SINGAPORE (July 9): Some of my so-called friends have been giving me a hard time over the last couple of months for not voting at Malaysia’s general election on May 9. The way they see it, by doing nothing to help boot out Barisan Nasional (BN) and elect Pakatan Harapan (PH), I have let down my more civic-minded countrymen who helped create a new and better Malaysia.

I have tried to explain that I have spent most of my adult life living outside Malaysia, and never registered myself as a voter. But I know it is a lame excuse. Concerned about massive corruption and wholesale thieving in their country, Malaysians from far-flung corners of the world made the effort to travel home to cast their votes. Most of the Malaysians in my own office here in Singapore also decamped to their various hometowns on polling day, and still have traces of the indelible dye on their fingers to prove their participation in the election.

Najib Razak, the former Malaysian prime minister who was arrested this past week and charged for criminal breach of trust, has also blamed his fall from grace on people who did nothing. Shortly after the May 9 election, Najib seized upon a statement by former Youth and Sports minister Khairy Jamaluddin, who recently made a failed bid for the post of United Malays National Organisation (Umno) president, that party officials had not made the loss of support from the ground clear enough to their boss. “Was there a signal? Yes, there were clear signals, but we became oblivious to the signals,” Khairy said in a May 15 news report.

On May 19, Najib said Khairy could have warned him about his shortcomings as Umno leader. “Then I could then decide whether to accept or not to accept. He didn’t do that. I mean, he admitted that he didn’t do that.”

More recently, in an interview with Reuters, Najib said the board and management of 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) were responsible for overseeing the operations of the government-linked entity, and suggested that they should have raised the alarm about the election-losing mess that was unfolding. “The board has fiduciary duties, and the management had fiduciary duties,” he said. “Even if I gave an instruction and it was deemed illegal by the law, they must not follow it.”

This past week, Najib also said in an interview with news portal Malaysiakini that former Bank Negara Malaysia governor Zeti Akhtar Aziz knew about the RM2.6 billion that had been deposited into his personal bank account before the previous general election in 2013. This assertion reportedly enraged Zeti, and she immediately issued a denial. She also revealed that Najib had asked her to make a statement in 2015 that he had done nothing wrong with his account. She refused on the grounds that she had no knowledge of transactions related to his accounts. Zeti served as BNM governor from 2000 to 2016.

Najib’s comments hint at how he is likely to defend himself in the courts of law and public opinion in the months ahead. In particular, he maintained through the election campaign that accusations of wrongdoing at 1MDB were politically motivated. He also seems inclined to claim that the decisions at 1MDB were not made by him alone, and that some decisions may have been made without his knowledge. While he has little to lose from such a narrative, other individuals associated with 1MDB’s activities might not come off well. Like Zeti, they too may be forced to defend their reputations, and perhaps make a few revelations of their own.

Corporate sector fallout

As it is, the Malaysian public is looking askance at corporate sector leaders who went out of their way to associate themselves with the former government. Case in point: AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes was photographed with Najib just days before the election on an AirAsia plane emblazoned with the words “Hebatkan Negaraku”, which just happened to be a BN election campaign slogan. On top of that, Fernandes appeared in a video, in which he credited his company’s success to the Najib government. “Don’t listen to all the press, there is a lot of fake news,” he said at one point. He added, “Don’t go to the polls based on information that may not be accurate, based on hearsay. Go to the polls based on facts. And, AirAsia is a fact.”

After the elections, Fernandes made another video where he apologised to Malaysians and said that he had “buckled at the crucial moment in our history”. He went on to say that AirAsia operates in a heavily regulated industry, and that he had been under pressure by the previous government.

Then there was the video of a group of heavyweight corporate executives singing the song Hebatkan Negaraku, which was actually less cringeworthy than you might have thought. In fact, I was genuinely surprised at the musical talent at the top ranks of Corporate Malaysia. Among the many recognisable faces in the video were Zamzamzairani Mohd Isa, chairman of UEM Sunrise, on guitar; Khairussaleh Ramli, CEO of RHB Bank, on drums; and Zafrul Aziz, CEO of CIMB Group Holdings, on vocals.

Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the new prime minister of Malaysia, said shortly after the elections that “some heads will roll” at government departments. “We find that some people are aiding and abetting the former prime minister who was described by the world as ‘kleptocrat’,” he told reporters on May 10. Last month, BNM governor Muhammad Ibrahim resigned. Mohammed Shazalli Ramly, CEO of Telekom Malaysia, who made an appearance in the Hebatkan Negaraku music video, also stepped down around the same time. This past week, Petroliam Nasional confirmed that its chairman, Sidek Hassan, has stepped down.

Against this backdrop, any movement of top corporate executives could come to be viewed as being about politics rather than anything else. For instance, Astro Malaysia Holdings CEO Rohana Rozhan’s resignation, announced in early June, was associated with the bow-outs at the government-linked entities. This past week, Astro stated that it is not a government-linked company and that Rohana’s resignation is part of a succession plan. Astro also stated Rohana is not and has never been a government or political appointee in Astro or any other company. She is leaving her post on Jan 31 next year.

Values versus politics

This politicised corporate environment could play to Najib’s advantage, as it emphasises the fact that much of what happens in Malaysia is about who is in power. Yet, the corporate sector should see the new competitive political environment for what it is. With BN no longer the force it once was, and the durability of the PH coalition still untested, true power going forward could lie with ordinary people.

I do not think there is anything wrong with corporate bosses making their political views known or making donations to the political parties of their choice in an open and transparent way. But they run the risk of alienating a big segment of their market. It would make more sense for them to simply express the values they hold, and try to demonstrate them in the way they run their companies. It may well involve appearing in a promotional video or coming up with a cheesy song and dance. And, if these never have to be disowned after a surprise election outcome, that would be a good thing.

As for me, Malaysia has been like that loser of a stock some of us have in our portfolios. The one with great underlying assets but that is slowly going broke because of a board and management that does nothing for stakeholders. You know you should sell but just cannot bring yourself to let it go. Then, one day, there is a proxy fight and things begin moving in the right direction. You cannot claim to have played a role in bringing about that change, but you are glad you stayed invested.

This story first appeared in The Edge Singapore (Issue 838, week of July 9). Click here to subscribe