Politicians will soon find it difficult to conceal their ties with donors and businesses who fund their activities as internet users become increasingly proficient in navigating the online world to unravel such ties, an observer warns.
This comes in the wake of photographs shared in recent weeks of several top politicians arriving in Sabah ahead of the state election on Sept 26.
Their appearance on the campaign trail sparked talk of their friendships with tycoons, including those who have in the past made headlines due to suspicious business activities.
Jayum Jawan of Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) said many now have easy access to information previously unavailable to the public.
He added that the details of the election being revealed on social media were only a glimpse of what would come in the “politics of the future”.
“In the future, election campaigns will be more open, and those elected will find themselves under constant scrutiny by the public,” Jayum, of UPM’s faculty of humanities, management and science, told MalaysiaNow.
A recent blog post by a veteran activist offers perhaps the clearest example of how politicians have embraced tycoons with questionable pasts.
Hishamuddin Rais, a former detainee under the Internal Security Act, recalled how a businessman once jailed for criminal breach of trust (CBT) hosted a buka puasa event attended by Pakatan Harapan (PH) leaders at a hotel in Petaling Jaya, weeks after the coalition’s historic victory at the 2018 polls.
In its election manifesto, PH had pledged to fight corruption in political funding.
“The Pakatan Harapan government will ensure funding of politics in our country is transparent and free from corrupt practices. A new Political Financing Control Act will be introduced for this purpose,” the manifesto read.
But Hishamuddin in his post said he was shocked to discover that the event organised by Amanah president Mohamad Sabu at the Hilton Hotel was sponsored by controversial businessman Abdullah Ang.
Ang, the managing director of the Malaysian Overseas Investment Corporation, was convicted of CBT and sentenced to eight years in prison in December 1986.
In 1989, The Malay Mail reported that Ang was given “super VVIP” treatment in jail, complete with the use of facilities such as a fridge, carpet, video games and a waterbed.
But it was his purported “get-out-of-jail card” which gained him particular infamy, with reported sightings of him in and out of prison during his term behind bars.
Two years before his release date, he was photographed in Kuala Lumpur without a prison escort, visiting, among others, a clothing factory owned by his family.
Attempts by MalaysiaNow to obtain a response from Ang and Mohamad, better known as Mat Sabu, have so far failed.
Speaking to MalaysiaNow, Hishamuddin said the country’s political culture now resembled that of the US, where billionaire businessmen with personal interests often find themselves in the company of powerful politicians.
For him, though, there is a difference in the level of sophistication.
He said politically connected tycoons in the US are more interested in getting the government to draw up policies that will indirectly benefit their business plans.
“Here in Malaysia, we are still trying to get government projects and contracts. These businessmen support them and, in return, demand contracts.
“It’s like a film production where tycoons write the script and voters are merely extras to complete the democratic process.”
Most friendships between politicians and tycoons remain under wraps, although some are widely known.
Perhaps the most famous of these is the link between former prime minister Najib Razak and Low Taek Jho, the Malaysian financier still on the run from authorities worldwide due to his involvement in the 1MDB scandal.
Others include the well-known association between former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad and billionaire tycoons Syed Mokhtar Albukhary and Vincent Tan.
Mahathir was often seen using Syed Mokhtar’s Albukhary Foundation in Kuala Lumpur as his office while Tan, who owns Berjaya Group, threw birthday parties for the veteran leader.
In recent times, though, PKR leader Anwar Ibrahim has been on the radar due to his association with tycoons.
One such businessman is Vinod Sekhar, the head of Petra Group.
A recent photograph making the rounds shows Anwar arriving at Kota Kinabalu in a private jet bearing the word “PetraTara”.
Petra and Tara are the names of Vinod’s children.
An airport source confirmed with MalaysiaNow that Anwar boarded the aircraft on Sept 5 and 6.
Requesting anonymity, the source said Vinod, who has openly declared himself a supporter of Anwar, had accompanied the PKR leader on the jet to Sabah.
According to Petra Group’s website, the company is a conglomerate “involved in industries that include green sustainable technologies, infrastructure development, media and entertainment, advisory services, information and communication technology, marketing communications services, food and beverage, a research institute and a charitable foundation”.
In 2005, the Kuala Lumpur High Court declared Vinod a bankrupt.
The authorities accused him at the time of leaving the country without settling his debts, and of sitting on the boards of 25 companies without approval from the Insolvency Department as required under the Bankruptcy Act.