Foreign Visa System trial: Contractor lobbied BN govt one week after Zahid appointed home minister

(MMO) – The contractor appointed to manage the government’s Foreign Visa System (VLN) had sought the approval and continued support of the Barisan Nasional (BN) administration a mere week after Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi took over as home minister in 2013, the High Court heard today.

Former assistant secretary of the Home Ministry’s Immigration Affairs Department Azman Azra Abdul Rahman said a letter — undersigned by Ultra Kirana Sdn Bhd’s (UKSB) managing director Fadzil Ahmad — had been addressed to then prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak on the aforementioned subject that was received on May 23, 2013.

At the material time, UKSB was the appointed operator of the One Stop Centres (OSC) in the People’s Republic of China and the VLN system as well as responsible for maintaining the agreement to supply VLN integrated system paraphernalia to the same company by the Home Ministry.

Roughly a week before UKSB’s letter to Najib, Zahid had taken over the Home Ministry portfolio from his predecessor Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein on May 16, 2013.

“In that letter, UKSB had sought for consideration and continued support from the Malaysian government.

“Subsequent to the letter, the former prime minister penned in a handwritten note to Zahid on the same day, stating that the project must proceed,” Azman Azra, who is the second prosecution witness, said in his witness statement.

Azman Azra testified that his department was then tasked with preparing a consideration paper for Zahid’s approval on the proposals and recommendations finalised during two meetings chaired in July 2013.

Zahid subsequently finalised his approval of the consideration paper in the same month.

In the consideration paper, it was revealed that among the recommendations agreed upon were to fully expand the VLN’s software to include all Malaysian visa issuance facilities worldwide.

Furthermore, to ensure the government’s interest remained intact, the VLN must be maintained by UKSB at all times and must be monitored and supported by technical staff from the Immigration Department without any cost to the government.

About a year into Zahid’s appointment as home minister in January 2014, Azman Azra said UKSB sent another letter to Najib, urging the government to maintain UKSB as the sole Malaysia visa management operator in China in line with existing government policies at that time.

In a handwritten minute to Zahid on the same aforementioned letter, Najib wrote: “YB Datuk Seri Zahid, please assist in this matter. The contract must be continued”.

Azman Azra said an agreement was finalised in February 2014 between the Malaysian government and UKSB on the supply of the integrated VLN for a period of six years from November 2013 to October 2019.

In the agreement, UKSB was also given permission to collect a surcharge of not more than RM105 for each visa applicant on top of developing, integrating and maintaining the VLN with no cost to the government.

To a question during examination-in-chief on whether UKSB’s contract was terminated after Pakatan Harapan (PH) took over the federal government in May 2018, Azman Azra confirmed PH did not do so.

He was also asked if UKSB’s contract were scrutinised by the Public Private Partnership Unit under the Prime Minister’s Department or UKAS, to which he replied in the negative.

UKAS is a central agency with the role of facilitating strategic partnerships between the public and private sectors, through the Public Private Partnership (PPP) programme.

During cross-examination, Azman Azra agreed when asked if Najib’s handwritten minute to Zahid on ensuring the continuance of UKSB’s contract was not a direct “order” if it were to be read literally.

Origin of UKSB’s appointment in management of VLN and OSC

Detailing the chronology of UKSB’s appointment as a government contractor in the management of both VLN and OSC, Azman Azra said the Home Ministry had initially received a letter in March 2010 from the company addressed to then minister Hishammuddin with an offer to provide visa facilitation services in the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

In the letter, UKSB mooted for the aforementioned system to assist in the application and documentation process of Chinese applicants wishing to travel to Malaysia.

“The aim was to alleviate the work burden of personnel in the respective Malaysian attaché offices by transferring the applications to whichever OSC currently managed by UKSB.

“Malaysian representatives only needed to focus on the approval and issuance of visas,” he said.

However, he said the Home Ministry initially opined that UKSB’s proposal would not be able to achieve its intended objective when the number of applications exceeded the system’s capacity provided by the company.

Despite the hiccups, the ministry eventually allowed UKSB to conduct a “proof of concept” run of between six and 12 months according to recommendations made from April 2011 onwards, which subsequently produced encouraging results.

Fast-forward to March 2012, and an agreement was finalised between the Malaysian government and UKSB, with the latter appointed as a vendor in the implementation and preparation of visa services on behalf of the Immigration Department in People’s Republic of China for a period of six years.

A total of five OSC’s were operational at that time located in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Kunming, Guangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai.

In this VLN case, Zahid pleaded not guilty to 33 charges of receiving bribes amounting to S$13.56 million (RM42 million) from UKSB as an inducement for himself in his capacity as a civil servant then as home minister to extend the contract of company as the operator of OSC in China and the VLN system as well as to maintain the agreement to supply VLN integrated system paraphernalia to the same company by the Home Ministry.

He allegedly committed the offences at Seri Satria, Precinct 16, Putrajaya and in Country Heights, Kajang, between October 2014 and March 2018.

The Bagan Datuk MP also pleaded not guilty to 33 alternative charges under Section 165 of the Penal Code as home minister for receiving bribes amounting to S$13.56 million in relation to the VLN system between 2014 and 2017.

For another seven charges, Ahmad Zahid was charged as home minister for accepting S$1,150,000, RM3,000,000, €15,000 (RM75,663) and US$15,000 (RM62,115) in cash from the same company which he knew had connection with his function as then home minister.

He was charged with committing the offences at a house in Country Heights, between June 2015 and October 2017, under Section 165 of the Penal Code which carries a maximum jail term of two years, or a fine, or both if found guilty.