How Malaysia Inc racked up RM85.5 billion losses

Sheridan Mahavera Chan Kok Leong

The scale of the losses is mind-boggling, no matter how much time has lapsed between the scandals.

The numbers are shocking and no amount of spin can change the fact that corruption, lack of transparency and abysmal governance during the Dr Mahathir, Abdullah and Najib years have cost Malaysia and Malaysians dearly.

Here are the facts (*see graphics):

Some RM85.51 billion in taxpayers’ funds have been used, so far, to bail out troubled government-linked companies (GLCs), such as Perwaja Steel, Malaysia Airlines and 1Malaysia Development Bhd over the past 36 years.

Only one person is facing jail time in Malaysia over the financial scandals. He is a whistle-blower. No chief executive officer, chairman of the board of directors or minister has been jailed for criminal breach of trust, corruption, negligence for the colossal mismanagement of the GLCs.

In recent months, however, mother of four, Zariyah Mohd Salleh, 42, was sentenced to 14 days’ jail and fined RM200 in default of four days’ jail after pleading guilty to stealing 10 pieces of chocolates from a supermarket in Kuala Lumpur. T. Gopal was sentenced to three days’ jail and fined RM1,200 for stealing infant formula.

To put the bailouts into perspective, it is estimated that RM83.991 billion in student loans were given by the National Higher Education Fund Corporation (PTPTN) since it was set up in 1997 until 2015.

The RM85 billion bailout would have been sufficient to support more than 70,000 university and college students who took out loans from PTPTN ever since the fund was established.

Or it could have been used to build 2.442 million low-cost people’s housing scheme homes or more than 526,000 medium-cost PR1MA homes.

In Budget 2017, the government set aside RM6.8 billion for seven million recipients under the 1Malaysia People’s Aid Scheme (BR1M). Those bailout funds could been used for pay for BR1M for the next 12 years.

Prime Minister Najib Razak has continued a model of state intervention in businesses, leading to scandals like 1MDB, where billions of ringgit were allegedly siphoned off into his personal accounts. – AFP pic, April 1, 2017.

Over the past few months, supporters of former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Prime Minister Najib Razak have been trading jabs over issues of corruption and mismanagement of the economy. The sad fact is that neither can occupy any pedestal.

Worse, it is likely that such scandals will continue as the government persists in using a development model that mixes business with politics which has driven all these failed ventures, said analyst Wan Saiful Wan Jan.

In studies, books and expert interviews on these failures, there is a recurring theme of the government using taxpayer funds to create and run companies with little transparency, good governance or accountability.

It is why each prime minister of the past 35 years spawns another scandal despite the fact that every single one came into office promising to be clean, efficient, visionary, trustworthy and more recently, transformative.

The Malaysian Insight combed through three well-known books that detailed these scandals: Edmund Terence Gomez’s and Jomo K.S.’s Malaysia’s Political Economy, Politics, Patronage and Profits; Barry Wain’s Malaysian Maverick, Mahathir in Turbulent Times and Tony Pua’s The Tiger that Lost its Roar.

The Malaysian Insight also looked at scores of studies done by parliamentarians, such as Pua, Rafizi Ramli and Lim Kit Siang, who witnessed and exposed these scandals.

The literature on scandals, such as Perwaja Steel, the National Feedlot Centre (NFC), Port Klang Free Zone (PKFZ) and 1MDB, has glaring similarities.

Each was headed by hand-picked personalities with powerful connections to the prime minister or a senior minister. Their decisions were rarely questioned by any oversight body, if one had existed.

According to books and news articles on these scandals, whenever these personalities were questioned, they claimed they were doing the bidding of their political patrons.

Based on past news reports, when the company’s or venture’s dealings failed and cost billions in bailouts, they are almost always shielded from prosecution.

Those who do get dragged to court are usually found innocent, as in the case of Dr Ling Liong Sik and Chan Kong Choy (PKFZ), and Eric Chia (Perwaja).

The only time when a person linked to Malaysia’s top 10 scandals served jail time or was found guilty in court was when he or she was prosecuted overseas. In the Bumiputra Malaysia Finance (BMF) case, three of its directors were tried and imprisoned in Hong Kong.

So far, the only Malaysian who is facing jail time in Malaysia in connection with these scandals is Rafizi, the Pandan MP, who blew the lid on NFC and 1MDB.

“Whenever government enters into businesses, anywhere in the world and no matter what its good intentions are, these links are open to exploitation and will result in scandals. Some we know, some we don’t,” economist Ali Salman told The Malaysian Insight.

Grand visions

The failures that took place during the 22-year leadership of Dr Mahathir were grand visions that faltered in their execution.

According to Gomez, Dr Mahathir used the powers of his office to create a Bumiputera capitalist class that would be rooted in his other overarching policy to nurture world-class heavy industries.

“He wanted to create 20 Malay millionaires for every 20 Chinese millionaires in Malaysia,” said Gomez, who is professor of economics at Universiti Malaya.

The individuals who were brought in by former finance minister Daim Zainuddin (himself a businessman), such as Halim Saad, Tajuddin Ramli and Wan Azmi Wan Hamzah took up important posts and stakes in key companies, such as Renong Bhd, UEM and Malaysia Airlines.

Although there were differences in terms of approach and personalities involved, Dr Mahathir’s successors, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and Najib largely followed this model of creating GLCs with close or politically connected associates.

Ali, of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), said the model was the fundamental problem, as the government wanted to drive the economy using state-created firms funded by the public.

“The government forms a company with its hand-picked people using taxpayer money, but the taxpayer has almost no direct control over how that money is spent. This is the fundamental flaw.”

Dr Mahathir v Najib

Gomez said Dr Mahathir had a vision and he thought the country could benefit from his plans.

“Dr Mahathir’s failures were because he refused to listen to the feedback he received from bureaucrats, including his cabinet colleagues. He also left out entrepreneurial Chinese companies in his industrialisation plans.”

Dr Mahathir has also admitted that he chose the wrong the people, said Gomez.

“A lot of his own people disappointed Dr Mahathir,” said Gomez, adding that many of these individuals sought to line their own pockets with the opportunities Dr Mahathir gave them.

In some cases, these individuals were either uninterested in the business, as in the case of Tajuddin and MAS.

Or they were in over their heads, such as Chia of Perwaja, said Gomez.

This is where Dr Mahathir’s and Najib’s scandals differ, said Gomez.

“In 1MDB, there was nothing visionary or productive about it. The business was speculative. With Dr Mahathir, he created a car and built up Malaysian heavy industries, he built a bridge. You cannot say the same with 1MDB.”

More crucially, there was never any allegation that money from Dr Mahathir’s ventures ended up in his personal bank accounts, said Gomez.

Najib has denied allegations that money siphoned from 1MDB had flowed into his bank accounts. The attorney-general has also stated that the funds came from a Saudi Arabian donor.

Regardless of these intentions, said IDEAS chief executive Wan Saiful, the results of these ventures show that similar scandals are bound to occur if the present economic model is not changed.

“When it comes to corporate Malaysia, the extent of government control of businesses has increased under Najib,” said Wan Saiful.

“If we are talking about the governance of corporate Malaysia, then the most important thing is to put a schedule to privatise most, if not all our GLCs. The government should regulate, not run businesses.” – April 1, 2017.

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