In its 8 December judgment, the Court of Appeal, which had heard and dismissed the appeal against the conviction and sentences imposed on former Prime Minister Najib Razak, helped to elucidate many questionable and startling issues involving the case.
The former prime minister was tried and convicted over a relatively small amount of RM42m, from which he had without doubt derived direct private advantage.
The total amount that had vanished – or that became part and parcel of the kuasa lesap or K-Lesap subculture – in this specific case alone was RM4bn.
As recorded in the last part of the paragraph 54 of the judgment, “when queried by this Court as to what had happened to the RM4 billion KWAP loan, counsel for the appellant answered no one knows”.
In paragraph 117, the judges noted “there were no discernible investments that required the funds”.
On the surface, the former prime minister, it would seem was involved in innocent fraud. SRC was created, it would seem, as a specialised, secret and surefire entity under the Companies Act 1965 with enough of a smokescreen so that not one civil servant was party or privy to its day-to-day operation.
It was a clear-cut case of the country’s unquestioned political supremo assuming full charge of public funds borrowed from the most significant government pension fund. Vesting this kind of absolute discretionary power in an individual must be unique and unusual.
The contributors to that fund, the representatives of those contributors, or the management of that fund and no statutory or government agency had any say or knowledge of how the fund was disbursed, distributed, used or invested.
Curbing undesirable behaviour
The situation was somewhat similar to what a well-known economist had written on about the overwhelming accumulation of corporate power over the public domain in the US.
John Kenneth Galbraith in his The Economics of Innocent Fraud (2004) relates how “out of the pecuniary and political pressures and fashions of the time, economics and larger economics and political systems cultivate their own version of the truth”.
In the US, he relates how the military-industrial complex rules and the corporate sector determines and influences government policy. In such a situation, he says (page 51):
Management authority and its abuse and personal enrichment will continue. The prime hope must be full recognition by the public and public authority of the opportunity it affords for socially undesirable behaviour. Accordingly, there must be surveillance of the reputable enterprise and general attention to managerial self-reward. This is in the interest of both the public and corporate world. The corporation, to repeat, is an essential feature of modern economic life. We must have it. It must conform, however, to accepted standards and requisite public restraints.
Operating under a false allure of eventually delivering vital strategic goods and services, we devised our own quaint K-Lesap culture: individuals enrich themselves and embark on curious ventures while the public has to pay for their foibles.
A start, not exactly a modest one, was made in the first year of the “look East” policy. By the early 1980s, $1bn had disappeared due to shoddy loan approvals by the so-called bankers of BMF in Hongkong. A committee of inquiry identified four men as being primarily responsible for this colossal loss.
Like Najib, who had directly received a proven paltry approximate of 1% of the RM4bn, the four BMF bosses had allegedly received bribes, shares, debentures, commissions and gifts from BMF’s main creditors.
They may be regarded as the real pioneers of the country’s K-Lesap culture, where the counsel for the accused could claim with a straight face that they were not guilty but could not tell where the missing funds went.
Both the BMF episode and the 1MDB debacle only surfaced because of rather unrelated but significant watershed developments. In Hong Kong, the discovery of a corpse sparked shock waves. The byzantine 1MDB mess could only come to public notice and be investigated fully because there was an unexpected change of guard in the federal government. The principal perpetrator of the 1MDB debacle, although implicated, had much earlier been cleared and escaped seemingly unscathed from any further connection to the murder of a Mongolian national.
Two murders, both without established motive
On 19 July 1983, a corpse of a fully clothed male was discovered in a banana plantation in the New Territories of Hong Kong. A Malaysian ten cents coin found in the deceased person’s body was the vital clue that helped link him to Malaysia. The remains were those of Jalil Ibrahim, who had been reported to the Hong Kong Police as missing the previous day.
A Malaysian was charged with murder, tried in a Hong Kong court and convicted. The motive for the murder was not established.
On 19 October 2006, a Mongolian national, Altantuya Shaariibuu was blown up allegedly almost without any trace of her person in a wooded area of Puncak Alam in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.
The killers of both these victims of murder were identified, charged, tried and convicted. But no plausible motive could be provided for the killers to carry out both murders.
Both Jalil Ibrahim and Altantuya Shaaribu had become pesky irritants to some highly important and influential people, and they had to be eliminated.
