Mahathir has about RM100 billion ‘stuck’ in the names of proxies, nominees and trustees. They are supposed to be Umno’s assets but when he retired on 1st November 2003 he did not give those assets back to Umno. And that is because they are not Umno’s assets but his own that he used Umno’s name to acquire. And that is why Mahathir cannot sue to get back those assets, because then the truth would be revealed and he would go to jail for corruption.
UMNO’s Corporate Cornucopia
In the 1980s and 1990s, Halim Saad and Tajudin Ramli were two of Malaysia’s brightest stars, picked by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to lead the country’s ethnic Malays onto the national stage as exemplars of a new Bumiputera business culture that would catch up with the ethnic Chinese who had dominated commerce as long as Malaysia had been in existence.
When Mahathir took office, insiders say, his plan was to create a cadre of 100 super-rich bumis who in turn would help rural Malays into prosperity under a konsep payung, or umbrella concept routed through the United Malays National Organisation, much the way he envisioned driving the country into industrialisation through massive projects.
But greed intervened. Once the privileged got rich, there was little incentive to share it with thekampungs, the Malay rural villages. Many of the companies eventually collapsed and are being supported by government institutions such as Khazanah Nasional, the country’s sovereign investment fund, or the Employee Provident Fund.
Rise of the Umnoputeras
Although the Umno connection was widely assumed during Mahathir’s 22-year reign as prime minister, today a flock of explosive court documents filed in different Kuala Lumpur courts appear to be breaking open conclusively the open secret that Tajudin and Halim and others were essentially front men for Umno, the country’s biggest ethnic political party and part of a class of rentier businessmen who became known as Umnoputeras, a play on the word Bumiputera, or native Malaysians, predominantly ethnic Malays.
Nor were they alone. Others included Syed Mokhtar Al Bukhary, one of Malaysia’s richest men, as well as Yahaya Ahmad, who headed Mahathir’s national car project and who tragically was killed with his wife in a helicopter crash, and Samsuddin Abu Hassan, introduced by Mahathir to the government of Nelson Mandela but who had to flee South Africa after being accused of misappropriating millions and evading South African debts totaling about R50 million (US$7.233 million at current exchange rates). Samsuddin left behind his glamorous wife, Melleney Venessa Samsudin, along with a failed Durban bank, and returned to Malaysia.
Samsudin ultimately ended up on the board of directors of Mitrajaya Holdings Bhd., another Umno-linked company that has played a significant role in major national projects including the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, KL’s Light Rail Transit System, the CyberJaya Flagship Zone and numerous other projects.
23 companies vehicles for Umno
At least 23 of Malaysia’s biggest companies (see list below) appear to have been vehicles for Umno to siphon off vast amounts of money in government contracts as Mahathir’s plans went awry. The companies and the people who run them are so hard-wired into Umno, the government and its investment arms that de-linking them would probably destroy the party. That in effect makes a mockery of Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s widely publicised speech in July in which he promised to root corruption out of his party.
Much of the ownership appears to have been channeled through a mysterious company, Realmild, that emerged in 1993 to stage an RM800 million management buyout of a major chunk of Malaysia’s media including the New Straits Times Press (M) Bhd and TV3. Realmild already owned a controlling interest in Malaysian Resources Corporation Bhd, which got the contract to develop the massive Kuala Lumpur Sentral transport hub. It also acquired ownership of the Labuan and Sabah Shipyards, which supply the Malaysian Navy, as well as Redicare and Medivest, which were awarded lucrative contracts to supply medical supplies to government hospitals.
Thieves fall out, details emerge in court
In September, Syed Anwar Jamalullail, the brother to the Sultan of Perlis, and others testified in a tangled court battle in a Kuala Lumpur High Court that Daim Zainuddin, the prime minister’s close associate, often told Malay businessmen to act as nominees in the management of Malaysia’s top companies. The long-running suit was launched five years ago in 2005 by Khalid Ahmad, a former Realmild director, who alleged he had been cheated out of a RM10 million payment for five percent of Realmild’s shares by Abdul Rahman, thought to be the beneficial owner.
