In the grip of growing pains

By Wong Chun Wai (The Star)

The government’s coffers – money that belongs to the people – should not be treated as ATM machines by businessmen, some of whom masquerade as politicians.

DATUK Lee Hwa Beng is known to be a God-fearing person. As he prepared his notes ahead of a press conference on the Port Klang Free Zone (PKFZ) controversy, a friend called up to remind him to pray.

The Port Klang Authority chairman carries out his daily Christian devotion without the need for such reminders.

But he needs plenty of protection these days. He is aware that he has upset powerful personalities with strong political-business ties.

His friends have suggested to this mild-mannered politician that he should have bodyguards. After all, they pointed out, his boss Datuk Seri Ong Tee Keat has revealed that he has received death threats.

At newspaper offices, some editors have received legal letters and nasty phone calls relating to the coverage of the PKFZ issue. In short, raw nerves have been touched.

Last week, the simmering fight between Ong and Datuk Seri Tiong King Sing, the boss of Kuala Dimensi Sdn Bhd, the turnkey developer of PKFZ, came to a head.

Tiong is not an ordinary nemesis. He is the Bintulu MP, Barisan Backbencher Club chairman and also treasurer-general of the Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party.

Malaysian Insider describes him as a “business tycoon first, politician second and possibly then a Barisan Nasional leader.”

To his admirers, the stocky politician is helpful and generous while his detractors find him crude and uncouth.

Tiong, the news portal reported on Thursday, “has shown he is not averse to treating the public to front-row seats to his exposure of the murky and vicious relationship between politics and business.”

The fall-out between the two leaders came out in the open following the decision of the PKA to reveal shocking details of the PKFZ fiasco.

The findings of possible fraud, unsubstantiated claims and overcharging by KDSB of allegedly hundreds of millions of ringgit by the expert task force looking into the legal and financial aspects of PKFZ have made Tiong hit the roof. The eventual amount in dispute could run up to as much as RM1bil.

Copies of the 370-page report with 2,500 appendices by the task force were also handed over to Ong by its head Vinayak Pradhan of the legal firm Skrine and Co at the ministry.

The retaliation from Tiong came swift. The next day, Tiong and his partner, Datuk Faizal Abdullah, told Malaysiakini that he (Tiong) had given RM10mil to MCA via Ong and the MCA president had used his company jet.

The report said that Tiong further revealed that the money was paid in cash over three instalments during meetings held in Petaling Jaya and Kuala Lumpur in 2008.

Ong rebutted Tiong within hours on his website, denying that he had taken a “loan” from Tiong and that he was not surprised that the smear tactics and character assassination against him had picked up the pace, especially with the latest revelations by the PKFZ special task force.

He said if he had received pecuniary and financial benefits for himself in the party, there would be more reasons for him to protect the interests of the givers, as opposed to proceeding to expose the misdeeds.

“By doing so, I am risking my personal and family safety as well as my own credibility,’’ he said.

Ong has taken the matter further. On Thursday, he lodged a police report against Tiong and demanded an apology within seven days, failing which, legal action would probably be initiated.

As these politicians argue their case in the open, Malaysians are being treated to an exercise of how public accountability should work.

It has cut out two ways – sections of Malaysians are alarmed at the raw information being unveiled with their disdain of politicians becoming even greater. While people are struggling to save a hundred ringgit each month, we read of millions of ringgit belonging to taxpayers purportedly being unaccounted for. It is shocking and revolting for them.

But there are others who see the political downside of this PKFZ revelation, with some Barisan Nasional leaders privately saying that BN is shooting itself on the foot and handing political bullets to the opposition on a silver plate.

There is a certain degree of uneasiness over how the political developments will unfold. It is a risky road that Ong has taken in his fight for the truth, as he puts it, and if wrongly taken, the political penalty is high.

Ong, who is regarded by his supporters as righteous and principled, is aware of the double-edged sword he is wielding against his opponents.

Said one veteran MCA leader: “He is setting off a new MCA political culture. He could have kept his mouth shut, swept everything under the carpet and passed the buck to the MACC and played Mr Nice Guy.

“But Tee Keat is a different political animal altogether. He is used to political battles, so we see the unconventional.”

For other Malaysians, this is refreshing as we are not used to seeing politicians unearthing scandals, especially when it involves their own ministries and costs the taxpayers several millions and possibly up to a billion ringgit.

Cynical Malaysians perceive that scandals are usually covered up to protect individuals, with investigations heading no way. Political expediency is often at the expense of accountability and integrity.

A process of political maturity is developing in the New Malaysia and painful as it may be, as in all growing up pains, in the long run, such openness would strengthen the political system.

Malaysians no longer tolerate the old ways of politics as they seek answers and new ways of doing things.

The PKFZ controversy is set to make the RM2.5bil BMF scandal in 1983, then dubbed the Scandal of all Scandals, look like chicken feed. BMF was a subsidiary of Bank Bumiputera Malaysia operating in Hong Kong which suffered huge losses through corruption and fraud.

Malaysians have long suspected the cozy relationship between business and politics, as in most political institutions.

Even the Pakatan Rakyat has found itself accused of funding through contracts, with its leaders fending off these charges. The MACC is also investigating these allegations.

Politics have become complicated for established parties with salaries to be paid to full-time staff at their huge headquarters while party workers have to claim travel expenses, including air tickets, for their work.

But the details coming out from the PKFZ saga involving politics and business is an eyeopener.

The PKA board of directors will meet on Tuesday and we can expect more wrongdoings, including possible conflict of interest and the conduct of its officials, to be revealed.

Malaysians want to know how these claims, said to run into hundreds of millions of ringgit, could have been approved and if those holding positions in running PKFZ are sleeping on their jobs or are incompetent.

One thing is for sure, the Key Performance Indicators (KPI) culture for Malaysian government agencies will never be the same again.

The message that needs to be sent is that government coffers, money that belongs to the people, should not be treated as ATM machines by businessmen, some of whom masquerade as politicians.