Which defence minister is responsible for the LCS scandal?

Which of the nine defence ministers of Malaysia since 1990 is responsible for the latest mega defence procurement scandal, the RM9 billion littoral combatant ship (LCS)?

Lim Kit Siang

Since 1990, Malaysia has had nine defence ministers, two of whom served twice, as named below.

Najib Abdul Razak: Oct 1990 – May 1995

Syed Hamid Albar: May 1995 – Dec 1999

Najib Abdul Razak: Dec 1995 – Mar 2008

Abdullah Ahmad Badawi: Mar 2008 – April 2009

Ahmad Zahid Hamidi: April 2009 – May 2013

Hishammuddin Hussein: May 2013 – May 2018

Mohamad Sabu: May 2018 – Feb 2020

Ismail Sabri Yaakob: Mar 2020 – Aug 2021

Hishamuddin Hussein: Aug 2020 – present

Which of the nine defence ministers of Malaysia since 1990 is responsible for the latest mega defence procurement scandal, the RM9 billion littoral combatant ship (LCS)?

Zahid had said it was not fair to link him to the LCS fiasco as he was not the defence minister when the RM9 billion contract was signed on July 17, 2014, as he was no longer defence minister.

Is he putting the blame on Hishamuddin, who was defence Minister after him from May 2013 to May 2018?

Hishamuddin has yet to disclose what he did as defence minister until May 2018 to ensure that the largest procurement in the history of the Defence Ministry did not end up as a disaster and a scandal, but he had a second opportunity to put right the wrongs to ensure that Malaysia can take delivery of the six LCS. Even then, no single LCS has been completed although the taxpayers have paid more than RM6 billion.

Who else, in Zahid’s opinion, should the PAC call to understand the intricacies of the LCS scandal which the PAC had not already called?

But the Umno president cannot deny the undeniable – that as defence minister in July 2011, he overturned the decision as recommended by the Royal Malaysian Navy to contract six Dutch-made Sigma LCS and chose the Scorpene manufacturer’s six French-made Gowind LCS within three days without consulting the Navy, the end-user.

Why the design switch?

The letter of intent for the procurement was issued on Oct 16, 2010, and the letter of award was issued on Dec 16, 2011.

In fact, the RM9 billion LCS was so contractor-centric instead of end-user-driven, that the navy never knew that the decision to switch designs had been made on July 11, 2011, and was only informed by the contractor.

No wonder the then navy chief, Admiral Abdul Aziz Jaafar, said in one of his 10 letters of protest – five to the defence minister and two to the prime minister, which were all ignored – that “there is no precedent of the design being decided by the main contractor and not the end-user”.

Aziz said “something was gravely wrong” as the end-user and not the contractor should be setting the terms of the LCS contract but the navy was “fighting a losing battle”.

That Zahid as defence minister in 2011 took three days to overturn the navy’s choice of LCS design is the greatest mystery of Umno/BN government in six decades.

A Sigma-class frigate

Going through the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report and the testimonies given by the various witnesses during its proceedings, I can think of three possible scenarios why Zahid made the decision to change to the Gowind design:

(i) Firstly, Zahid was a very bad minister who did not bother to get the views of the Royal Malaysian Navy, the end-user of the RM9 billion LCS procurement, and unilaterally and arbitrarily decided to change from the Dutch-made Sigma design to the French-made Gowind design without understanding what he was doing.

(ii) Secondly, Zahid was instructed by the then prime minister, Najib Abdul Razak, to go for the Gowind design, and he had to execute the PM’s instruction regardless of the views and needs of the navy.

(iii) Thirdly, the decision to procure the Gowind LCS was decided by the prime minister, Najib, from the very beginning, going back probably to 2009, and this with Zahid’s knowledge. This meant that the six meetings between the navy and the Defence Ministry on the navy’s recommendation for the Sigma LCS from October 2009 to May 2010, leading to Zahid’s final approval on May 26, 2011, to procure the Sigma LCS, were pure charade and the navy’s views were utterly irrelevant and inconsequential.

It is most ridiculous to blame Mohamad Sabu, who became the defence minister in May 2018 for the LCS scandal, when in April 2018, a month before the Umno/BN government was toppled by Pakatan Harapan, the original equipment manufacturers including Naval Group (former manufacturer of the Scorpene submarines) had stopped work because they had not been paid by the contractor Boustead Naval Shipyard Berhad (BNS).

This information was found in the testimony of Muez Abdul Aziz, the Defence Ministry’s chief secretary, before the PAC on Nov 18, 2020.

Najib cannot wash hands off

The most incriminating evidence against PM Najib in the RM9 billion LCS scandal is his failure to deny that he was the “hidden hand” behind it, and his challenge towards critics to show proof that he had interfered with the ships’ design.

There is strong circumstantial evidence that Najib was the “hidden hand” behind the LCS scandal. He was both the prime minister and finance minister, as well as former defence minister twice, his “French connection”, and he made the most noise after the publication of the PAC report.

However, the most challenging issue now is whether Hishamuddin can redeem himself for his failure in his first tenure as Defence Minister from 2013 – 2018 to avert the LCS scandal and to ensure the achievement of four objectives:

(i) Completion of the six LCS;

(ii) Fight corruption in defence procurement;

(iii) Protect the welfare of military and ex-military personnel’; and

(iv) Safeguard the nation’s security and sovereignty.