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MGG: The elephants fight, the grass gets trampled
By M.G.G. Pillai

28/1/2002 12:53 pm Mon

When the Prime Minister, Dato' Seri Mahathir Mohamed, declared Malaysia an Islamic state, it reflected yet again the continuing 'jihad' of the Hamids. He had asked his special adviser on Islamic affairs, Dato' Seri Hamid Othman, and his minister for Islamic affairs, Brig.-Gen (R) Dato' Seri Hamid Zainal Abidin about it: the first Hamid wanted it, the second did not. In every Islamic matter referred to them, the two disagree.

The 'old' Hamid, a polished Islamic worthy with a doctorate in Islamic studies, wears his erudition well and profers advice with insight and foresight; the 'new' Hamid intent on putting the 'old' down. In other words, the jihad of the Hamids continues unabated. No where is this in full nakedness than than in the affairs of Lembaga Tabung Haji, the pilgrimage fund board, where the minister Hamid, now in charge, is hell bent to destroy all traces of his predecessor, the adviser Hamid, from the body, while packing the organisation with as many cronies and acolytes he could find. Those working there find the heat unbearable, as many are declared redundant for reasons other than competence. It would have been funny, only that it is not since moral is low and about 1,000 could lose their jobs.

He runs the organisation as a bull in a china shop. He replaced the chairmen and most board members of its subsidiaries with his own men. And they run the subsidiaries as if they own it: one newly-appointed non-executive chairman voted himself executive chairman within weeks of his appointment. These changes come amidst an important change in the Tabung Haji management. Danaharta, the government agency formed to bail out the cronies and revamp their company management, is brought in to revamp Tabung Haji after a former chairman lost nearly RM1 billion in unwise investments in Indonesia.

This is where Tabung Haji's future is at risk. The new men from Danaharta are all accountants, there for three years at salaries of between RM30,000 and RM40,000 a month, or double the going rate in Tabung Haji, to turn it around. All they do is sell assets, merge or shut down companies by looking at its balance sheet. There is no concern for other than red ink. Their short term look, amidst the 'new' Hamid's narrow self-centred outlook, ensures a larger danger for Tabung Haji and, by extension, the government.

Between Dato' Seri Hamid Zainal Abidin, with his gross insecurities, and the accountants with their penny-pinching short term approach to company rescue, there is suddenly a hidden but real danger of its assets being hijacked. Already, there appears to be an elaborate move by the master business 'dalang' (puppet master) to hive off Tabung Haji's valuable assets into a private company he ultimately controls. How does he do this? First, he gets loss making smaller companies in the group take over assets of larger and better run companies. Tabung Haji Properties took over Enstek, with its large land bank, adjacent to the Malaysian Super Corridor; another, Tabung Haji Technology, takes over the construction arm, Tabung Haji Universal Builders. Both minnows swallowing eagles, with 1,000 jobs to be shed; and makes no sense. The minister should have stepped in, but he would not: the key man in the takeovers is his former pupil when he was a Malay school teachers at Victoria Institution.

But this man attempts this under conditions that make no sense. One cast-iron rule the government demands is to ban construction companies from sharing directors. This is breached. A director in a politically well-connected publicly-listed construction company is now on the board of Tabung Haji Universal Builders. So, it begs the intriguing question if the takeover would be absorbed by the other construction company. However, one looks at this, it looks an elaborate scam, one the 'old' Hamid would not have countenanced. But this is akin to selling the family silver. The morale is low and the staff traumatised.

The accountants from Danaharta, as their ilk everywhere, sell assets in a flurry of pointless economic activity to improve short term balance sheets, and leave two or three years later with a semblance of re-organisation, just before their handiwork produces yet other lossess. Look at Bank Bumiputra: it is revamped to run into trouble every four or five years, with losses never dreamt of before. In other words, company management by accountants only ensure a mini-Enron waiting to explode. Tabung Haji is too important to be subjected to this highway robbery.

The Prime Minister is about to leave for medical treatment overseas, and he has other more serious problems on his mind to bother about the travails of Tabung Haji. But he must look at it for while he crows of Malaysia as an Islamic state, he cannot afford the prime Islamic foundation of his government to be raped and pirated in a cynical business deal when the minister in charge is busy trying to control what may soon slip through for reasons he would not understand. If this happens, the downside for the prime minister is worse: it provides PAS with ample ammunition that he allows his cronies to steal Tabung Haji's crown jewels, besides more members from its distraught and disaffected staff. And turn it into an election issue at the next general election.

M.G.G. Pillai