Ex-Felda chief back in the news for all the wrong reasons

His fate in doubt as he’s seen as hurting Umno’s election chances

Shahnnon Teoh, The Straits Times

For Umno heavyweight Mohd Isa Abdul Samad, the chance to take charge of Malaysia’s national land development agency Felda in 2011 was supposed to be his big comeback bid.

The longest-serving former chief minister of Negeri Sembilan had suffered a catastrophic fall from grace six years earlier when he was stripped of his Umno vice-presidency for vote-buying.

As Felda chairman, he would have wide-ranging influence over a vote bank that has been staunchly behind the ruling party for the past six decades and is now considered crucial in delivering nearly a quarter of parliamentary seats.

But just six years into helming the politically important Federal Land Development Authority (Felda) – which has given 112,600 families up to 6ha of land each since 1956 for planting cash crops – the 67-year-old politician is back in the news for all the wrong reasons.

News emerged last week of a management squabble between Tan Sri Isa and the CEO of Felda’s listed subsidiary Felda Global Ventures Holdings Berhad (FGV), Datuk Zakaria Arshad, amid claims of mismanagement that are being investigated by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC).

Mr Isa is chairman of the board at FGV. Calls for his removal have gained volume, after Mr Zakaria was asked to resign and then suspended when he refused.

“I invite the MACC to investigate… who’s behind all the deals, who are the people we’re giving contracts to, which companies and why only these companies get contracts,” Mr Zakaria said in reference to billions in questionable deals since FGV was listed, including a peculiar RM48 million (S$15.7 million) sturgeon farm in Pahang.

Mr Isa’s stance has become defensive, as he fends off claims that he is trying to oust Mr Zakaria and three others to cover up irregularities.

“I will sue you… do not simply accuse me,” he retorted when asked about the allegations last Tuesday.

But Mr Isa has been swatting at Felda critics from day one.

His chief task when he was appointed by the government in 2011 was to guide Felda to a public listing of FGV, the world’s biggest crude palm oil producer. While FGV went public to great fanfare in 2012 – it was the second-largest listing in the world that year behind Facebook – Felda’s fortunes have tanked since, amid growing allegations of graft.

FGV’s listing raised RM10.5 billion but critics accused the government of fleecing settlers by taking their land and leasing it cheaply to FGV.

At the time, Mr Isa dismissed the claim outright, saying: “Felda settlers are the most privileged and fortunate to be able to have properties, including land, houses and shares.”

Five years later, however, FGV has shed nearly three-quarters of its value – or RM14 billion – and both Felda and its settlers are saddled with billions of ringgit in debt. This dismal performance, and rising complaints, led to Mr Isa being replaced as Felda chairman in January.

Just like in 2005, alleged financial irregularities surrounding Mr Isa have implications for Umno. Some are calling him a liability for the 54 parliamentary seats where some 1.2 million Felda voters have historically backed Umno.

He is in danger of losing his chairmanship of the FGV board as well.

“We are fed up with assurances that there are no problems, everything is okay, expansion is moving forward and accusations are false, but, when the time comes, it explodes,” Datuk Ibrahim Ali, president of Malay rights group Perkasa, was reported as saying last week.

The former school teacher from the coastal town of Port Dickson has faced similar allegations before.

After ending his 22-year run as Menteri Besar of Negeri Sembilan in 2004, he ran for one of three Umno vice-president posts and came out tops, ahead of future deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin.

But his euphoria was short-lived. In 2005, the party’s disciplinary board found the then Federal Territories Minister guilty of vote-buying and slapped a six-year suspension on him, which stripped him of all positions in the party. He also suffered a personal loss, as his wife Hazizah Tumin died of cancer the same year.

The suspension was later cut to three years, allowing him to contest a by-election in his native Negeri Sembilan state in 2009. Umno at this time was licking its wounds, after losing an unprecedented five states and its two-thirds majority in Parliament at the March 2008 national polls.

Mr Isa was credited with “restoring the dignity” of Umno when he won the by-election, the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional’s (BN) first by-election win after nine consecutive losses.

His fortunes, both political and personal, seemed to brighten. In 2010, the father of four married Umno’s young women’s wing former secretary Bibi Sharliza Mohd Sulaiman, who is 21 years his junior.

Prime Minister Najib Razak’s decision to bring Mr Isa back to the fold by appointing him Felda chairman appeared to be a masterstroke then. But with a national ballot due in 15 months, Mr Isa’s fate hangs in the balance as every Felda constituency is crucial in ensuring the premier stays in power.