WHAT do cows and condominiums have to do with each other? This question arose after it was revealed that the National Feedlot Corporation (NFC) had purchased several luxury condominiums. The question was a no-brainer because the NFC received a RM250 million government soft loan to run a cattle-breeding project, not dabble in real estate.
The NFC is run by the family of Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil. Her husband, Datuk Seri Mohamed Salleh Ismail, is NFC chairperson. Their son, Wan Shahinur Izmir Mohamed Salleh, is chief executive officer. Their other son, Wan Shahinur Izran Mohamed Salleh, is executive director. Allegations have also arisen over the use of NFC funds to settle nearly RM600,000 of the family’s credit card bills, although Shahrizat’s son Izmir has stated that the bills were for NFC business expenses.
On 13 Jan 2012, Shahrizat took three weeks’ leave from her ministerial duties to facilitate Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) investigations. She resumed work on 6 Feb. There is no indication as yet that any of her family members will be charged or that she will be asked to resign from her post. Should Shahrizat resign for something her family is involved in? And what are the NFC scandal’s implications on Malaysian politics? The Nut Graph asks political scientist Dr Wong Chin Huat.
TNG: Shahrizat has denied any involvement with the NFC and has said that questions should be directed at those running the corporation. There are, however, calls for her to resign, even from within Umno. Why should she?
If it can be demonstrated that the NFC project was granted without it having anything to do with Shahrizat, then there is no reason why she should resign. For now, there are too many unanswered questions about how her family got involved in managing the NFC. What were their qualifications to run a cattle-breeding project? How was the NFC appointed as the company most capable of running this project? Was there an open tender? Why were qualified breeders not appointed? Was there any special preference given to Shahrizat’s family due to her political connections?
None of these questions have been answered satisfactorily. The appearance that her family has benefited from her connections has not been dispelled. Until this happens, she is implicated. And unless she can answer these questions, she should resign.
If that is the case, why hasn’t Shahrizat resigned? What does it take for ministers to resign in Malaysia?
What does it takes for a Malaysian minister to resign? It certainly can’t be scandals alone, otherwise our cabinet may not have enough quorum to call its weekly meetings. And forget about resigning out of a sense of shame. That’s one thing conveniently left out in Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s “Look East” policy: we were told to employ best practices from, for example, Japan, but having shame for doing wrong was conveniently left out.
We can’t rely on court convictions either to force ministers to resign because Malaysia’s attorney-generals tend to act like private legal advisers to the prime minister. As a result, it is highly unlikely that any sitting minister will be charged in court for corruption.
The only reason for a minister’s resignation in Malaysia would be if he or she falls out of favour due to public anger and pressure.
So, why hasn’t Sharizat resigned? Two reasons – first, because Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak must still trust her. The attacks from within Umno only show how much Najib must treasure her if he still hasn’t asked her to step down. Second, because the Malaysian public has not openly demanded for her resignation. Public demonstrations would highlight government inaction and pressure a resignation, sacking, or even a charge.
We have not seen even one demonstration in Shahrizat’s honour, even though the NFC issue has triggered a lot of anger because you don’t need any financial knowledge to know that cattle and condominiums don’t go together.
Sometimes, I wonder how much corruption it would take for Malaysians to be angry enough to go to the streets. The amount involved in the NFC is small compared with scandals like the Port Klang Free Zone (PKFZ), which also involved public funds. And there was also no demonstration against those behind the PKFZ issue. Is there a price tag for our anger?
As long as Shahrizat still has Najib’s trust, and as long as the public remains apathetic and does not pressure Najib, she will survive. Which leads me to wonder, why are Malaysians apathetic about this? Two possibilities I can think of: either Malaysians are too rich and are comfortable with cows living in condominiums, or they want Najib to fall alongside Shahrizat in the next elections.
In a way, Najib is inheriting this issue from former Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s administration. How much responsibility should Najib have to take for the NFC scandal? Is this indicative of the level of corruption within his administration?
Najib needs to bear full responsibility for every day Shahrizat is in office after the NFC scandal surfaced. Why? Every minister serves at the prime minister’s confidence. So, the buck stops at the highest command.
True, it was not Najib who approved the decision to grant a government soft loan to Shahrizat’s family. But refusing to order her resignation means he is endorsing her. If she is a problem, then he is guilty of not removing the problem. Remember, she was asked to take leave, which could have been one step before resigning. And now, she is back at work, which means he actively endorses her.
Other than Shahrizat, equally untenable in Najib’s cabinet is the agriculture minister who approved the project. This is none other than Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who defended Shahrizat from the beginning. Now, if Najib’s No. 2 and a senior minister are implicated in a fairly straightforward case of corruption – a fact increasingly recognised by many Umno leaders, including Mahathir – what reform can you expect from the Najib administration?
Najib seems to have survived many challenges to his government’s image in almost three years of his premiership. Will his government survive this as well, or will it prove to have a bigger impact at elections as the Lingam tape did for Abdullah Badawi?
Najib is handling “Shahrizat Gate” much worse than how Abdullah handled the Lingam tape controversy. And turning condominiums into a ranch isn’t even as bad as bartering judicial appointments in the greater scheme of democracy. Plus, let’s remember, none of the Lingam tape protagonists sat in Abdullah’s cabinet, directly within his reach.
It is very possible for voters not to punish Najib for his permissive attitude towards Shahrizat and his reneged promises of reforms. After all, Malaysian voters are known to have short-term memories. To appropriate Mahathir’s quote, “Malaysians mudah lupa.” I suppose we could look at it positively. Once, some foreigners thought that Malaysians lived in trees. Now we can proudly tell them, in Malaysia, cows live in condominiums. That’s what we call a developed country.
I can’t really tell whether the public is indifferent or accumulating their anger. In the case of the Lingam tape, lawyers went to the streets. Later, more went to join the 2007 Bersih and Hindraf rallies. So far, we don’t have farmers walking. And none of the anti-Peaceful Assembly Bill protests has shown a shocking number of participants. Perhaps the 26 Feb anti-Lynas rally will be a good indicator.
If the turnout is gigantic, then it means that national anger and frustration have reached a certain level. I am certain that Shahrizat would be one of the factors, even if there are no banners or placards in her honour. If the turnout is average, Najib can safely keep Shahrizat, because that would indicate that many Malaysians don’t have a problem with the combination of cattle and condos.
If the NFC issue is thoroughly investigated and proper prosecutions and judgments are made, will this bring about a positive change in cronyism and corruption in this country?
No. Cronyism and corruption cannot be rooted out unless you have media freedom, and freedom of expression, information, assembly and association. Notwithstanding rare exceptions like authoritarian Singapore, clean politics is usually the product of a functioning democracy.
But if Shahrizat is sacked, at least it will reduce cynicism and frustration towards the Najib administration. And Malaysians will also have one less person to blame for the injustices they feel in Malaysia.
Wong Chin Huat is a Bersih 2.0 steering committee member. He is also a political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade. If readers have questions and issues they would like Wong to respond to, they are welcome to e-mail [email protected] for our consideration.
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