of the former Deputy Prime Minister with links to some 300 firms including Anwar’s former private secretary Datuk Nasaruddin Jalil (112 companies); former political secretary Datuk Sarit Yusoh (80 companies); another Anwar ally Datuk Ahmad Saad (53 companies); Senator Datuk Ghazi Ramli (43 companies); former Negri Sembilan UMNO Youth chairman Ruslan Kassim (50 companies) and UMNO MP Ruhanie Ahmad (42 companies). Anwar’s own father, Datuk Ibrahim Abdul Rahman was reportedly on the board of more than 50 companies. (NST 8.12.1998)
Favoured Bumiputera entrepreneurs
Mahathir’s favoured “Bumiputera entrepreneurs” included Tajudin Ramli, Yahaya Ahmad, Halim Saad, Samsudin Abu Hassan, Wan Azmi Wan Hamzah, and others. All these nominees were presumably Umno’s nominees who were holding all these business interests on behalf of Umno. Mahathir’s own children didn’t do too badly either – In 2011, Forbes named Mokhzani Mahathir as the 15th richest Malaysian, worth US$560 million. (Forbes Asia March 2011)
Privatisation of public services included multi-billion projects such as the North-South Highway, water and sewerage, the Bakun dam, Light Rail Transit System and the National Train Service (KTM). The negotiated tenders mainly benefited companies linked to these favoured bumiputera capitalists. Some, for example Renong in the LRT Phase 2 project, was also given ‘soft loans’ paid for by taxpayers. (AWSJ 13.11.2003) The public pension fund, Employees Provident Fund became a convenient source of capital for private companies such as STAR, the operator of LRT Phase 1, as well as the independent power producers.
During the financial crisis of 1997, the state provided support for favored firms linked to the “Bumiputera capitalists” after the imposition of capital controls, such as reflationary measures which included cutting interest rates and making credit more readily available to these fledgling firms. Banks were also encouraged to lend more, and to bail out troubled firms and a new expansionary budget was introduced in October 1998.
Mahathir’s son, Mirzan had shipping interests that had to be bailed out in 1998 with RM1.7 billion of Malaysian taxpayers’ money. In December 2000, the government bought back the 29% stake held by Tajudin Ramli in Malaysian Air System (MAS), the operator of Malaysian Airlines. The price was reported to be about twice the market price, thus effectively bailing out Mr. Tajudin. At the same time, large companies, such as Renong and the Lion group were allowed to repeatedly roll over their debts with government help.
When Abdullah Badawi took over from Mahathir in 2003, he had to deal with a railway privatization deal that had been negotiated privately without open bidding and public disclosure. It had gone to a businessman who had no less than RM22 billion in government contracts in the past six months, including 60 per cent interest in the RM6.4 billion Bakun Dam project.
Mahathir was unapologetic about using state largesse to profit these favoured Bumiputera capitalists. In any event, the Anti-Corruption Agency came under the Prime Minister’s Department and had no independent status. His response to queries and criticisms of these policies was typically evasive:
“I don’t want the Malays to ask too many questions about the wealth of their fellow Malays…Why don’t we ask how the non-Malays acquired their wealth?” (Zainuddin Maidin ‘The other side of Mahathir’ 1994:240)
Non-Bumi crony capitalists
After Mahathir retired, the issue of crony capitalists in Malaysia became topical after Francis Yeoh of YTL made his pitch about how this had sullied the business climate in Malaysia. It led to many indignant responses including Dr. Mahathir’s who insinuated that Francis Yeoh himself had been a “crony capitalist” who had made his break as an Independent Power Producer during the energy crisis of the early nineties.