For the families of these victims, some token of relief from knowing that the alleged killers had been apprehended, tried and convicted. Any personal grievance the killers had against their victim was not given any importance.
Other kinds of disappearance hit the headlines as well. Pastor Raymond Koh and Amri Che Mat were two other people who vanished without a trace. No one seemed responsible, and it would seem that in the collective wisdom of the authorities, it did not matter.
K-Lesap may be loosely translated as the assumed power to make something vanish. We have seen the disappearance of airplanes, fighter aircraft engines and human beings.
Bearers of the K-Lesap authority can often rebrand themselves as compassionate, humane and capable leaders because they can often influence the main narrative to suit their high status. They can secure the elimination of any person or practice, or secure something of the highest value for their personal advantage. They see their self-interest as an absolute right.
This is a dangerous subculture that must not be tolerated as it will destroy the rich diversity, morality and sound ethical and harmonious blend of our beautiful multihued country.
Money not necessarily the root cause
The misconduct of Najib and the elimination of Jalil Ibrahim were somewhat related to dubious loans being sought and processed without due diligence.
Najib secured the loans for SRC, an unknown newly formed entity which was going into, it was claimed, strategic investments of an esoteric imaginary kind. The EPU was prepared to provide RM20m. But the then PM, Najib, was prepared to give it a shot at RM4bn or 200 times that seed capital amount.
Najib chaired the cabinet meetings, which provided government guarantees for the Retirement Fund (Incorporated) or KWAP loans made to SRC.
When SRC could not service the interest payable on the loans, Najib ensured more short-term government loans were provided to cover the interest to avoid a default.
Not one of his cabinet colleagues seems to have made a squeak about this irresponsible irregularity. The matter would have been completely hushed up had Najib not lost power in May 2018.
Despite such gross incompetence by Najib and his cabinet colleagues, they all were allowed to relinquish their posts with handsome retirement packages. They were invariably complicit parties to a silent, scandalous and total K-Lesap culture in which people, property and funds could disappear. They were kaki lesap to the fashionable K-Lesap order.
Why the K-Lesap subculture?
The principal reason for the prevalence of the K-Lesap subculture seems to be the belief that one can actually get away with doing something illegal, illogical or improper. Indeed, one can get away due to account of poor surveillance, difficulty in proving a misdemeanour, a policy of not wanting to expose key elite, the seemingly acceptable course of forgiveness and a sense of resignation that nothing can be done.
The public sector and quasi-government is bled billions on the basis of such practices, legitimate freedoms are curtailed, lives are lost and inalienable rights are compromised.
Society, public coffers, companies, enterprises and even cooperative societies have to bear the cost of corruption and the enrichment of a few key office bearers.
Too much protection
The judiciary of the country appear powerless to act against the proponents, perpetrators and practitioners of the K-Lesap culture.
Education, moral values, ethics and impressive impartial, investigative, forensic, prosecutorial skills and enforcement measures and mechanisms are needed to check this subculture.
The supreme political elite in Malaysia, of which Najib remains an obnoxious part, seems to enjoy far too much of protocol and privilege, which sometimes amounts to implicit out-of-the world protection and immunity.
When a prime minister displays ostentatious spending patterns, unparalleled power and relishes and refurbishes his executive jet so often, he attracts unfavourable and unfortunate comment. Recent prime ministers drawn from the second and third rungs of their political alliances are an incongruous sight when photographed in these opulently outfitted sleek executive jets.
PMs must be down to earth
Now that Malaysia is no longer the third largest economy in Asean, the final nail on the coffin of such ostentatious behaviour must be driven in Parliament and stopped immediately.
Prime ministers must earn their spurs and not seek to salivate at these facilities provided on the taxpayers’ tab.
The K-Lesap culture and prime ministers who behave like faultless prima donnas have to give way to a culture where accountability, good governance, humility and transparency prevails.
Prime ministers should demonstrate their allegiance to the King and the country’s best interests.
In our democratic culture these elected politicians are answerable to the people. We have witnessed just too much hoodwinking of the people by our political leaders for far too long.
M Santhananaban is a former ambassador with 45 years of public sector experience, including serving in a diplomatic capacity in both Hongkong and Mongolia