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MGG: The Bin Ladens and a Kedah prawn farm
By M.G.G. Pillai

12/4/2002 1:00 pm Fri

The New Straits Times on Tuesday (09 April 2002) had a curious front page headline - Kerpan reels from viral attack - of a disastrous integrated tiger prawn project in the Prime Minister, Dato' Seri Mahathir Mohamed's home state of Kedah. Read it, and you would not see anything to suggest its import. But it is the coup de grace to a grandoise but ill-thought plan to bring large scale fishery into the heart of Kedah agriculture. No one except the civil servants thought it would succeed. Like every grand scheme to forcefeed the development of Malaysia Inc.

The plans hatched in airconditioned offices and five-star hotel restaurants have no reality to how it would work in the ground. It is a fair bet that this scheme was hatched, without a single officer involved every visiting the site. The NST reports all 87 breeding ponds of prawn fry is felled by a deadly virus, putting paid to another confident prediction the company, Kedah Acquaculture Sdn Bhd, would turn in a profit of RM2.8 million after "a few dismal years". Instead it lost RM2 million with this deadly virus. The virus kills off the tiger prawns before they grow to the desirable marketable size.

Kedah state went into joint venture with the Bin Laden group in what was even then a crazy project to grow tiger prawns. But it is Arab money, and Bin Laden to boot, that came in, and who in Malaysia would dare reject that? Osama's -- YES, the same! -- brother headed the project, the padi farmers in Kerpan were shortchanged of their land, and forcefed into the project as slaves in the building of Tutankhamen's tomb, for money and shares. The shares are worthless, the farmers not been paid their entitlement, the promised work a mirage. Pumping sea water into the cut-out tanks raised the salinity of the surrounding areas, and caused other agricultural problems. The mentris besar who followed Tan Sri Osman Aroff, whose brainchild this was, could do little as the debts mounted, and the project itself run into ground.

The tiger prawn project looked good on paper, to be a major supplier of tiger prawns to Thailand, Hong Kong and Japan. It is the Malaysian government's belief that any export project must be of large scale, when projects like these are best handled by smallholders with a company providing technical help and buy the prawns from them at a reasonable price. Which is why every government attempt at large projects invariable fail. Tiger prawns are exported in large quantities, often without government help, to countries further afield, and they face no problems. One of the most successful is run by a renegade Islamic preacher who turned to it after his organisation, Darul Arqam, was banned. He is in restricted residence, recently transferred from Rawang to Labuan, but his tiger prawn export firm makes him as successful as Darul Arqam ventures in Central Asia and China.

The Bin Laden group of Saudi Arabia became the foreign partner in Kedah Acquaculture. But it was bound to fail. The government presumed, in 1993, it could lead the farmer by the nose, re-order his life, and he would not mind if he is shortchanged. The project was doomed from the start. It began with land acquisition, the differing perceptions of the landowner-cum-workers-in-the-project and the management, and their laying off when the project failed. But shortchanging is what a farmer expects. But when hopes are raised and then dashed, trouble can only ensure. When Kampung LBJ, a Felda scheme in Negri Sembilan, was sold, and each settler promised RM1 million for his plot, we were told of million-ringgit settlers. But the money was not delivered, the settlers lost their land, and they can now whistle for it.

Every one, in Kerpan and Kampung LBJ and elsewhere, is Malay. When the government shortchanges a Malay, he runs to the opposition PAS not the government UMNO for comfort. And the government cannot understand why Kedah is so rife with PAS supporters. Kerpans feeds the transition, and even Dr Mahathir finds his Kubang Pasu constituency is vulnerable. The government knows it only too well. Which is why a RM2 million loss makes it to the front page of the NST, when billion ringgit losses barely rate space on an inside page. It is also proof that institutions break down, and the RM65 million investment, since added on by tens of millions of ringgit more, is discussed not how badly it redounds on the man on the ground, but as an exercise in financial restructuring. And no one cares. The NST carried the story on Tuesday, and it ended there. There is no attempt to find out from the worker and the farmer on the ground how badly their lives are affected by this monstrosity of an ill-thought project.

One reason for it is the Malaysian government's embarassment at its foreign partner. It was during the Bin Laden group's foray into Malaysia, that a Bin Laden sibling, Osama came to Malaysia, bought a few houses and apartments, rented them out (and as far as I know, still does), more as a safe haven from his more clandestine work in other parts of the world. Because Malaysia is liberal in granting visas from Arabs from the Middle East, and the Malay happy to be seen in the company of Arabs, the Bin Laden Group's proper business investments allowed others of the family to base themselves here. There is talk of Osama bank accounts here. He was received with open arms. There is no Malay saying as of Greeks bearing gifts.

September 11 forced a narrowing of a focus. When the Malaysian government decided to target PAS and its supporters for terrorist activity, narrowly defined, questions arose over its own involvement. There is no suggestion here if Osama Bin Laden was here for a nefarious purpose. But in the knee-jerk reaction after September 11, everything is suspect. After all, Mr Zaccarias Moussavi, a suspect in the terrorist attacks in the US, was appointed to a position in the United States by a Malaysian company, which provided him money and a job there. And the man who signed that document is detained under the Internal Security Act. It does not matter if the appointment is above board. In the heat, such niceties are forgotten. For all we know or care, Mr Moussavi could well be innocent. But does that matter? As we are told to forget that Kedah Acquaculture is losing money, and its history should not be raked lup.

M.G.G. Pillai