Mahathir, in his capacity as finance minister, had awarded a gambling licence to Ascot Sports, which was controlled by one of his favoured non-Bumiputera capitalist friends, Vincent Tan Chee Yioun. It allowed Ascot Sports to conduct nation-wide off-site betting on local and international sports events for 20 years that would generate annual turnover of RM1 billion. (AWSJ 25.10.2004)
In truth, non-Bumiputera crony capitalists have been instrumental in perpetuating Malaysia’s New Economic Policy. This, in turn, has provided the UMNO leaders with the defence that the NEP has also benefited the non-Bumiputeras. Thus, it was not unexpected that when he left office, Mahathir left the country in deep red:
“Overspending reached its peak near the end of his tenure, when the government blew almost its entire RM110 billion development budget for 2001-2005 in the first three years. In his last budget speech, Mahathir added a further RM50 billion for development in 2004-2005. Abdullah Badawi inherited a budget deficit for 2003 of 5.5 per cent of GDP.” (FEER 4.3.2004)
His privatization goal had likewise gone awry:
“The list of the top 20 publicly-listed firms in 2000 plainly reveals the dismal failure of Mahathir’s goals. Of his industrialisation endeavors, the cement industry is now well embedded in the hands of foreign firms, the steel industry is in the dock, while the car project is mired in controversy, loudly criticised for being privy to protection over and beyond what should be accorded even to a national project. Malay capitalists were quickly created, within a decade, only to disappear even faster because selective patronage had engendered little independence or competence to deal with competition or crises. Government ownership of half of the top 20 companies was tangible evidence that privatisation had failed.” (Gomez, ET, Mkini 25.8.2005)
Petronas, Mahathir’s cash cow
Since the seventies, the NEP has been largely funded by the exploitation of offshore oil which, by 1985 contributed 26 per cent of all government revenues. Oil registered a 29.6 percent share of major commodities export, with palm oil contributing 10.4 per cent while rubber and tin had declined to 7.5 per cent and 4.2 per cent respectively.
Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, or Ku Li, who was the founding chairman and chief executive of Petronas, has recently been quoted as saying that Putrajaya had been using the oil and gas firm as a cash cow, especially in bailing out government-linked outfits of financial trouble. (Malaysian Insider 4.4.2014) He said that since its inception in 1974 and until 2011, Petronas had paid the government RM529 billion in dividends, taxes, petroleum proceeds and export duties. He said the reliance of Petronas to help government-linked outfits out of financial trouble had been going on since 1985.
A finance minister from 1976 to 1984, Ku Li said Petronas had rescued Bank Bumiputra with a RM2.5 billion bailout in 1985 and again in 1991 when it coughed up another RM1 billion. He said Petronas also had to rescue the financially ailing Konsortium Perkapalan Berhad for RM2 billion in 1997. He added that Petronas was made to underwrite the construction of the Twin Towers, located in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, for RM6 billion and the building of the extravagant Putrajaya, the administrative capital of the Federal Government, for RM22 billion:
“This amount could have been used more productively to fund a national pension programme for Malaysians, as has been done by a certain Scandinavian country.” (ibid)
Ku Li said the exorbitant amount of the bailout and construction of these projects that was forced onto Petronas had deprived the company of the much needed cash build-up for reinvestment, which would ensure its business sustainability. According to him, since 1997 the subsidies to the national power supplier, the independent power producers and some other non-power outfits amounted to RM136.5 billion. And while these power producers continued to enjoy subsidized fuel price, petroleum subsidy to the consumers – which purportedly cost the government RM14 billion in 2011 – was partly discontinued. (ibid)
All in all, Barry Wain claimed that during his term in office from 1981 to 2003, Mahathir lost or squandered RM100 billion through mismanagement, corruption and financial scandals. If it had not been for the fortuitous outflow of oil, most of the prestige projects associated with the Mahathir era would not have been possible. Still, the profligate spending on these projects has left little for reinvestment and social services for the present and future generations.
Thus, Malaysians must ask the leader of Pakatan Harapan: If you want our vote, we need to know what specific reforms you are going to put in place to ensure that institutionalised kleptocracy that we have seen since the era of Dr Mahathir does not happen again?