Sunday July 8, 2012
Khalid’s skating on thin ice
By Joceline Tan
Money makes the world go round but the debt recovery controversy in Selangor could not have come at the worst time for Mentri Besar Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim as he prepares to defend Selangor against an ascendant Barisan.
THREE times the usual number of reporters were waiting for Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim’s weekly press conference on Wednesday.
The MCA had dropped a bombshell about the Selangor government’s debt recovery exercise a day earlier and the media was there looking for answers from the Mentri Besar.
It is hard to squeeze good soundbytes or even news out of Khalid but he had promised to explain everything at the press conference. The Star’s Klang bureau chief Teh Eng Hock had gone well-prepped. He had spent hours combing through old news reports on the issue, so much so he knew what the business term “round-tripping” was about.
But the reporters were in for a disappointment. Khalid began by reading from a sheet of paper. It was a three-paragraph statement saying that the State Exco meeting earlier in the day had decided to sue the MCA and those who had brought up the issue. As a result, he would refrain from commenting on the issue because he did not want to affect the legal case.
Everyone in the room was like, “Whaaat?”
In political speak, it means that the politician is not going to comment and if you still write, he will sue. It is the Mentri Besar’s right to resort to legal action but he should have at least done some explaining because it involves land and a massive amount of money belonging to the people.
It did not stop the reporters from asking the questions but Khalid just stood there grinning and occasionally glancing at his press statement. Khalid can be a rather obstinate man on some days; and it was one of those days.
One thing which everyone noticed about him that day was that he seemed in an unusually good mood despite the gravity of the accusations. Reporters on his watch often joke that his hair is his mood meter. If it is neat and properly combed, then he is in a good mood. But if it is all over the place or like a bird’s nest, it is best to keep a distance from him.
His hair looked okay that day and reporters speculated that he was either super confident of wriggling his way out of this one or it was sheer bravado.
These are serious questions raised about his government, with grave implications of poor decision making, questionable channelling of funds and unfulfilled promises.
The 2010 debt recovery effort is a complex financial maze. But to put it simply, the MCA attack team, led by the party’s Young Professionals bureau chief Datuk Chua Tee Yong, had challenged Khalid to explain how an exercise to recover RM392mil of debts that public-listed company Talam Corporation owed the state government allegedly resulted in a deal worth RM1bil.
On top of that, Khalid’s administration had purchased encumbered land from Talam at RM42mil above market value while three Selangor GLCs were still owed millions of ringgit.
When the exercise began in 2010, Khalid had promised to come out with a White Paper on it but he has yet to do so till now. It was quite a messy state of affairs. To most people, the whole exercise looked like a bailout of the problem-ridden Talam by the Khalid administration.
Khalid might have been oozing confidence at the press conference but his party bosses were jittery about the charges. It was the last thing that his state government needed with the general election so close.
That very night, Khalid’s party, PKR, convened a meeting of the political bureau, its highest decision-making body.
“We asked him to explain the matter in detail and we had a big discussion. The MB said he will explain everything at the State Legislative Assembly meeting next week,” said PKR deputy president Azmin Ali.
The Talam episode was the reason behind former PKR secretary-general Datuk Sallehuddin Hashim’s decision to quit his party post in disgust in 2009. Sallehuddin, who was a corporate man before he went into PKR, was outraged with the Selangor Government’s controversial buy-over of Talam’s debt via what he alleged to be “round-tripping”, a practice where funds are shuffled around on paper. Moreover, rumours were rife back then that certain quarters were making a quick buck out of the “round-tripping” procedure.
Sallehuddin had accused Khalid of keeping the PKR leadership in the dark over the move. In a strongly-worded e-mail to PKR leaders, he condemned the exercise as an “old trick used by crooks in the corporate sector”.
He said such “tricks” were not illegal and would not send anyone to jail, but they were highly improper for a government that claims to champion reforms and public accountability.
