How Malaysia's Structural Weaknesses Are Threatening Meltdown

How Malaysia's Structural Weaknesses Are Threatening Meltdown

Can Malaysians reassure themselves that, although their over-powerful Prime Minister set up a giant slush-fund to finance vote buying and a hoard of diamonds for his wife (1MDB), the rest of their public institutions remain financially intact?

This week opposition MP Rafizi Ramli exposed the latest in a string of troubling irregularities to beset a second government-managed fund, FELDA, set up to support the rural farming communities.

The Kensington Grand Plaza Hotel in London is already part of a major investigation into FELDA given that it was bought way over market price in 2014 (RM330 million allegedly three times its actual value) and fits a pattern of other spectacularly over-priced foreign property purchases by FELDA – deals which always seemed to benefit Najib’s cronies.

Now Rfizi has revealed that the fund was shockingly misleading in its financial reporting of these deals. Public financial statements are supposed to be audited ‘bibles’ of truth and rectitude and yet FELDA published untrue information.

According to the MP, FELDA’s latest financial statement asserts that the hotel is managed by Grand Plaza Kensington Ltd, but owned by FIC London Hotel (Pte) Ltd. Crucially, says the MP, the statement goes on to say that both of these companies are based in the UK and are owned by the Felda subsidiary, Felda Investment Corporation Sdn Bhd.

This is not true, the MP has discovered. FIC London Hotel (Pte) Ltd is not based in the UK, since there is no mention of it on the UK Company Register. In fact, the company was incorporated in the British Virgin Islands, which is an opaque off-shore dominion that is regularly used by entities who do not want ownership details to be revealed.

So, first the FELDA management lied and then they hid the ownership of the over-priced hotels. Worse, the accountants who presumably signed off these statements clearly failed to check even these most basic and public factual errors.

The MP made this announcement at the start of the week and says he has so far received no response from FELDA. He has therefore come up with further information, this time from the BVI Company Register, which provides (at great expense and considerable inconvenience) three pieces of information about companies incorporated on the island: namely, when they were set up, who the agent is and if and when they cease to be active.

Rafizi has found out that FIC London Hotel (Pte) Ltd ceased to be active in BVI in May last year. The reason being that it was struck off for failing to pay its company fees. So what, he rightly asks, has become of the ownership of this multi-million ringgit ‘public’ asset?

The former Chairman of FELDA, Isa Samad, was picked up, questioned and then let go by the MACC (Malaysian Anti Corruption Commission) over matters to do with this and a number of other similar ‘investments’ last month.  These were all related to the fund’s notable foreign property spree that began in 2012 (after billions had been made from a stock market floatation promoted by Finance Minister Najib). These include the Merdeka Palace Hotel in Kuching, which was previously owned by some of Chief Minister Johari’s closest associates and one of his sons and also the Grand Borneo Hotel in Sabah.

Najib’s own personal involvement in such dealings has been most evident in the forcing through of a massive purchase by FELDA of a controversial oil palm plantation in Indonesia, Eagle High Planations, at way above market price from a known business crony of his, Peter Sondakh.

After subsidiary Felda Global Ventures had pulled out of an original $700 million investment into the loss-making concern, following a wave of negative publicity, the new Chairman of FELDA, Najib’s political crony and cousin Shahrir Abdul Samad, went ahead with a half billion dollar purchase of 39% of the company earlier this year.

The result of this astonishing profligacy and mis-management is spelt out through the plummeting value of FELDA’s shares, which have dived to one fifth since the stock market launch in 2012, which released the enormous sum of money that has thus been squandered and apparently lost. This was how Shahrir Abdul Samad himself summed up the situation when he first took over the fund in May:

“Felda received RM6 billion from the listing of FGVH which is Felda’s business asset. From that amount, we have spent RM1.7 billion as windfall,” Shahrir was quoted saying…Shahrir said Felda awarded settlers and their families RM15,000 for each household, leaving behind a balance of RM4.3 billion.
So where did this RM4.3 billion go? I think this has frustrated settlers who are very close to Felda … who admire the role of Felda … I think they have been disappointed,” Shahrir said.

