Frankly Speaking: March 30, 2009

-A +A

Give Najib a free handDomestic Trade and Industry Minister Datuk Shahrir Samad did an honourable thing when he announced he was quitting the Cabinet after failing to be re-elected to the Umno supreme council. Although some people may say a position in government and in the party are two separate matters, the reality is the two are linked. When your own political party does not regard you as suitable to be in its top policymaking body, you have lost your moral ground to represent it in government.

Will the others who lost follow Shahrir and quit their government posts? We hope so.

Indeed, because we are going to have a new prime minister we hope the entire Cabinet, including non-Umno ministers, will resign to enable Datuk Seri Najib Razak to pick his own team. Of course, some in the current Cabinet will be picked again, although not necessarily to the same posts.

Let Najib start with a clean slate so he can reconfigure and re-energise the Cabinet. Let him also have the option of appointing more “non-politicians” (via the Senatorship route) as ministers. Currently, former banker Datuk Amirsham A Aziz, the minister overseeing the Economic Planning Unit (EPU), is the only non-politician in the Cabinet.

There are murmurs that a few powerful “old guards” may return. We hope that is not true. Change and reform, which is Najib’s clarion call, will not happen if these people and their old ways are given a second life in government.

ASB needs to explainAbout six months ago, Advance Synergy Bhd (ASB) announced to Bursa Malaysia that it would be taking its unit, Advanced Synergy Capital Bhd (ASCap), private at 60 sen a share. This news did not create much of a ripple, as there was nothing untoward about the whole deal.

But a new twist has now emerged. Last week, ASCap announced that it had received a call option from ACE INA International Holdings Ltd to buy its 49% in insurance outfit ACE Synergy Insurance Bhd for RM117 million cash.

ASCap adds that the call option notice was dated Feb 4 this year, and disclosure was not made as it was seeking clarification.   With RM117 million at stake, it is odd that ASCap had not made the announcement on the call option at the earliest possible date. While ASCap has come out with an announcement saying that the sale of the insurance arm would not have much of an impact — only a RM20.1 million gain — it still raises eyebrows.

ASB, in an announcement to Bursa last week, announced that it had received acceptances for 1.5 million ASCap shares at the 60 sen privatisation offer and acquired 584,800 shares on the open market during the period from Feb 27  to March 24, 2009, before the announcement on the call option was made, which resulted in ASB holding a total of 128 million ASCap shares, representing 90.2% of the total issued and paid-up share capital of ASCap.

Would things have been different had these minorities known about the call option? Both ASB and Public Investment Bank Bhd should not assume that the minorities who had given in and sold their shares would have done so had this material development been announced.

ASB has some explaining to do with regard to the delay in announcing the receipt of the call option. In an age where transparency has acquired new currency, it is just not enough to say that a development would not have impacted its planned privatisation, and thus keep mum about it.

Where’s the public outcry?There is at least one parallel that can be drawn between the conduct of Balkis, the Wives of Selangor Elected Representatives Charity Organisation, and the bonus payments to employees of the American International Group (AIG), and that is, they both deserve to evoke public outrage.

In the Balkis case, an organisation linked to public officials has been shown to be extravagant, and appears to have no record of accountability for its lavish spending under the administration of the previous state government. This is the subject of an inquiry by the Selangor Select Committee for Competency, Accountability and Transparency (Selcat) that has made the matter a topic of discussion among the people.

As for AIG, which received a US$173 billion federal bailout, a public outcry erupted over the payment of US$165 million in bonuses to employees of the financial products unit that almost bankrupted the company, according to a Bloomberg report. The firm receives 15,000 hate emails a day on the AIG website as a result.

The heat of public scrutiny is so intense that AIG chief executive Edward Libby was prompted to ask employees paid bonuses of over US$100,000 to repay half the amount.

Over here, however, the public reaction to the eyebrow-raising accounts of Balkis’ affairs has been relatively muted. That in itself is something to be shocked about.

If each of us do not make it our duty to demand for public accountability, we only create the conditions for another episode of Balkisque proportions. And it should be emphasised that the rules of integrity apply to all occupants of public office, regardless of their political stripe.

If we fail to ensure accountability, the inevitable ending to the tale will be a day of reckoning when we discover too late that the public coffers have indeed run dry.

This article appeared in The Edge Malaysia, Issue 748, March 30-April 5, 2009.