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MGG: Petronas takes over the Sepang F1 Circuit
By M.G.G. Pillai

8/12/2001 2:33 am Sat

Malaysia's favourite cash cow, Petronas, wants no more than run into debt as quickly as possible. This government-owned oil company now undertakes projects that cannot pay its way: it builds Putra Jaya, sponsors F-1 drivers and cars and with teams in rally car championships and the World Motorcycle Grand Prix, pays teachers' salaries, underwrites the government's image building not to show how good we are but how wasteful we can be. So it is no surprise to learn that Petronas now wants to acquire the Sepang F-1 Circuit from the government-owned Malaysian Airports Berhad (MAHB). MAHB says why: It offers Petronas "strategic advantages and synergies" which with its oil revenues wastes it on motorsport, sponsors the Malaysian round of the F-1 championship and co-sponsors the Sauber F-1 team.

MAHB runs airports; it now sees the wisdom of why it should not run motor races or own racing circuits. It did not when it built the RM500 million Sepang circuit; no one would be stupid enough to knowingly buy a white elephant, except Petronas. So, Petronas has the "strategic advantages and synergies" for this offer if dare not refuse. When you cut through the gobbledygook fine print, you would find that MAHB is broke, and Petronas not yet. How dare it? So, it is landed with Sepang F-1 to speed it on its way.

The Sepang circuit, like so many others that lands this country on the brink of bankruptcy, is the brainchild of the Prime Minister, Dato' Seri Mahathir Mohamed. What he wants he gets. Especially when Petronas, which he oversees, was on hand with the dollops of money to pay for its master's belief that Malaysia cannot be great if its does not spend money foolishly and needlessly. Now we are told -- and Dr Mahathir, who is also finance minister, attacked yet again yesterday those who refuse to believe that Malaysia is flush with cash -- Malaysis has much so spare cash that ministries cannot spend them fast enough. Indeed, they are returning the unspent funds to the Treasury because they cannot spend them fast enough. So, MAHB palms off the Sepang circuit; it believes Petronas can run that into debt faster than it can; and it cannot afford to anymore. Besides, a few hundred million US dollars is needed to retain the rights to the F-1 championship. MAHB does not have that. The government does not have that. But Petronas can manage it. With more circuits vying to be included in the circuit, there is no guarantee it would be included when the next round of circuits are decided.

Dr Mahathir would have known by now that his predecessor and good friend, He Whose Name Must Not Be Mentioned, had ensured that our grandchildren would be paying for our folly and His Greed. But he would not be touched. He is in the same dilemma Mr Hamid Karzai is with the United States: he cannot allow Mullah Omar to be extradited to the United States as Washington wants as the good doctor cannot arrest the brilliant financier, as fawning newspapers were only too happy to describe him not so long ago, without jeopardising his own position. The banking system is flush with cash because it now lends only to those the government guarantees, and with adequate security. Or on direct orders that near-bankrupts be lent billions. But even near-bankrupt billionaires are few and far between.

So, Malaysia stands at the edge of a financial precipice. And postpones the inevitable by these frequent exhortations of fiscal probity amidst huge reserves other countries can only drool over. This somehow jars from the reality, with governance and leadership non-existent, and ministers, from the prime minister down, there to hector and scolds amidst national castle-building-in-the-air. In makebelieve Bolehland, the Petronas buying Sepang F-1 Circuit is as relevant as Malaysia's first Nobel Prize winner by 2020. Neither can be justified. But newspapers must fill space, the government should not look stupid or idiotic or seen to be run by nimcompoops, even if it is. So, it is gravely announced that Petronas is in talks to acquire the Sepang F-1 Circuit from a reluctant MAHB. And since the North-South Highway is running at a loss, it no doubt gives Petronas the "strategic advantages and synergies" it is told it desperately needs.

M.G.G. Pillai