Bank Negara’s Independence at Risk

March 20, 2016

Bank Negara’s Independence at Risk

by John Berthelsen

The projected April retirement of Zeti Akhtar Aziz, the 68-year-old governor of Malaysia’s central bank, Bank Negara, has kicked off intense speculation about who will follow her into the job. Over recent months, as the investigation into the personal finances of Prime Minister Najib Razak has droned on, Zeti is almost the sole person in authority who has not knuckled under and let the investigation die.

It appears unlikely, given the political situation, that her successor will be Muhammad Ibrahim (above), the Deputy Governor and ranking professional in the bank. That could be a mistake. Bank Negara since the 1980s has suffered crisis after crisis as politicians, particularly former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, have attempted to direct monetary policy.

In October, Bank Negara, which is charged with regulating the country’s financial institutions, credit system and monetary policy, issued a statement saying it had requested a criminal investigation into the affairs of the scandal-plagued 1Malaysia Development Bhd investment fund despite the fact that Najib’s hand-picked Attorney General Mohamad Apandi Ali, to whom it had forwarded the case, said there was no reason for prosecution. Apandi Ali ultimately turned down the request.

Bank Negara, however, responded with a statement contradicting the Attorney General’s office and saying 1MDB had secured permits for investment abroad based on inaccurate or incomplete disclosure of information, breaching banking regulations, and added that it had revoked three permits granted to 1MDB for investments abroad totaling US$1.83 billion (RM7.53 billion) and ordered the state fund to repatriate the funds to Malaysia

Sources in Kuala Lumpur said Zeti, one of the world’s most respected central bankers, faced the danger of blackmail by forces aligned with Najib over concerns that the government might prosecute her husband, Tawfik Ayman, because of secret overseas accounts. Rosmah Mansor, the Prime Minister’s wife, was reportedly involved in a campaign to drive Zeti from her position.

The Wall Street Journal last week printed a story saying the fawning Irwan Serigar Abdullah, the Secretary General of the Ministry of Finance, was favored for the job. Serigar is considered close to Najib and his appointment would be tantamount to handing control of the now-independent institution to the prime minister. However, that has been denied and other candidates, including Dr. Awang Adek Hussain, the current Malaysian Ambassador to the United States, and Abdul Wahid Omar, the former Chief Executive Officer for Malayan Banking Bhd. who is now Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in charge of Economic Planning. Both are considered to be clean.

The bottom line is that Najib, in the fight of his life over a plethora of international and domestic scandals, will want someone he can control. Thus the job probably won’t go to Muhammad, the bank’s deputy governor, who is assumed to be too independent for Najib ‘s tastes. He is a career banker who has risen up the ranks and who is not going to compromise his integrity.


In fact, the independence of the central bank has largely been engineered by Zeti, who is widely respected and credited for pushing reforms and sound policies, as well as protecting the bank’s independence. Prior to her appointment, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad used the central bank for his own personal punching bag, causing it to lose billions of dollars.

In 1985, following the so-called Plaza Accord of finance ministers in New York, which pushed the value of the US dollar down sharply, Bank Negara’s dollar reserves fell sharply when the bank was wrong-footed. The then-governor, Jaffar Hussein, began trading speculatively in an effort to make up the losses, apparently at Mahathir’s behest. The bank became a major player in the foreign exchange market, with the Federal Reserve requesting that the bank rein in its activities. At one time, the central bank’s exposure was rumored to be in the region of RM270 billion  (US$66.65 billion at current exchange rates) – three times the country’s gross domestic product and more than five times its foreign reserves at the time.

In 1992 and 1993, Mahathir became convinced he could make billions of ringgit by taking advantage of a British recession, rising unemployment and a decision by the British government to float the pound sterling free of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism.

Mahathir ordered Bank Negara to buy vast amounts of pounds sterling on the theory that the British currency would appreciate once it floated. However, in what has been described as the greatest currency trade ever made, the financier and currency wizard George Soros’s Quantum hedge fund established short positions, borrowing in pounds and investing in Deutschemark-denominated assets as well as using options and futures positions.

In all, Soros’s positions alone ac­counted for a gargantuan US$10 billion. Many other investors, sensing Quantum was in for the kill, soon followed, putting strenuous downward pressure on the pound. The collapse was inevitable. Quantum walked away with US$1 billion in a single day, earning Mahathir’s eternal enmity and earning Soros the title “the man who broke the Bank of England.”

Mahathir and Bank Negara, on the other hand, walked away with a US$4 billion loss, followed by another US$2.2 billion loss in 1993, the total equivalent of RM15.5 billion. Although the disastrous trades destroyed the entire capital base of Bank Negara, after first denying it had taken place, the then-Finance Minister Anwar Ibrahim repeatedly reassured parliament that the losses were only “paper losses.”

