Laman KM2: 6943 KM2 Index File Size: 8.5 Kb

MGG: A crony-extraordinaire who does not know if is in or out?
By M.G.G. Pillai

30/3/2002 1:27 am Sat

Tan Sri Francis Yeoh, the crony-extraordinaire, is, you hear him tell it, on Cloud Nine. He outsmarted the UK's best and the brightest of financiers and investment advisors to snatch Wessex Water from their arrogant colonial noses. It is a good deal, he insists, and his financial and investment advisors cannot echo it fast enough. No one, especially his vaunted advisors, saw the fine print but he paid nearly RM7 billion for it. A good buy, he insists, and one that would pay dividends far into the future. How does YTL intend to pay for it? No answer. More important, can YTL afford this huge debt given it does not have the crony backing it once had: A prominent Malaysian who has the ear of the Prime Minister says YTL has turned his stretch of Jalan Bukit Bintang into a private fiefdom. Is this purchase then to prove his patron wrong, that he is more than a crony-extraordinaire he was until recently?

His previous attempts to burnish his crony-extraordinaire failed disastrously. Malay promised to build houses for ANC veterans in South Africans, 10,000 of them. It was given to YTL the usual Bolehland manner, to a crony without tender or to see if they were delivered as promised. It led to Mr Nelson Mandela's sudden interest in Malaysian promises of goodwill and help. He ran foul of Zimbabwean laws when President Robert Mugabe, by presidential fiat, defied his country's laws and electricity company, awarded the construction of the Hpwange hydroelectric project. It has yet to deliver that too.

He talks of neither now; it is not the huge success we were told it would be at the time. Now he buys into Wessex Water from its previous owner, the now-bankrupt Enron Corp. Mark you, YTL does not have any experience in water management nor any history of hydroelectric dams or building homes in foreign countries. And YTL tells us now Wessex Water will be its crown jewel, heavily mortaged but its crown jewel all the same. If you look at how other cronies-extraordinaire-who-no-longer-are, this is how they behaved before the fall. Those brilliant financiers and analysts who thought they would survive for a century ran the other way when it could not 100 months. The magic had gone. To resurrect their tattered reputations, these cronies hyped their businesses and business empires, went out of their way to show how close they are to the Prime Minister, and sued all and sundry who disagrees.

YTL was ecstatic it found, in a survey meant for no reason than get the results YTL wanted, those who rented space in his Starhill and Lot 10 shopping centres wanted to shut the stretch of Jalan Bukit Bintang where its fief is on weekends: that would restrict cars to all except the YTL properties, which had a road leading to them through its other property on Jalan Imbi called the Ritz Carlton hotel. A law abiding man that Tan Sri Francis Yeoh is, he obeyed the will of the cabinet when it backed the closure; no doubt, he would the recent cabinet's reversal of that closure.

However he may look at it, it is a sign YTL and Tan Sri Francis Yeoh would not be cronies extraordinaire for too long. The cabinet decided that stretch of road had to stay open for it had no intention to inconvenience the people. "The government is sensitive to the needs of the people," says cabinet minister, Dato' Pandikar Amin Mulia. As it was not in January when it ordered the closure? That it talks of people's rights is itself new. It has never cared much for the people's needs. No cabinet minister has yet come forth to take to task a motor car distributor who proudly told reporters that because its new line of motor cars do well it intends to ask for a five to ten per cent rise in price.

That this comes amidst the Prime Minister, Dato' Seri Mahathir Mohamed's anger at bumiputras who do not perform, and asserts it by force-feeding his Chinese cronies with projects they cannot handle, it raised a political storm amongst the dominant UMNO rank-and-file. It shows itself during the Ketari byelection where the UMNO campaigners are asked questions like these they cannot answer. At the same time, it is important non-Malay voters of the government's sensitivity to people's problems. Damning a crony-extraordinarie in public is one way in a rural constituency as Ketari. It hopes all would applaud and voters would their votes for its candidate.

That it not all. The National Front (BN) government depends more on the non-Malay, especially Chinese vote, to remain in power. So, it must be, more and more from now on, sensitive to the needs of the people. As it said about the closure of that stretch of Jalan Bukit Bintang: "So, from all the outcry, including the petitions we received, the cabinet decided to return the road to its status quo." He stretches the truth here. There was no outcry. Yes, some shopkeepers did express their concern, but since when did the government listen to outcries when a crony's right to shortchange the public is questioned? Especially when the crony-extraordinaire demands it?

So, we now come to the larger question of the crony's extraordinary investment in the United Kingdom. His press statement suggests how his brilliant financier and business men who cocked a snook at the UK's best and finest -- to tell Malaysians no doubt that a man from the colonies could teach colonial grandmothers how to suck eggs. His press statement about his foray and how the local newspapers reported it, complete with financial analysts who could not only find anything wrong with it but no better company could have done it. That is not why YTL bought Wessex Water: it was also to show Dr Mahathir it could succeed where others failed.

No one questioned if YTL could afford it? It sunk into one investment -- that too overseas -- more money than in any other. YTL goes for broke. It supposes internal problems no one talks about, and his investment in the UK a gamble from which it walks away with billions or goes into receivership. It has nothing to do with the group's brilliance in water management or power production or building houses. It is a last ditch effort to hold on to what it has. If YTL does well now, why this massive investment in an unknown field in a foreign country? Was it to siphon funds to a safe haven? The Malaysian Business recently listed the 40 richest Malaysians; seven were from the YTL family. There were not in that list a decade earlier. In between was Tan Sri Francis Yeoh's rise as crony-extraordinaire to the Prime Minister.

When you look at the cronies who have come and gone, it is a roll call of Malaysia Boleh's disasters. These Tan Sris who thought above their station to presume they could control the "dalang" (master puppeteer) and found that they could be unmade as easily as they were made. Malay politics is so confrontational that none in power can afford the luxury of known cronies, Malay or non-Malay. Not any more. To make it worse, the Chinese and Indian ground also rumbles. The divide between cronies and their protectors and the corresponding weaknesses of the communities they are nominally from is so wide that the protector is nervous at the communal sniping at their cronies.

The crony, strong as he thought he is, unexpectedly is tied in knots, and unties himself with a confidence that reveals not his strength but his weakness. What YTL and Tan Sri Francis Yeoh has exuded in the past few months is this weakness. In his emailed YTL Community News, he carried Bernama reports of the Prime Minister's recent visit to Russia, Germany and Poland. He had not before. Why? He makes mistakes that it would not be long before even the Prime Minister would walk the other way when he approaches. And all this after he gets to privatise KTM's Sentul Golf Club land, special deals to allow him to take control of choice land in Bukit Bintang, and huge contracts offered him on a platter. Now, who would succeed him?

M.G.G. Pillai