IN a departure from the norm, some key figures of the corporate world openly associated themselves with the ruling coalition and opposition in the run-up to the 13th general election. In the previous elections, the business community had generally shied away from any involvement.
Supermax Corp Bhd founder and managing director Tan Sri Stanley Thai broke with past trends and made no secret of his full support for the Pakatan Rakyat coalition, drawing attention to himself and his company.
"Someone had to come out and open the floodgates to the change we believe in. There are too many grumbling CEOs who dare not voice their complaints publicly for fear of being victimised or blacklisted," Thai told The Edge when asked why he was openly supporting the opposition.
To be fair, Thai had consistently been critical of the policies of the Barisan Nasional-led government over the past year or so, but none of his criticism was given prominence in the mainstream newspapers.
He is a member of the advisory board of Institut Rakyat — Pakatan Rakyat's think tank that comprises prominent people, including Tan Sri Wan Azmi Wan Hamzah.
Established in February this year, Institut Rakyat is chaired by Parti Keadilan Rakyat's president Datin Seri Wan Azizah Wan Ismail — the wife of de facto opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, and has a nine-member advisory panel.
Wan Azmi is best known as one of the coterie of bumiputera businessmen hand-picked by former finance minister Tun Daim Zainuddin to lead the charge of the Malays in the local corporate world.
He sold his business interests after the 1997/98 Asian financial crisis and only returned to the corporate scene when Sime Darby Bhd acquired a 30% stake in Eastern & Oriental Bhd in August 2011. Wan Azmi was one of the three shareholders of E&O who sold his stake to Sime Darby in a controversial deal.
Wan Azmi was appointed to the board of Malaysian Airline System Bhd in August 2011 and stepped down in June last year. At the moment, his only known business interest is in Syarikat Pengeluar Air Sungai Selangor Sdn Bhd or SPLASH, in which his family company The Sweet Water Alliance Sdn Bhd holds a 30% stake.
Moving forward, Thai strongly believes more and more CEOs will speak out on corruption and offer constructive criticism on bad government policies.
"I'm not anti-establishment," he insisted, "but I'm against massive corruption, blatant abuse of power, cronyism, nepotism and bad policies that benefit the cronies. These have resulted in increased cost of doing business in Malaysia."
Thai pointed out that his backing of Pakatan Rakyat for federal administration was not done with selfish intent but for the good of his children and future generations.
Coincidentally, Supermax has come under selling pressure due to the exit of substantial shareholder the Employees Provident Fund. On April 29, the stock fell seven sen or 3% to close at RM2.01, which some say could have been due to Thai's interview with a foreign newswire that was widely carried in the previous week.
The EPF, which had accumulated 8.5% of the stock, aggressively sold down its holding over a few days from April 10. On April 23, Supermax disclosed that the EPF was no longer a major shareholder of the company.
Be that as it may, Thai said he did not think the sell-off was politically-motivated but that it was due to the EPF's position in Supermax as an investment stock.
"In the event we find evidence that there was political instruction and influence on the EPF's divestment of Supermax shares, I shall organise an international media conference to expose it," he said.
The presence of corporate bigwigs in Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat gave both parties easy access to funds.
For example, on March 21, Pakatan Rakyat held an economic forum at a six-star hotel in Kuala Lumpur. Thai was one of the organisers of the event — which was packed with fund managers and analysts. Within days, more than RM250,000 had been collected for Pakatan Rakyat to present the economic plan in its manifesto and how it would be funded.
"It was tough in the previous elections, but with the likes of Thai supporting our cause, things became easier. The money was raised quickly and the balance was donated to charities," said an official.
Another local businessman who made waves in the run-up to GE13 in Penang was Low Taek Jho — a strong supporter of caretaker Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak's 1Malaysia plan.
Better known as Jho Low, the Penangite was one of the prime movers of 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) when it was known as Terengganu Investment Authority. He was also a key figure in the joint ventures between 1MDB and Middle Eastern companies.
1MDB, a creation of Najib's government, has been given the mandate to develop some of the largest tracts belonging to the federal government in Kuala Lumpur. It has also acquired two major power plants and is using these assets to bid for more power plants in the country.
1MDB recently came under close scrutiny for its investments with PetroSaudi International and in the Cayman Islands, and for issuing bonds backed by government guarantee in a manner that was less publicised than usual.
Jho Low was linked to the sponsoring of international artistes who performed at a charity concert at the Han Chiang High School (HCHS) field in Penang on April 20 and the 1Malaysia Penang Welfare Club.
When asked for his comments, Jho Low said he had not contributed any funds to 1Malaysia Penang Welfare Club. "The founder is a Penangite and a friend who supports the vision of 1Malaysia for unity. The only item I worked on with them was the 1Malaysia Penang International Charity Drive," he clarified.
He added that the cost of flying in the artistes was paid by international corporate brands.
Jho Low also denied reports that he sponsored South Korean artist Psy's performance at the Penang Barisan Nasional Chinese New Year open house at the HCHS field on Feb 11.
Be that as it may, Jho Low's campaign in Penang is not unique to him. Datuk Patrick Lim, who used to control Equine Capital Bhd, was in the thick of the action in the 2008 general election that saw the opposition capture five states and deny Barisan Nasional two-thirds majority in Parliament.
In GE13, Barisan Nasional's style of campaigning, especially to woo the Chinese voters, was to hold dinners and concerts. This caught on in other places such as Lembah Pantai in Kuala Lumpur — where a typical Barisan Nasional campaign included dinner followed by ceramah.
An aide of a Barisan Nasional candidate said the cost of holding dinners and other events in the run-up to the election was borne by the candidates while other costs such as putting up posters, maintaining the election operations room and funding the machinery on the day of the election, came from the state Barisan Nasional.
"It all depended on the number of voters in the constituency. The budget was about RM20 per voter and came from the state to the candidate who disbursed it to the machinery."
As for Pakatan Rakyat's candidates, they raised the bulk of their funding on their own. Three-term DAP Member of Parliament Chong Eng said their candidates do not get any allocation from the party. "We normally depend on the donations that we get from our well-wishers on our walkabouts and during our ceramah."
The money goes towards paying the cost of campaigning while any extra remains with the parliamentary liaison committee for the day-to-day running of the offices and staff salary.
Chong Eng said RM5,000 and RM23,000 respectively was collected at a dinner and ceramah in Taman Sri Rambai recently. This was on top of the RM160,000 in donations received for the Bukit Mertajam parliament and Berapit and Padang Lalang state seats.
"When I first contested the Batu Lanchang state seat, I spent about RM7,000," she said, adding that candidates had to fork out the cost of things like the flags, T-shirts, billboards, streamers, banners and caps.
In the two weeks prior to the general election, the focus of the entire nation had been on it. A week after, the political situation had firmed up. But in the corporate world, the divide is set to stay with the country headed for a two-party political system.
This story first appeared in The Edge weekly edition of May 6 - 12, 2013.