THE MAKING OF A MALAYSIAN METAPHOR 

When Jho “Felonious” Low recently boasted about losing 10 pounds, Macao remained indifferent. 

Even scornful.

“Hallelujah,” growled the Times’ social-affairs columnist through gritted teeth.  A dour, dyspeptic dragon, she loathed show-offs who snacked on caviar and crackers, and her next sentence was positively dripping with bile.

“That’s like removing a deck chair off the QE2,” she snarled, and all Macao knew there was a trend afoot.

The term “fugitive Malaysian” may soon descend into the realms of hackneyed cliché like a “no brainer” or a “sticky wicket.” 

Indeed, at one dizzying, moment, Malaysia briefly threatened to punch above its weight in the master criminal sweepstakes because we boasted not one, but two fugitives.  

The parallels seemed disquieting enough to give social scientists pause. Both the fugitives were slick, both, fat and both were from Penang. 

Was this the triumph of char kway teow over common sense?

Maybe not. “Fat Leonard” was rearrested Tuesday in Caracas.   

According to Reuters, Leonard was the mastermind behind one of the largest bribery scandals in US military history. 

The Malaysian fugitive’s  alarming propensity for shattering dubious world records is an alarming new trend. Like Charles Ponzi, a future global crime is sure to be named after its Malaysian architect in such florid prose as “a monstrous fraud, huge and epic in all its convoluted, Jho-Low’ian proportions.” 

Now there’s a Malaysian metaphor for the world stage. 

Leonard Glenn Francis didn’t know what Felonious had been smoking but he wished he had some. He’d cut off his GPS ankle bracelet before fleeing from house arrest in San Diego. He’d been awaiting sentence over a bribery scheme that lasted over a decade and involved dozens of US Navy officers.

The flabby flatterer had bribed enough US naval brass to secure  lucrative contracts for his global ship-service business. 

But when he escaped three weeks ago, the US pulled out all the stops. Ten American  agencies searched for him and authorities offered a US$40,000 (RM182,000) reward for his arrest.

The re-arrested reprobate isn’t a happy camper. For one, he wished he’d been 50-lb lighter so the US Press might dub him Lissom Leonard but, fat chance!  For another, he was peeved with the bounty on his head which he felt was too small for a Smooth Criminal.   

Unlike Felonious, Francis had actually pleaded guilty in 2015 for  criminal inducement.  Felonious had merely returned assets – a yacht, a plane, art, houses, jewellery – worth billions in pleas “not amounting to an admission of guilt.” In Leonard’s book, that made Felonious “stupid.” But he was free and he wasn’t.

Fat Leonard had been caught offering prostitution services, luxury hotels, cigars, gourmet meals and more than US$500,000 in bribes to Navy officials and others to help his Singapore-based ship servicing company.

Prosecutors said the company overcharged the Navy by at least US$35 million for servicing ships, many of which were routed to ports he controlled in the Pacific.

The plump ex-Penangite had been contemptuous of the officers he’d bribed – he called them “animals” in one video – while claiming “cover-up” as his tentacles had allegedly reached up to the admirals in charge. Although over 30 officers have been convicted, no one in the Naval High Command has been indicted.  

Meanwhile, the beefy brigand had been a heartbeat away from being forever extradition-free.

In Caracas, he’d been stopped from boarding a flight to Moscow. 

ENDS

*Revised version folks! A TIME FOR HARD QUESTIONS

During the 90s, my news-editor was V G Kulkarni, a sinfully cynical guy who’d once worked for Indian intelligence. It explained why he was the only Review correspondent barred from Pakistan. 

In any case, VG was in Kuala Lumpur to supervise my first “cover” story for the magazine. We’d just interviewed Dr M – where VG, at one point, addressed him as “Mighty M” through steepled fingers. Even so, it was a good interview as an irritated Dr Mahathir is always good copy. 

Discussing it over beers, Rob Montford, our photographer, suggested that VG might have been harsh as Malaysia was going “great guns.” 

(In 1995, the country was barreling along at 9-plus % annual growth and was being touted as the next “tiger economy”).

The former intelligence officer looked at us incredulously. “This is an incredibly   lucky country,” he retorted and, jerking a thumb at me, continued, “he can lie in his hammock and play the guitar and food will grow around him. It’s so fertile.” 

VG was being outrageously simplistic, of course, but he isn’t the first to venture such opinions. Malaysia is blessed with incredible resources, some of which just keep multiplying. 