Eventually, the Finance Ministry had to recapitalize the central bank, almost unheard of for any government anywhere. It is reliably estimated that Bank Negara lost as much as US$30 billion in this and other disastrous currency trades, costing the head of the central bank and his currency trader deputy their jobs.

If anything, that ought to be an argument for a professional from the ranks of the central bank to take over the reins when Zeti steps down. But politics, especially the politics of preserving Najib’s job, has taken precedence in Malaysia. It would be foolish to bet against a candidate aligned with the Prime Minister.


12 thoughts on “Bank Negara’s Independence at Risk

  1. It’s rather unfortunate that TS Zeti is bowing out with certain matters unresolved.

    After the rejection of BNM’s case against 1MDB (twice!) by the 24-hour A-G, she vowed to push on with action via other channels. That seems to have come to naught. And the burning question of why AmBank was fined RM53.7 million was never answered, and whether this is connected to what is now their most “famous” account.

    “…Abdul Wahid Omar, the former Chief Executive Officer for Malayan Banking Bhd. who is now Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in charge of Economic Planning. Both are considered to be clean.”

    Well, it’s not about whether you are going to sapu millions into your own pocket, but whether you’ll help others do just that. The Serigala fella sure will.

  2. Zeti was appointed governor of BNM by Mahathir. Badawi was “appointed ” as the 5th PM, Najib the 6th PM, both could not be independent of Mahathir, except for Najib since the tie was cut since sacking Muhyiddin. So,does anyone really believe Zeti could have been independent?

  3. In Kuantan, Najib declared that he never stole public funds all his life – an impossibility given the facts we have always known about him. How could he had afforded his 40m divorce wat back? How could Rosmah afford the lifestyle she accustomed to since she hooked up with her? And there are plenty others.

    Even if the Declaration is in front of home crowd and supporters, its clear sociopathic lying. He is pathological liar, mentally unsound and surrounded by even more dangerous liars.

  4. Hi bigjoe99

    Pekan is the 1PM’s home crowd, not Kuantan.

    The Kuantan MP and all ADUNs (except 1) are from the Opposition.

  5. Everyone is too kind to suggest that the incumbent governor is independent. Such huge flow of funds into so many accounts, going in and out, would be immediate red flags that will be waved frantically at BNM. Would anyone believe that the governor has not been informed or, worse, have not given the requisite approvals for so many such dubious transactions?

  6. Bank Negara’s Independence at Risk.

    It may be a fallacy if the people think that any such institution in any country may be independent. Even positions mentioned in the Constitution [periodicallystated to be sacred] to be ‘independent’ may have become subservient to the people in power who may be in control of the political system and directly/indirectly with collusion of executive and those with wealth who may control all the others.

    Independence is a state of mind and not something that can be measured.
    If legal decision in my favor then the ‘judiciary’ is fair and the judgement good but if the decision is against me then the ‘judiciary’ is biased or the judgement obtained by means that may be corrupt.

  7. “Everyone is too kind to suggest that the incumbent governor is independent. Such huge flow of funds into so many accounts, going in and out, would be immediate red flags that will be waved frantically at BNM. Would anyone believe that the governor has not been informed or, worse, have not given the requisite approvals for so many such dubious transactions?”

    Yes, I agree.

    It’s another one of the mysteries that Zeti takes with her into the sunset.

    Will we ever know the truth?

  8. The aggravating problems is, especially here, the governng politicians rule supreme, inspite of the Constitution, largely due the prevalent Abuse of power and Money politics that had embedded in the whole delivery system.It had become a norm practiced by the leaders of the power-that-be of rogue character, unprincipled.

    The risk of independence becomes inherently high, unless that such rogue leaders are reformed and replaced, thus, the delivery system of the country.
    Even then, no central banker can be completely independent.

  9. As to the apatu.., Zeti’s replacement? Lotsa confusion.
    AA turned it down, cuz Washington safer. That Srigar fawn was a red herring picked up by WSJ to prove they were ‘undependable’. Wahid too kiang2 (Hokkien for frightened – that flur is a nervous wreck, nowadays). CLF was not in the running at all – barking at the wrong ‘bukit’.

    So Bik Mama decided on the pre naturally bleached hair deputy? Good luck.

    For all your yodeling about capital outflows and such, CLF(yikes!), as the Gabenor would’ve given Full Amnesty to anyone who is willing to ‘inflow’ a couple of hundred billion RM – without ever re-donating it out – ever! Laundering is for the dobhi man and washing machines..

  10. At around 19:58 CET this evening, five of Gaia’s eight thrusters will be commanded to fire an automated burn lasting almost two hours. It’s a critical manoeuvre meant to bring Gaia onto its planned operational orbit about the L2 Lagrange point (a second, smaller, burn on 14 January will complete the process).

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