According to the testimony, Abdul Rahman paid out the RM10 million but later reneged after he learned from Mahathir that the shares actually belonged to Umno. The trustees for Realmild in fact were Mahathir himself as well as former Berita Harian Group Editor Ahmad Nazri Abdullah, New Straits Times Group Editor Abdul Kadir Jasin and Mohd Noor Mutalib. Another witness, Ahmad Nazri, said in a deposition that he held the majority share of 80 percent in Realmild, although 70 percent of the shares were actually in trust for Mahathir.
Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times is a biography about Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad written by the late Barry Wain. In that book Wain revealed that Mahathir used Umno’s ‘secret fund’ to turn the party into a vast conglomerate with investments that spanned almost the entire economy. When Wain says ‘secret fund’ he meant money that was not in Umno’s name but in the names of proxies, nominees and trustees.
Time Magazine quoted an economist at Morgan Stanley in Singapore as saying that the country might have lost as much as US$100 billion since the early 1980s to corruption.
Opposition politician Syed Husin Ali said, “Petronas has neither been fully transparent nor accountable with how it spends its money, especially in aiding and abetting Tun Mahathir to indulge in unproductive construction of mega projects, to bail out ailing crony companies and corporate figures, and to involve itself in excessive and wasteful spending on celebrations and conferences.”
Mahathir, the article said, used his position and power to intercept and/or to bail out his children or to give them special benefits and also to his cronies. Mahathir used Petronas as a ‘bank’ to bail out many cronies’ companies, banks, etc.
When the MAS and Realmild cases ended up in court due to a dispute over the ownership of the shares, the truth regarding how Mahathir, Tun Daim Zainuddin and Anwar Ibrahim used proxies, nominees and trustees to hide their business dealings surfaced.
It was widely known that many of these proxies, nominees and trustees were not really the owner of all those shares and businesses and that they were fronting for Umno. Now it is slowly emerging that Umno was not really the beneficial owner of all that wealth after all and that Umno’s name was just being used to acquire that wealth while the beneficial owner are those so-called trustees who were allegedly acting for Umno.
It was no secret that Mahathir, Daim and Anwar used proxies, nominees and trustees to hide their business dealings. Just before Daim left the government on 14th March 1991, he made sure that his proxies, nominees and trustees transferred back all their holdings to him because once he leaves the government it would be very difficult to do that. It is said that Daim managed to get back around RM60 billion, which he transferred overseas and invested in banks in Africa and Latin America.
Mahathir, however, did not do the same when he left office on 1st November 2003. Mahathir believed that he need not own those assets directly, which puts him at risk of a corruption investigation, when he can remain the beneficial owner and control those proxies, nominees and trustees instead. After all, Mahathir has never known anyone to not do what he asks so there is no danger of those assets ‘running away’.
Of course, many books have since emerged alleging Mahathir and Daim, and even Anwar, of being corrupt and of practicing nepotism and cronyism. Their rebuttal to these allegations is that they are merely trustees of Umno, which is allowed by the party constitution, and that these proxies and nominees are Umno’s proxies and nominees. Hence they do not personally benefit from anything. Everything belongs to Umno.
When Mahathir left office on 1st November 2003, he should have handed Umno’s trusteeship to the new Prime Minister/Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. However, he did not. He held on to the trusteeship and instead gave Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi RM1.5 billion to finance the March 2004 general election, which is a token of the RM100 billion that he is holding, supposedly on behalf of Umno.
Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, of course, knew about all this. He also knew that Mahathir controlled the MACC and the Attorney General, so no action would ever be taken against him. In fact, Mahathir kept all these confidential files in his house so if the MACC and the Attorney General were not in Mahathir’s pocket they could easily have built up a case against him.
When Najib took over as Prime Minister in April 2009, he just kept quiet and did not say or do anything. Instead of quarrelling with Mahathir over what was supposed to be Umno’s money, Najib quietly arranged for his own source of funding to finance Barisan Nasional’s political activities plus the 2013 general election.