The point being that the value of the shares which FELDA settlers received in return for handing over their lands to the government controlled fund has adjusted from RM5.4  each at the time of the sale to a present RM1.5.  Meanwhile, the RM4.3 billion raised from the world’s second biggest ever share sale has, according to the Chairman, disappeared.

Tip of The Iceberg?

FELDA’s own Chairman has said it all. The settlers were lured by that original ‘windfall’ of RM15,000 ringgit, in the same way a poor villager sells his vote for RM50.  In return for shares, which are now relatively worthless, they handed over something far more valuable: control over their plantation land and the market capitalisation, now spent goodness knows where.

All this corruption in high places has unravelled since the original scandal broke over 1MDB at the start of 2015. A further enormous scandal has been associated with another publicly managed fund, namely Tabung Haji.  The pilgramage fund was discovered to have bought out properties given to 1MDB for ludicrously over-valued amounts, apparently to help 1MDB’s managers cover up the loses caused by thefts from that fund.

At the time, when the scam was exposed, the Prime Minister/Finance Minister Najib, assured the pilgrims, who had devoutly saved money with Tabung Haji to afford their trips to Mecca, that Tabung Haji would be able to sell on the properties within a month for a large profit – they were not to worry, as there were three major buyers vying for the opportunity.

It is no surprise, surely, that the sale never took place and that now Tabung Haji has announced it will instead ‘develop’ the land it cannot sell.

Likewise, when the Governor of the Central Bank Negara alerted this pilgrimage fund that it was investing in yet another dangerously loss-making crony project and advised that a financially aware person was needed on the Board (as opposed to the political cronies that Najib had so far appointed e.g. the bogus-degree holding Chairman Abdul Azeez of ‘Preston’ University) Najib instead placed none other than his pet Attorney General and former judge Apandi Ali – with no business brain at all.

What it all this tells Malaysians is that, unsurprisingly, the Prime Minister who presided over 1MDB has also presided over the extraordinary looting of both FELDA and Tabung Haji.

What Lies Beneath The Water?

A democracy in which the party runs the economy and a dictator runs the party?

A democracy in which the party runs the economy and a dictator runs the party?

So, what else in the way of public money could likewise have been looted and raided?  The terrifying answer for Malaysians lies in a book published by a Malaysian academic just last month called ‘Minister of Finance Incorporated‘.

This factual examination of the extent of the powers of the one man, who holds the two key offices of state, through the Ministry of Finance and Prime Ministership, shows just how much of the country’s economy has fallen under the control of a single decision-maker, who if so-minded, could therefore drive the welfare of all Malaysians and their descendants into disaster virtually unchecked.

The problem (although it is carefully not described as such by author and researcher, Terence Gomez of the University of Malaya) is that Malaysia’s largely resource-based economy is predominantly under government ownership. Furthermore, the funds that manage the pensions and savings of the population, not just government workers, are also unusually managed by the government rather than independent businesses or trusts. Furthermore, these funds now control most of the private sector businesses on top.

It gets worse. Thanks to the growing centralisation of political power that has taken place in Malaysia, as a result of 60 years of one party rule, the control over these government managed companies and funds and private businesses has accumulated into the hands of just two major office-holders. The Prime Minister and the Finance Minister.

In Malaysia the final step towards total centralisation of economic and political power came with the astonishing merger of these two offices into the hands of a single politician, who is also the President of UMNO which is the party that has inserted its senior members into all the leading decision-making posts in government and coporate posts throughout Malaysia.

So it is that Malaysia is a ‘democracy’ which is run like a old fashioned Soviet party-based economy.

Since the checks and balances have been eroded, thanks to 60 years of uncontested single party rule (a world record), it leaves the economy open to a frightening situation.  If the man in charge is not to be trusted when it comes to money; if he has criminal tendencies, for example or feels he needs a lot of money to keep control through bribery of those party placemen, through whom he runs the country, or if he has a particularly greedy and wasteful family, then Malaysians have good reason to be very scared indeed.

