August 6, 2010
More to Tun Ling Liong Sik Story: Messy PKFZ saga
by Dr. Ooi Kee Beng*
Corruption charges being brought against Tun Dr Ling Liong Sik, the former Minister of Transport and head of the powerful Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), have left Malaysians stunned.
He is being tried for deceiving the Malaysian Cabinet in 2002 into agreeing to a land purchase for the Port Klang Free Zone project (PKFZ) by withholding highly relevant information about interest rates which, if known to the Cabinet, would have led it – according to the prosecution — to deny consent for the deal.
The sense of public disbelief caused by the case is not because Malaysians feel that Attorney-General Tan Sri Abdul Gani Patail does not have a case, or that Dr Ling is being unjustly accused. On the contrary, few doubt that the ballooning cost of the PKFZ project needs investigating, and a lot of explaining still needs to be done by the government.
Cynical by nature, especially where politics are concerned, Malaysians have reacted with uncharacteristic reserve to the news that the Datuk Seri Najib Razak administration is moving against one of the major figures from the Mahathir period. Why now? Why him?
Even the opposition is lost for words, and its leaders are wisely taking a wait-and-see attitude towards the case. Easy associations are being drawn to the cases of Tan Sri Eric Chia, the former Perwaja Steel managing director, and Tan Sri Kasitah Gaddam, former Land and Cooperative Development Minister. Both were hit with bribery charges in February 2004 by former prime minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Both have since been acquitted.
The question being asked now is if Dr Ling’s case is a similar show orchestrated by the current prime minister for a demanding public, and in light of strong rumours that a snap election is on the way.
Be that as it may, Malaysians have reason to rejoice over the fact that public demand for accountability in governance does actually have an effect. Not only is the cyberspace activism that has been growing over the last decade now very much a potent part of Malaysian politics, the fact that the ruling coalition, after 50 years at the helm, no longer feels that power is its god-given right, bodes well for the future.
The charge against Dr Ling potentially opens a can of worms — though as yet, there is no hint of how great the consequences are going to be. He was after all a trusted figure during the Mahathir years.
When the dominant United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) was split by internal conflicts in 1988 and former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was in danger of losing power, Dr Ling acted for a time as the president of the Barisan Nasional (BN).
The phrasing of the charge against Dr Ling also leads to queries about how naive and innocent the rest of the 2002 Cabinet were. Was everyone ignorant of what was going on? Is this the only case where the alleged criminal method was practised, either by Dr Ling or by anyone else in a ministerial position? Will others be implicated soon? Or is this the whole show?
In any case, some key members of the old Cabinet will have to be called to the stand to testify against their former colleague when the trial gets going. This includes Dr Mahathir himself.
Dr Ling has always been considered a powerful behind-the-scenes player in the MCA. The party is in a bad way at the moment. Along with other BN allies, it has failed to rejuvenate itself after suffering bad losses in the last general election. It has also just emerged from a painful internal struggle that has left it vulnerable.
The arrest is bound to cause confusion in the party ranks and severely test the relationship between the present leaders of the MCA and UMNO.
Some wonder if this is an early sign that UMNO has given up on winning back a significant number of Chinese votes, and is instead coldly contemplating the feasibility of a unity government built on cooperation between UMNO and the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS). If so, then the basic structure of Malaysian politics will undergo yet another revolution.
Whatever the hidden details are surrounding Dr Ling’s arrest, the uncertain nature of politics will continue for some time to come. — Today/the Malaysian Insider
* The writer is a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. His latest book is Pilot Studies for a New Penang,co-edited with Goh Ban Lee.