Najib knew that if he approached Mahathir for the money then he would be subjected to a long list of terms and conditions, just like what his predecessor had to suffer before him. In fact, as Mahathir himself confirmed, Najib steered clear of the old man for six months while he sorted out Barisan Nasional’s financial needs. And when Mahathir found out later why Najib did not need him or came to see him for six months — because he did not need Mahathir’s money — the old man blew his top and went berserk.
In a way, Najib respected and partly feared Mahathir so instead of quarrelling with the old man regarding Umno’s money he might as well just leave the old man alone and go look for money elsewhere. But when Mahathir made his move in December 2014 and plotted the July 2015 coup, Najib no longer gave Mahathir any face. After all, it is Mahathir who is the aggressor and Najib who is the aggrieved. So why should Najib care any longer how Mahathir feels?
Mahathir spent RM2 billion to finance the July 2015 attempted coup, money that came from Mahathir’s proxies, nominees and trustees. Once Najib was no longer in the danger zone and all the threats had been eliminated, Najib sent word to these proxies, nominees and trustees that Mahathir is history and they are either with Umno or they are against Umno. And if they are against Umno then get ready to be destroyed and perish because they are what they are due to Umno.
And that was when some of these proxies, nominees and trustees started getting cold feet and backed down from supporting Mahathir. They saw that Mahathir no longer has the political clout and that Najib now holds the power. They no longer feel that Mahathir can successfully oust Najib so it is better to be on the side of the winner than on the side of the loser. After all Mahathir could not even save his own son.
This was very apparent when, in January 2016, Najib removed Mukhriz as the Kedah Menteri Besar. This was a clear message to Mahathir’s proxies, nominees and trustees that Mahathir no longer has any influence over Umno and that Mahathir’s political dynasty is finished. To reinforce that message, Najib also removed Mahathir from the post of Petronas Advisor. Further to that, the Securities Commission will be pursuing charges of insider trading against Mokhzani while the case against Mirzan will follow suit.
Initially, Mahathir made it look like he is only against Najib and the reason is to save Umno. That made the whole matter a bit dicey. Najib knew that if he pushed Mahathir against the wall the old man would resign from Umno, like he did in the past, and then will work with the opposition, like he did in the past. Then this would no longer be Mahathir versus Najib but Mahathir versus Umno. That would turn into an entirely different ball game. And Mahathir did precisely what Najib expected him to do and wanted him to do.
So now Mahathir’s proxies, nominees and trustees are behaving differently towards him. Going against Najib is one thing but going against Umno would be inviting death. That would be downright suicidal. And now Mahathir realises that control can only work if you are seen to have power. Daim realised this when he transferred the RM60 billion back to him before he left office. Mahathir did not have that foresight because he thought he will always have power and control never mind who becomes the Prime Minister.
Much, of course, were self-inflicted wounds. Mahathir’s Save Malaysia campaign and the Citizens’ Declaration in collaboration with the DAP-led Pakatan Rakyat created a lot of damage to his credibility. And his appearance in court on Monday to shake Anwar’s hand is seen as a further act of desperation. His proxies, nominees and trustees are beginning to ask whether Mahathir has lost it altogether. The fact that these are acts of someone who no longer has control of events was not lost on his proxies, nominees and trustees.
If the proxies, nominees and trustees turn their back on Mahathir and refuse to hand back those assets (like what they are now doing) then the only alternative would be for Mahathir to sue them in court.
But that would be impossible. To do that would mean Mahathir has to show the court the evidence such as trust deeds, agreements, and all sorts of documents, to prove that he is the beneficial and legal owner of those assets and that all these people are merely his proxies, nominees and trustees. He would have to testify in court giving details of how and when he acquired and paid for those assets. And that would mean Mahathir would be admitting that he illegally acquired all that wealth while he was the Prime Minister and hence had committed a crime or many crimes.
And once he does that the MACC would arrest him as he leaves court and charge him for hundreds of counts of corruption. So Mahathir’s only option is to pressure his proxies, nominees and trustees into returning all that wealth. But to do that you must demonstrate strength and power, which would intimidate these proxies, nominees and trustees. But strength and power are something Mahathir no longer has. So, in short, it is game over for Mahathir.
Raja Petra Kamarudin