From Tony Pua
I have written a two-part response to excerpts published in former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s new memoir which cast negative aspersions on me in my former role as the political secretary to the finance minister.
The first was in response to the false accusation that I had threatened Indonesian developer Djoko Tjandra (as I’ve never met or spoken to him or his company’s representatives).
The second was over his claim that I spoke on behalf of the government when I had no authority to do so. This would refer to the open letter which I wrote to defend the Pakatan Harapan (PH) Cabinet decision to terminate the MRT2 underground contract with MMC-Gamuda, as instructed by the finance minister.
In a media conference on Dec 7, responding to the first part of my statement, Mahathir doubled down on his comments against me.
“(While) I cited only one example (in my new book), other businesspersons (including) a Chinese, told me that he was very arrogant. That’s the word they used. He behaved as if he was the minister,” he said.
Malaysiakini reported that “Mahathir, who admitted that he favours businesspersons due to the wealth and job opportunities brought by investors, said a political secretary should not go around threatening the business community”.
“Because of this person, a lot of businesspersons are against the government because they think the government is not sympathetic to their cause,” he said without mincing words.
Let me start by reiterating that I have never threatened any property developer or businessperson during my time as the political secretary to the finance minister.
On the issue of my purported “arrogance”, it was again a matter which was raised previously with then finance minister Lim Guan Eng. Back then, Mahathir already emphasised that “even (a) Chinese businessman” was not happy with me – as if the race of the person is of particular importance.
However, because he has never revealed who this particular Chinese businessman is, I have had no opportunity to respond, explain or exonerate myself. Perhaps, it might be better for Mahathir to disclose who this complainant might be and let Malaysians be the judge.
Like it or not, I spent the last few days pondering over which particular “Chinese” businessman in Mahathir’s circle of business friends I might have offended, who complained that I was “very arrogant”. To be honest, not many come to mind.
I can only speculate that the likeliest person was someone who wrote to the prime minister in 2018 to extend his gaming concession by 30 years, in exchange for a RM150 million “licence fee” to the government.
This request was then forwarded to Lim for his consideration as finance minister. The proposal was rejected outright. I never met this particular businessman, nor was I involved in the decision-making on the proposal.
I made it a point to avoid the businessman as far as possible. I knew he was lobbying certain other ministers for support, even after the initial proposal was rejected. The fact that I was a political secretary, and burdened with the myth (yes, it’s a myth spread by BN cybertroopers) that I was the “power broker” behind the finance minister, I could very well be deemed “very arrogant” for being extremely evasive.
In the end, the businessman finally succeeded in persuading Mahathir to approve the deal in early January 2020, by doubling the licence fee offered. However, the PH government collapsed a month later before it could be executed.
If this was indeed the “Chinese” businessman who complained about my “arrogance”, then I would plead mea culpa. But I would not have done anything any differently.
Doing my job
Throughout my 20 months working for the finance minister, I’ve met countless people. Those who worked with me would know that my meeting schedules often run till midnight, nearly seven days a week.
In these meetings, I would meet many people from the banking and finance industry, industrialists, trade association leaders, people who have ideas to share and people who have complaints, grouses or appeals to bring to the minister.
I would listen and bring the proposals back to the minister for consideration. Many excellent proposals were sourced via these meetings.
These would include the setting up of a RM2 billion MySalam critical illness and hospitalisation fund for the B40, contributed by the insurance industry.
This fund has benefited more than 120,000 Malaysians to date.
Another would be the first Home Ownership Campaign under PH in 2019, proposed by the Real Estate Housing Developers Association.
I would however avoid parties who are only interested in securing contracts via direct negotiation with the government. The minister would always tell me to inform them that in the event the government is interested in the project, an open tender would be called, and they would be invited to participate.
I would also avoid meetings where I could be seen to be compromised, if the party was already participating in a government tender, or if they were making dubious proposals – like fancy cryptocurrencies.
As a matter of habit, I would decline lunch or dinner invitations from tycoons and businessmen because they took too much time, and there’s probably too much small talk.
I don’t know if Mahathir would define these traits as being “very arrogant” or behaving “like a minister”.
I don’t know of a minister who schedules near-hourly meetings in cafes or coffee shops, or runs around town ensuring that his/her programmes are running smoothly and effectively.
As one can tell from the statements I’ve written so far, Mahathir doesn’t like me very much. In fact, I’m probably the only political secretary ever to be openly castigated by a prime minister during Cabinet meetings.
My biggest disappointment, however, is the fact that despite being a prominent MP of his PH administration, and a leader in the DAP, Mahathir never once sought to clarify any issues with me.
There was never even a casual meeting where he could cast an eye on me and make his own judgment as to who I was. He never once gave me a chance to defend myself. He didn’t trust the team elected by the people.
His entire perception of me, I can now confirm, is painted and formed by business circles and perhaps political sentiments fanned by the naysayers in Bersatu and Umno.
I did my best to maintain as low a profile as possible during PH’s reign, so as not to do anything that might inadvertently stir Mahathir’s wrath and get my minister summoned to his office again (and again). After all, even when I issued statements to defend Cabinet decisions, it ticked off the prime minister.
My constituents often asked me why I was “so quiet” when in government. I told them the truth — there was a lot of good work to be done to help the people and the economy while working with the finance minister. There’s no need for me to speak out loud all the time.
Doing our best
Despite these challenges, I’ve never once openly griped about Mahathir. He is who he is, and he was the prime minister.
We do the best we can under the circumstances, to deliver as much as we can. We wanted to help turn the economy around while we were given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in the finance ministry.
We were desperate for PH to succeed, even if Mahathir wasn’t entirely aligned with our vision.
As stated in Part II, I was fortunate to have a relentless Lim as the minister who persevered against sheer frustration, to persuade and convince Mahathir on the policies we wanted to implement. For example, if not for Lim, Malaysians will not be enjoying the massive 18% toll rate reduction on the North-South Expressway, and never ever face another toll hike on the highway again.
The restructuring was done without the need for a single sen of compensation by the government.
The stories in these three parts (and much more) were buried deep in my memories. I never intended to write about them. Writing about them will not solve the problems we face today or overcome the (political) challenges of the future.
After all, Mahathir is all but a past tense. Hence, there was no need to whine about what took place.
Malaysians need to move forward, and we need to try again for a second chance to do better the next time round.
But his decision to vent his unhappiness, casting unfair negative aspersions on me in his memoirs, have put paid to the effort to leave the past behind.
I have little choice but to put my side of the story on record, and let Malaysians be the judge.
Tony Pua is the MP for Damansara.