Malaysian Politicians Hum a Confused Tune

The United Malays National Organization, Malaysia’s biggest ethnic political party, has found itself embroiled in yet another politically debilitating scandal, leaving the de facto law minister trying to explain why his son was driving around in an expensive SUV owned by a man whom the minister had just cleared of money laundering.

The affair began several months ago when Sarawak Report, a London-based NGO, alleged that in 2008 an international web of bank accounts controlled by a Kota Kinabalu timber trader named Michael Chia was funneling tens of millions of dollars into the UBS personal bank account of Sabah Chief Minister Musa Aman.

The Swiss publication Sonntagszeitung on Apr. 22 reported that Musa allegedly had received more than US$90 million in kickbacks from logging of tropical rainforests in Sabah and laundered the funds through UBS accounts in Hong Kong, which were then deposited in Switzerland. The newspaper reported that the Swiss Attorney General was investigating the matter.

According to the Malaysian blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin, Chia reportedly was arrested in Hong Kong in 2008 with the equivalent of US$13.1 million in cash in violation of the territory’s currency policies. Chia and UMNO leaders have denied he was arrested, and Asia Sentinel has been unable to uncover any arrest documents in Hong Kong.

Sarawak Report also alleged that accounts controlled by Chia were providing regular payments to Musa’s sons when they were studying in Australia.

That is where the story turns murky. Whether or not Chia was arrested, Asia Sentinel reported in April that Hong Kong’s Independent Commission on Corruption had traced millions of dollars in nominee accounts maintained for Musa in a UBS Hong Kong branch, and passed the information on to the Malaysia Anti-Corruption Commission office in Kuala Lumpur. UBS refused comment to Asia Sentinel.

There it seems to have come to a stop. Sarawak Report alleged that Abdul Gani Patail, then the attorney general, stopped the investigation. Allegedly the money in the Hong Kong accounts was ordered frozen when ICAC investigators moved in, but when the three-year statute of limitations lapsed in Malaysia, the funds were believed to have been passed on to Musa’s Zurich account. The money was believed to have resulted from commissions paid on timber contracts that have resulted in denuding Sabah of vast tracts of primary forest.

The matter was brought up again by Democratic Action Party leader Lim Kit Siang during committee debates on Malaysia’s 2013 budget, which led to some interesting verbal gymnastics in which the Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak denied that there had any attempt to illegally smuggle the RM40 million “donation for Sabah UMNO” into the country. He said the matter had already been explained in Parliament.

The explanation, however, seemed to wander around. Mohamad Nazri Aziz, the de facto law minister and minister in the Prime Minister’s Department said Chia had never been caught holding large sums of the currency, said to be denominated in Singapore dollars, then said the money that he was carrying was actually a contribution to the Sabah arm of UMNO to Sabah. Then Aziz said the money was actually frozen in the UBS account in Hong Kong without explaining how UMNO money ended up in a Hong Kong bank account, or why a Sabah timber trader should be carrying it in cash instead of UMNO transferring it via conventional electronic transfer.

“…when it was discovered that the cash was not corruption money but a political donation, so the question of seeking information from the Swiss government did not arise,” Nazri told Parliament in explaining why the MACC hadn’t followed up. The Attorney-General’s Chambers had cleared Musa of corruption, Nazri said, after it was discovered that the RM40 million in question was a “political donation” to the Sabah state division of UMNO, without explaining why UMNO funds would have been in a Hong Kong account, or why Chia had been carrying the cash.

The matter has broken into the open again with a revelation by Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s strategy director Rafizi Ramli, complete with documents, showing that Nazri’s son Nedim is driving around in a massive Hummer, the giant US-designed SUV built by General Motors on the chassis of the M998 Humvee used as a utility vehicle by US troops. The vehicle was registered in Michael Chia’s name.

Nazri told reporters the details on Chia’s arrest – or perhaps the lack of it – came from the MACC and the attorney general, and that he was only the minister answering questions in parliament, and that he was not involved in the investigation himself.

Confronted with Sarawak Report of his son’s use of the Hummer, Nazri acknowledged that he was a friend of Chia’s, but that he had no idea that his son was riding around in a half-million ringgit Hummer owned by the man whom he had just exonerated from currency charges on the floor of the Parliament.

What’s more, he said, he had no idea what his son was up to.

“Whether Nazri likes it or not, his son Nedim is his immediate family, and for any improper favor granted to Nedim by virtual of Nazri’s position as a minister, the latter is deemed beneficiary and recipient of that improper favor,” wrote Kim Quek, a political commentator and member of the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat. ”Would Chia have given the half-million-ringgit Hummer SUV for use by Nedim’s family, if not for the fact that Nazri is a senior minister capable of doing Chia a favor?”

There the matter rests.