Long story to tell, but there I was on April 1, 1986 at Pertanian Baring Sanwa (PBS) as its chief executive in its somewhat sleepy office at the Bank Pertanian (now Agrobank) building in Lebuh Pasar Besar, contemplating my fate and the future of one of the smallest merchant banks in Malaysia.
Although Bank of Commerce (a Fleet Group, Umno, affiliate) was soon to take control of PBS, the local corporate sector shunned me, being someone in the prime minister’s bad books. That’s how it is in Malaysia. And I had no “what’s in a name” advantages.
To cut a long story short, based on some strong relationships with foreign companies forged with the help of one of the shareholders Baring Brothers, and with some good people in PBS, like Robert Cheim, Carol Tan, Mahyuddin Abdul Rahman and Johari Muid, I decided to go for it to get PBS out of the doldrums.
When Bank of Commerce came in, I gave the bank a new name – CIMB (Commerce International Merchant Bank) – with a new logo which remains the basis till today, moved office (to what was then Pernas International on Jalan Sultan Ismail) – and had Carol Tan in palpitations during the rapid and expensive makeover.
I took the staff up to Fraser’s Hill and told them we were going to be the leading corporate advisory house in the country. At the personal level, I told myself that while failure was an orphan, success had many fathers.
I cleared the lines with the important people in the country, except for Mahathir, who did not prove to be a barrier at this time, and CIMB obtained some excellent eye-catching mandates, culminating in the piece de resistance – the TNB listing.
It was the most difficult mandate for me to get for CIMB. We had huge competition. The veritable late Malek Merican from Arab Malaysian Merchant Bank and heavyweight Rashid Hussain were in the ring. I was at the ministry of finance (which owned TNB), including with the minister of finance, countless times. I went to see TNB chairman Ani Arope and his management on so many occasions until they were utterly convinced of what CIMB could do for their company.
I must recognise Steve Wong, an indefatigable work horse, who drove the corporate advisory team. I remember his coming to me in 1989 not sure whether CIMB should employ someone who might be a problem because he was Tun Razak’s son. I said to him a person’s name should work neither for nor against him. Hence I said CIMB could employ Nazir Razak, as long as he was qualified and was prepared to work hard.
There was some prevarication on who got the TNB mandate in “What’s in a Name”, I guess, because it was not only seminal for CIMB but also a turning point in Malaysian capital market history. We introduced and executed for the first time market-driven pricing, wholesale and retail price differentiation, road-shows across the world, etc – all those things which are par for the course nowadays.
All this, I have been told, is recorded in materials and pictures for the CIMB story that had been prepared which, however, were pushed aside for a more exclusively centralised version that formed a substantial part of “What’s in a Name”.
The book celebrates Razak’s values for family, society and country. Those values, I am sure, would include his son recognising someone who had employed him and laid the foundations of the institution upon which he excelled.
Now to my second point.
Mainly as a result of already evident success at CIMB, particularly the TNB listing, I was invited to establish the Securities Commission (SC) as its first and founding chairman in 1993.
It was not an easy job, but that’s another story. It was not bad for CIMB, however. Just because I was from CIMB, the Malaysian corporate rumour mill started spinning that submissions made to the SC by the bank were efficaciously and favourably considered.
This was absolutely not true, of course, but CIMB was not so stupid as to deny it. The SC had no business to say anything about other people’s stupidity or good fortune.
Then, in 1997, the SC filed charges for short-selling of Proton and Amcorp shares against a CIMB Securities dealer’s representative, CIMB Securities and Credit Lyonnaise (CL). The first short-selling prosecution was in 1993 of Ibrahim Mohamed (Promet), someone close to the prime minister, for which I got roasted.
In the CIMB case, there were representations that the investigations be stopped. I did not interfere with investigations and did nothing of the sort.
The dealer’s representative paid dearly in this episode. I do not wish to go into great detail but, ultimately, in June 2010, after I had long left the SC, the charges against CIMB and CL were withdrawn and they were compounded instead.
In “What’s in a Name”, it was insinuated that I was personally responsible for what happened to the dealer’s representative. There was supposed to have been a letter written to me saying I was “wrong” which was circulated to all CIMB staff. To boot it was stated in the book the dealer was victimised and the whole case was politically motivated.
All this distresses me greatly as I have never in my life victimised anyone (‘aniayakan’, a word in Malay, captures the meaning better of something deeply sinful in Islam).
This kind of bold accusation I would not have made. I believe in a culture of respect and am not given to Wall Street “masters of the universe” swagger.
Never mind all that, to continue with the story, after I ended my term at the SC in 1999, there was some kind of cabal that blocked my appointment as chairman of CIMB which the minister of finance was contemplating.
A so-called close friend was in cahoots and made strong representation against my appointment for the upheaval that was promised it would cause in CIMB. It finally did not take place.
I do not know if it was the short-selling case that had antagonised those at the top in CIMB or whatever other reasons, I can only speculate, but the upshot is that was that.
Not born privileged, I have no sense of entitlement. I left the country doing bits and pieces in London and Toronto to clear my head. “What’s in a Name” clarified and brought back memories of what happened then.
Life goes on. Jomo Sundram jokingly calls me the comeback kid. I have managed adversities, even treachery. I continue to work hard and I have done a few things for the country with the help of a lot of great people of all races in our beloved Malaysia.
On CIMB, what cannot be taken away from me is that I laid its foundations. It is like a beloved child raised in difficult times for which I will always have fond memories. It may have grown – for which Nazir Razak must be given due credit – beyond all recognition, but let us not forget how it, and we, all started.
Munir Majid is an FMT reader.