Standout example: in 1984, I was told at a Petronas briefing, that the country had enough oil reserves for “24 years.” Those years have flown by, and we are still producing. Meanwhile, our gas reserves have more than tripled. And it will keep rising. Oil and gas reserves generally increase, pari passu, with new technology.

As I write this, on the 59th anniversary of our country’s creation, I am reminded, nostalgically, of the Malaysia Lat portrayed in his cartoons. 

Lat’s great strength was his unfailingly good-humored take on all things Malaysian. And in so doing, he made us feel good about our country and ourselves. 

He portrayed a delightfully, innocent Malaysia, shorn of its ancient race suspicions, devoid of its not-quite-suppressed religious bigotry. It is a Malaysia we long for and no longer believe we will attain.  That notion is now, and perhaps forever, consigned to the realms of what-might-have-been.

But we remain a lucky country. With the scale of waste and profligacy that Malaysia has displayed over the last 50 years, it is something of a miracle that we continue to remain credit worthy. 

But we cannot continue to push our luck. The important thing is to, first, get our government finances in order. The way forward isn’t rocket science either. 

First, make government procurement fully transparent through open tenders. Its current opacity lends itself to corrupt practice, a suspicion borne out during the Rosmah Mansor trial.   

And the New Economic Policy (NEP) must be reviewed. Over the last 60 years. it’s probably the single biggest contributor towards government bloat, waste, and incompetence.

In the 1990s, a minister told me that if the Malaysian people knew how much money had been spent on just one agency – Mara ( an agency focused on the economic, entrepreneurial and educational advancement of the Malays and Bumiputeras) – they would be shocked. And let’s not get started on the state economic development corporations or the 90s push to create a Bumiputera industrial and commercial community. 

These concerns are all known but gets airily swept away under the overarching and not-to-be-questioned banner of the NEP. 

It is time to ask questions. The ringgit isn’t a reserve currency and we’ve been running on empty since 1998. 

ENDS

ABSOLUTE POWER CORRUPTS ABSOLUTELY

It’s a proven fact that capital punishment is a detergent to crime – All in the Family’s Archie Bunker 

A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car but a man who has gone to university may steal the whole railroad – President Theodore Roosevelt

The family that steals together stays together. 

It’s the apparent moral underscoring the outcome reached in Kuala Lumpur’s High Court last Thursday. 

Judge Zaini Mazlan threw the book at the accused, and it may as well have been Crime and Punishment given the weighty sentence. Rosmah Mansor, the wife of ex-Premier Najib Razak, was found guilty of corruption and sentenced to ten years in jail and RM970 million in fines. The latter is the highest in Malaysian legal history. 

Barely over a week ago, Najib began serving a 10 -year sentence for abuse of power and money laundering. He also faces a fine of RM210 million which, if unpaid, increases his sentence by another five years. 

If you were to include the former premier’s tax bill, the once-rampant First Family is looking at a potentially crippling RM2.8 billion in fines. 

That’s a lot of Cartier watches. 

But spare a thought for the condemned. Their only support comes from some sections of Umno and others dazzled by Najib’s “wealth.” But it’s abundantly clear that the Razak family themselves were either too embarrassed or ashamed because none of his brothers showed up courtside. Even his first cousin, the minister, has remained deafeningly silent. 

These people have led sheltered, pampered lives. It was Rosmah, after all, who thought that a RM1,200 haircut at home was “normal.”

In short, they have no clue how the common man, let alone the convict, lives and so the prospect of prison must surely fill them with unspeakable dread. 

So why did they do it? The answer lies in the arrogance of a ruling party that has never lost an election in over 60 years. 

They thought they’d never be held accountable because they would always remain in power, the better to sweep everything under the carpet. As Newsweek columnist Gerry Wills famously observed: “Only the victors determine what the war crimes are.” 

But the hubris remains. After he delayed paying his tax arrears, there were moves to declare Najib a bankrupt. The former PM furiously called it a move to “end my political career.” If he still thinks he has a career, he’s a bigger optimist than Johnny Appleseed! 

Meanwhile, Jho “Felonious” Low, the ample architect of the 1MDB fraud, gnawed his nails anxiously as he watched the grim proceedings in Malaysia. He had decidedly mixed feelings about the whole debacle.

What was happening to his friends was terrible. 

But it could have been worse, it could have been him.

Now he had two, new worries. One, Tom Wright, the author of Billion Dollar Whale, was using crowd sourcing to find him.

Worse were the fines that his friends now faced. Would he be asked to share in their burden or could he safely invoke the old “I’m not my brother’s keeper” clause?

Decisions, decisions.

ENDS