Mara must be accountable to Parliament and the rakyat while the government has to take decisive steps to ensure transparency, say Steven Sim and Zairil Khir Johari, .
Majlis Amanah Rakyat (Mara) was set up as a statutory body by an Act of Parliament in 1966 with the objective of “developing, encouraging, facilitating and fostering economic and social development,” with particular focus on the bumiputera community and rural areas.
In 2008, a subsidiary, Mara Inc, was created as an investment arm to carry out strategic investments and commercial activities through property management, investment and development.
To date, its overseas assets are reportedly worth RM600m, including four properties in Melbourne, Australia and three in London, United Kingdom.
But, in the course of their expansion over the years, Mara has not been able to shake off constant allegations of corruption and mismanagement.
In the latest scandal to surface, Australian national daily The Age alleged that Mara had purchased Dudley House, a student hostel in Melbourne, in 2013 at a “massively” inflated price of A$22.5m (RM65m), when the market price for the property was only A$17.8m (RM51.6m).
According to the newspaper’s detailed investigation, it has been revealed that the difference between the price paid by Mara and the market value of the property, which amounts to A$4.75m (RM13.7m), was then paid out as “introduction and consultancy fees” through a Singapore shelf company.
The exposé further quoted the Australian developers of Dudley House, namely Peter Mills and Chris Dimitriou, as affirming that the A$4.75m was actually for kickbacks for Malaysian officials.
Mara’s scandal due to entrenched cronyism
Corruption and the Malaysian government have become almost synonymous these days, and this is not surprising when almost all government wealth funds and investment agencies are dominated by Umno-linked cronies and politicians.
For example, in the case of the Dudley House scandal, the chairman of Mara subsidiary Mara Inc, Mohammad Lan Allani, is also an Umno politician from Sabah who was formerly the state assembly member for Sulabayan.
This raises the question of whether Lan Allani’s appointment has anything to do with the fact that Shafie Apdal is the minister in charge of Mara.
This is because Shafie is also the MP for Semporna, which happens to encompass the state seat of Sulabayan.
Additionally, Shafie is also the head the Umno Semporna division, where Lan Allani once served as vice-chairman and treasurer.
Meanwhile, the Mara council, which is the governing body of the agency, is also Umno-controlled, with six out of 11 council members being active Umno members while the other five are civil servants.
The council is of course chaired by Annuar Musa, the Umno Member of Parliament for Ketereh, Kelantan.
As for the four directors of Mara Inc, the subsidiary embroiled in the Dudley House scandal, two of them are active Umno members while the other two are civil servants.
Even the broker who facilitated the Dudley House deal, said to be “Porsche-loving” Erwan Azizi, has Umno links by virtue of his directorship in Biosis Bhd, a company chaired by Umno Youth deputy chief Khairul Azwan Harun.
As it happens, Erwan is also the son of Azizi Yom Ahmad, a joint-developer of Dudley House.
Need for accountability and transparency
It is clear that there is neither transparency nor accountability in Mara’s decision-making process, despitethe agency being custodian to billions of ringgit in public funds.
This is mainly because Mara, like many other government agencies, is controlled and dominated by a nexus of patrons, cronies and politicians.
When government agencies and their businesses are caught in such a political web, there is no doubt that decision-making will be skewed by vested interests.
The Dudley House scandal is but a classic example of such dealings, where transactions are facilitated by cronies and powerful Umno politicians with access to billions in government funds.
As Mara was created by an Act of Parliament, its accountability should be returned to the people.
To begin with, membership of the Mara council should be a balanced mix of bipartisan politicians, civil servants and non-partisan professionals.
Mara should also be directly responsible to Parliament rather than the Ministry of Rural and Regional Development.
Unless decisive steps are swiftly taken to ensure that the governance of Mara and other government agencies are made transparent and independent, public corruption scandals will continue to plague our country.
Steven Sim is Bukit Mertajam MP, while Zairil Khir Johari is Bukit Bendera MP and DAP assistant national publicity secretary.