Troubled Firm to Spearhead Malaysian Email Project

The Malaysian government has handed a RM50 million (US$16.5 million) contract to a nearly-moribund company to set up a citizen email service that probably isn't needed, raising new questions about Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak's vow to clean out cronyism from the United Malays National Organization.

The contract, announced Tuesday by Najib, was awarded to a firm called Tricubes Bhd., one of 12 companies listed by the Malaysian Stock Exchange as eligible to seek help from the Corporate Debt Restructuring Committee to reform its debts because of its "poor or adverse financial condition."

Tricubes has a year to convince the stock exchange that it has a proper recovery plan, including the settlement of all its debts or face delisting, making it appear that the government contract is a lifeline thrown to keep it going. Tricubes has also received contracts to supply the government's MyKad smart ID cards, which all citizens must carry, as well as supplying a biometric passport.

Najib delivered a fire-breathing speech on his selection as UMNO head and prime minister in 2009, saying corruption and money politics would wreck the party if they weren't curtailed. But in the intervening months, little has been done to rein in the rent-seekers who dominate the party, winning government contracts for dubious enterprises. While the email contract is tiny compared to many doled out to government-linked companies or companies tied to UMNO, it illustrates the way the system works.

The blogosphere erupted with hundreds of critical emails after Najib announced the contract, which was awarded under the 1Malaysia Project, designed to drive the country into high-income nation status. An anti-1Malaysia e-mail Facebook account had 1,500 members signed up less than three hours after it was established.

The project, Najib said in announcing it at the Putrajaya International Convention Center in the government complex south of Kuala Lumpur, is to allow for "direct and secure communications between citizens and the government" as well as enhancing the "delivery of government services to consumers and businesses alike."

But critics said the project is an unnecessary duplication of commercial services like Facebook and Google that are already in place, not to mention the government's own websites. Asked if the project will conflict with e-government sites and services like MyEG, a Tricubes executive said the project differs from the existing initiatives.

"We will focus on delivery of notices and bills, MYEG is about online payment," CEO Khairun Zainal Mokhtar told a press conference after the announcement.

Asked how the companies came to be awarded the projects, Performance Management Delivery Unit chief executive officer Idris Jala, told reporters it was a mixed bag.

"For government projects like 1Malaysia Email Project, there was open bidding and Tricubes won the award," Idris said. "Other projects….are private projects that the company itself wanted to do. Our (government's) role is to facilitate approvals."

Lim Kit Siang, the parliamentary leader of the opposition Democratic Action Party, called the project "the ripoff of the century." Other opposition lawmakers complained about the project as well, saying that even if it were to be put in place, it would give the government potential access to millions of Malaysians' emails.

Premesh Chandran, the chief executive officer of the Malaysian website Malaysiakini, said the costs of maintaining the e-mail project would by themselves be controversial: "There is a need to maintain the site. Most of it will be for maintenance, to have the software in place, and make sure it is up to date. There is also the danger of spamming, so it involves a lot of risk and possibly costs," he said.

Chandran asked Malaysians needs a separate 1Malaysia email account when many already have their own emails.

"A cheaper solution is to approach established companies like Google to provide emails. Malaysiakini staff have already adopted Google for its email and it's free," he said, adding that with 7 million Facebook users in Malaysia, such messages could be delivered via Facebook for free.

He also questioned why users would want to access their bills via the 1Malaysia email account when some have already registered their emails with service providers like Telekom Malaysia, and Tenaga Nasional Bhd, the state-owned energy company.

"When we go to the National Registration Department, they also ask if we have an email on their form. So would there now be duplication?" he asked.

New initiatives

The project is one of seven new initiatives and five revisited endeavors that are part of 12 EPPs announced by Najib today.

The other projects are:

  1. Asia Media's RM500 million Digital LiveTransit-TV Broadcasting infrastructure

  2. Karambunai Corp Bhd-led consortium's RM9.6 billion Karambunai Integrated Resort City

  3. International Islamic University Malaysia's RM3.17 million initiative to develop and position Malaysia as the world's leading Islamic finance education hub

  4. Infineon Technologies' RM480 million expansion and upgrade to its production capacity, research and development and manufacturing facilities in Malacca

  5. Pensonic Holdings Sdn Bhd's RM250 million electrical home appliances manufacturing hub and international distribution network in Penang

  6. RM45 million Radio Frequency Identification infrastructure for security and automation of paperless Royal Malaysian Customs checkpoints

  7. Myled Master Sdn Bhd's RM175 million expansion to their manufacturing capability in LED lighting

  8. Federal Agriculture Marketing Authority's RM30 million 'Pasar Komuniti' initiative to co-ordinate and amalgamate day- and night-markets in locations with better facilities

  9. A RM3.26 million government baseline study on e-counter

With reporting with Malaysiakini