The Extraordinary Power of MO1

Najib, through his inherited offices of state, controls the management of the key Government Investment Companies (GLICs) namely MoF Inc, Khazanah, PNB, EPF, KWAP, LTH, LTAT, FELDA, which in turn have invested in a substantial number of Malaysia’s most important private enterprises, giving him immense power over decision-making in the private sector as well.

Thirty five of these so-called GLCs (Government Linked Companies) feature in Malaysia’s top 100 companies on the Malaysian stock exchange, according to Professor Gomez. They account for nearly half of Malaysia’s entire market capitalisation of listed companies.

Huge and supposedly independent investment funds, such as the Employee Provident Fund, PNB and Khazanah are also ultimately subject to the Minister of Finance, owing to the legislation under which they have been structured – legislation brought in or altered by a self-interested political party, which has never given up its political power.  For example, the Minister of Finance controls MoF Inc, which wholly owns Kazanah and holds a ‘Golden Share’ over the vast investment fund PNB.

The Employee Provident Fund (EPF) asserts its independence and yet the entire Board and its CEO are appointed by the Minister of Finance himself. So, little surprise that Najib felt able to promise Donald Trump last month that he would make sure the fund invested in the United States to ‘help make America great again’.

Likewise the pension fund KWAP and likewise Tabung Haji and likewise FELDA.  Other major agencies also dominated by the Government, such as MARA, which reports to the Minister of Rural and Regional Development, are also ultimately controlled by Najib, in that he can hire or fire the minister concerned.

Malaysians have become used over the years to seeing these institutions relatively well run by reasonably diligent professionals. However, the increasingly centralised structure of Malaysia’s ruling UMNO party has created a dangerous weakness that many are only just beginning to wake up to. What if the man in charge goes ‘rogue’?

It happens, ask the world’s greatest democracy, America, which is now reining in their President, thanks to Congress, the Senate and independent Departments of State. You need institutional checks and balances to make sure that what the ‘man in charge’ says he will do is what he actually does.

Najib, back in 2011, announced he was going to open up Malaysia’s economy and divest the Government’s excessive involvement and control over even the private sector.  At the same time he promised the liberalisation of civil society. It did not happen.

According to Professor Gomez, in terms of the economy the reverse has happened: the Government’s share of the KL Composite Index has increased from 43.7% to 47.1% – an extraordinary figure.

All Audited And In Safe Hands?

Malaysians have learnt about what Najib was willing to sanction with 1MDB, where money ended up in his own accounts. They have learnt how he has also sanctioned devastating losses at FELDA to mysterious destinations and plain cronies. They have also seen exposed a shocking raid on the pilgamage fund of Tabung Haji.

In all these cases, top firms of accountants were supposedly monitoring events. ‘Independent’ boards, the Auditor General and Bank of Malaysia were also supposedly making sure that nothing was untoward (all are appointed by Najib).

In 2015 and 2016 Najib declared that nothing could have possibly gone wrong at 1MDB because its accounts were passed by ‘top international auditors’. Yet in 2016 the fund’s then current auditor, Deloittes, resigned in the face of the finding of international investigators and declared its earlier accounts “unsafe”.

So, how safe is the rest of that edifice of Government-managed funds and companies, controlled ultimately by Najib – a man on the hunt for money, with thousands of party hangers-on to pay in order to keep his dominant position?

Do the public or even the hired accountants and placed board members know the truth about what Najib’s personally appointed administrators are up to? And how reliable are all those Financial Statements after all?  The evidence so far is troubling.

Given this situation we think it is fair to ask, is 1MDB just the tip of the iceberg, with the FELDA and Tabung Haji scandals now also floating to the top – if so, what horrors lurk below?

Maybe there are still some Malaysians, who think that Najib’s malign and greedy influence has not strayed beyond these existing scandals. If so, we shall soon find out if they are right, because if the money has indeed disappeared from other funds in the manner of 1MDB then the dire consequences will be shortly felt by each and every citizen (apart from the handful who made off with it all).

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