All that has come home to roost and Khalid will have to pull out all his corporate experience when he faces the Selangor Legislative Assembly this week.
Khalid’s stewardship of Selangor has not been easy from day one. He is not a natural politician in one of the most political states in the country. He has had to put up with some terribly aggressive opposition from the Barisan Nasional as well as from within his own party.
The last two months have seen his enemies from within step up their attacks against him. The faction aligned to Azmin has targeted Khalid’s political secretary Faekah Husin, accusing her of abusing her powers and demanding her resignation.
Last week, rumours started flying that Faekah had resigned. Some people actually believed it and were visibly surprised when she turned up for a State Secretariat function on June 29.
The petite lady took it in her stride and had said with a big smile: “Yes, I am still here.”
Apparently, her contract was up for renewal and that had sparked off speculation about her status. Unlike her boss, Faekah is quite the political animal. She is like a fierce tigress and had protected PKR president Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail before she moved to Khalid’s office.
Khalid knows he is no match for Azmin when it comes to playing politics and is said to be afraid of “the shadow of Azmin”.
The party’s Selangor chairman, Azmin had won the “councillors war” last month; he succeeded in putting his men over those of Khalid’s gang as MPPJ and MPSJ councillors in Selangor. That is a sort of prelude to the selection of election candidates.
Azmin’s faction wants to remove Faekah, and then they will aim directly at Khalid. All this is to pave the way for Azmin to replace Khalid as Mentri Besar after the general election.
Khalid ought to know that the circle around Azmin is watching the RM1bil episode with even more interest than the Barisan side. Azmin’s camp is waiting for Khalid to stumble and fall. But the party’s internal struggle pales beside the current controversy over the Talam buyout.
An oft-heard question the past few days has been: Where is Rafizi Ramli in all this?
The PKR strategist has been keeping his head low since the issue erupted. Rafizi was appointed CEO of the Selangor Economic Advisor’s Office in 2009, around the time Khalid hatched the deal. Did he have role in it? If he did, then he ought to do his share of explaining.
Then there is the Economic Advisor Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim himself. Was he consulted on the deal and did he give the greenlight as Selangor’s Economic Advisor?
This round-tripping deal is not going be good for Rafizi’s reputation as a champion of good governance and public transparency. Rafizi had lots to say about cows and condos but he seems dumbstruck about the storm in his backyard.
When reporters asked Khalid whether he intends to appoint a new CEO to replace Rafizi, Khalid had said in a nonchalant way that there was no need and that he wanted to focus on the general election.
There is only one way to read into this: It does not make a difference whether Rafizi is there or not. Ouch!
It appears that neither Khalid nor the Selangor government is going to miss his services. Another ouch!
To date, only DAP publicity secretary and PJU MP Tony Pua has attempted to explain the deal. He implied that his MCA rival Chua was shooting in the dark but reporters who covered his press conference on Thursday felt Pua himself was taking shots in the dark.
Pua could not explain why, after the debt recovery, debts owed to three Selangor GLCs had yet to be settled. Nor did he have answers for why the state paid above-market value for land saddled with encumbrances.
Earlier last week, a secretly-taped video of Khalid in his Mentri Besar office was posted on Raja Petra Kamarudin’s Malaysia Today portal. It showed Khalid walking into his office, settling down at his desk and going through some files and papers.
It was the most boring 15-minute video that anyone had ever seen. He did not even do anything embarrassing like scratch his crotch or pick his nose, let alone indulge in something scandalous. The man was actually working.
By mid-week, the video was forgotten, eclipsed by the RM1bil issue. Some said Khalid has waited too long to explain the issue. He should have come up with the White Paper before people started asking big questions about it.
At stake is his political career and the office of the Selangor Mentri Besar. And if the Selangor public does not buy the explanation, it may even cost him the state.
Khalid is sailing very close to the iceberg and if he is not careful, the latest controversy may be the Titanic of his already choppy political career.