Spend public money wisely

By R. Nadeswaran, The Sun

THE events that are unfolding in the affairs of the London Awana restaurant are microcosms of the parent company itself – Pempena. It’s not just a one-off happening. If the Auditor-General’s Report of 2008 was polite to the extent of saying that “no proper audit assessment was done before investing”, two subsequent audits – one done internally and another done by independent professional auditors – contain damning and scathing disclosures.

The ill-conceived investments in limousine services; the non-performance of jobs by contractors who were advanced large sums of money and the tampering of board minutes have made the headlines.

But the issue that takes the cake and begs an immediate answer is: Does anyone in Pempena or the government care about its investments? How could Pempena allow the Awana London to function and operate without its representatives on the board when it owned 45% of the shares? David Chiam, a former director said that during his short-lived tenure of a year, he attended one board meeting. More surprising is, that after he and Philip Chan resigned, there have been no replacements to monitor Pempena’s interests. And interestingly, they are still listed as directors as of January this year when the latest filings to the authorities were made.

Was Pempena depending on reports like this which appeared in the NST two years ago: “We are always full. Our diners are rich, many of them famous, and almost all of them are health-conscious.

“The restaurant’s monthly turnover is to the tune of £120,000 (RM646,000), and the food prices at the restaurant were higher than at other Malaysian restaurants in London,” Eddie Lim, the restaurant’s director was quoted as saying.

Lim manages and operates the eatery but in an email to this writer, he says that he has no recollection of the interview, but adds: “Nonetheless, if there is reference to the restaurant being packed, it’s likely to be referring to Friday or Saturday nights as these being our busiest time. As for other times when the restaurant is open for business the opposite is true.” But the reporter made these observations on a Wednesday and surely she did not pick the figures from thin air.

Many people tend to get touchy, sensitive to the point of agitation when journalists check on their records and activities and rightly so. That’s because it’s their private company and unless they are involved in unlawful activities, it’s no one’s business except their own. That is understandable, but in this case, it is a government investment, which means it is taxpayers’ money. If no taxpayers’ money is involved, then they have a right to ask me to “bugger off”.

Lim to his credit was right on this one. In an email to this writer, he says: “You also claim that since Awana London is 45% owned by Pempena, I owe the Malaysian people an explanation because the restaurant was started with taxpayers’ money. In this instance, this should be directed to Pempena and its stewards.”

Let’s rewind to 2006, a year after Awana London started operations: Pempena chairman Datuk Kee Phaik Cheen is on record of having said that the company is eyeing a listing on Bursa Malaysia. “We would like to leverage on the Ninth Malaysia Plan and promote gastronomic tourism as an effective way to promote Malaysia through the taste buds,” she said, adding that funding would be required from the federal government for this effort. “We are suggesting that food stations be set up in international cities serviced by MAS and its partner airlines,” she was quoted as saying. Wasn’t she or her successors aware of the losses or were rosy pictures painted and presented to them?

I am not in the least suggesting any wrongdoing on the part of the directors, shareholders or even the staff, but like all right-thinking Malaysians, we should ask if the government through its agencies, should be making such investments.

Sad to say, the Auditor-General’s Report already suggests that no independent audit assessment was carried out before investing in Awana London, but has anyone acted on those responsible for making that decision?

While the losses may not be as colossal as Sime Darby, the principle is the same. Public money cannot be spent like one’s own. It must be expended prudently and bring about the best returns for the government and its people as a whole. Someone must account for what has gone wrong. Who will that be? Need anything more need to be asked?

Related story: Pempena in deeper woes in The Sun