Tabung Haji’s trouble is Umno’s trouble, but opposition not milking it right

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KUALA LUMPUR (Feb 3): Pilgrimage fund Lembaga Tabung Haji is closely tied to virtually every Malay-Muslim, and as such its troubles could erode the community's support towards Umno and Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, analysts say.

However, it does not mean that worries over the haj fund can automatically translate into support for the opposition, says political analyst Hisomuddin Abu Bakar.

Hisomuddin, who heads think tank Ilham Centre, said educated and younger Muslims would not easily forget the scandals that Tabung Haji has embroiled in, even if the general election is still two and a half years away.

“Even with short memories, the issue is unlikely to be forgotten by educated Muslims in the urban areas and suburbs as it is so sensitive,” he told The Malaysian Insider.

The fund, which has close to nine million contributors, manages their deposits to help them perform the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime.

In the past year, Tabung Haji has been embroiled in a series of controversies, starting with the purchase of 0.63ha of land in the Tun Razak exchange property project from state-owned investor 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB), itself under a cloud of alleged scandal.

This led to accusations that the fund was being used to bailout the troubled firm.

Tabung Haji then announced that it would sell the piece of land.

Its board raised eyebrows again when it said it invested RM920.8 million in 1MDB’s Bandar Malaysia sukuk issuance in February 2014, because “it was a secured investment”.

In the latest controversy, a letter from Bank Negara governor Tan Sri Zeti Akhtar Aziz to the fund's board revealed that its reserves were in the negative and could affect its ability to pay out dividends in 2015.

This was denied by Tabung Haji chairman Datuk Seri Abdul Azeez Abdul Rahim, but analysts said the controversies are a lasting stain on Umno.

"The people will trace these troubles back to political interference in Tabung Haji’s affairs and it will impact Umno," said Wan Saiful Wan Jan of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS).

"And the scandals will be linked back to Najib. Even though he is not directly involved, people will still place the blame on him."

Najib is still in the picture because of Tabung Haji's ties to 1MDB, of which the prime minister is chairman of its advisory board.

Azeez's link to Najib, too, is not easily ignored. He is a member of the Umno Supreme Council.

Another reason Tabung Haji's troubles are going to dog Umno for a long time is its use as fodder by DAP, the Chinese-dominated opposition party that is Umno's current favorite bogeyman.

Tabung Haji presents DAP an opportunity to debunk the Umno propaganda that it is anti-Malay and anti-Muslim.

DAP is claiming that the fund's problems show that it is actually Malay-Muslims among the Umno elite who have betrayed the community's trust.

"Malays must realise that the Tabung Haji issues are real and serious compared to the trumped-up fears that they are being threatened by DAP”, said DAP's Raub MP Datuk Mohd Ariff Sabri.

But Hisomuddin said opposition parties must do more if they really want to use Tabung Haji’s troubles against Umno, in the same way they did with the National Feedlot Corporation (NFC) scandal.

In that saga, a moribund cattle-breeding project tied to the family of Wanita Umno chief Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, was used to show how Umno leaders got easy public money for failed ventures.

"Although Tabung Haji’s problems are worrying, the opposition has to frame it in a language the lay people and villagers can really understand," said Hisomuddin.

Another problem, he said, was that although parties such as PKR and DAP had been relentless in their criticism, they did not offer Malay-Muslims any idea of how they would put a stop to these scandals once they got into power.

"For instance, is the opposition willing to say that if they get into power they will make sure that government-linked companies will not be helmed by political appointees or those with political party links? That only the most competent will head the GLCs?

"They keep criticising, but criticism is not enough to win trust, you have to offer solutions."