Ahead of Malaysia polls, 1MDB CEO on nationwide tour to tackle tough questions

Ahead of Malaysia polls, 1MDB CEO on nationwide tour to tackle tough questions

Arul Kanda
1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) President on Oct 31, 2015. (Photo: AFP/Manan Vatsyayana)

KUALA LUMPUR: "Mr Arul, can you please explain why the government's money and the people's money is being used to buy yachts costing US$250 million?"

That question, posed by a retired civil servant in her mid-60s, is one of the tougher ones Arul Kanda has had to field in recent weeks. In the lead-up to Malaysia's 14th general elections, the president and CEO of 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) has been taking part in "ceramah" or talks across the nation.

Organised mainly by non-government organisations (although some are explicitly pro-government), he has addressed close to 30,000 people in more than 25 locations to answer questions about the controversies surrounding the now infamous state-owned investment firm.

The yacht in question is the Equanimity, which made headlines recently when it was seized by Indonesian authorities in February. The seizure was later overturned in court but the luxury yacht, registered to Malaysian financier Jho Low, is among almost US$1.7 billion worth of assets that the US State Department alleges were bought with funds misappropriated from 1MDB.

Speaking to Channel NewsAsia, Mr Arul said he usually responds to queries like this by saying that 1MDB has no control over what intermediaries do with funds paid to them.

"If I can see they're a little bit confused or not happy with that answer, I give an analogy," he said. 

"Let's say I deposit 10,000 dollars or ringgit into my bank account. The bank uses that money, the bank will lend money to Mr A who then goes and buys, say, a motorcycle and lends money to Mr B who then goes and buys a fancy mobile phone. Now, if I wanted my deposit back, is it right for me to take Mr A's motorcycle or Mr B's mobile phone?

"And then you can see the light shining in their eyes."

Mr Arul has made it his mission to ensure that Malaysians are in possession of a "full set of facts" and not just the opposition's spin - which will undoubtedly crop up during campaigning for the polls.

Much to the opposition's chagrin, no one has been charged in Malaysia despite investigations linked to 1MDB being opened in at least six nations and the local bipartisan Public Accounts Committee recommending further action be taken in 2016 following an audit.

Mr Arul argued that this is because there is no basis to prosecute the company and that even in the US, the civil suits have not yet gone to court. "Innocent until proven guilty" has been his mantra to people who ask. 

That is, if they care enough to ask in the first place. Mr Arul said, based on his observations, 1MDB has not been as big a concern on the ground despite the splashy headlines.

Arul Kanda Ceramah 2
A man asks 1MDB President Arul Kanda a question at a "ceramah" ahead of the Malaysia general election. (Photo: 1MDB)

"It is actually quite far down in the hierarchy of things that are important to people, with cost of living, graduate unemployment, etc, factoring in higher," he said. "Having said that, it is an issue ... and it's an issue being used by the opposition".

Mr Arul said he's countering the opposition narrative "with facts" out of responsibility to his company's shareholders - the government - and not because of any political calling.

But he hinted that that could change given the right opportunity. "There's a few more days to Nomination Day, so I guess we'll have to wait and see ... anything can happen between now and then," he said.

"This is self-promotion here but I feel I have certain skills: restructuring, an investment background and my ability to interact with people ... Ultimately it's up to the government of the day to decide if they feel that is something suitable for a role beyond the corporate world or a role in government".

TAKING ON MALAYSIA'S MOST NOTORIOUS FIRM

By his own admission, Mr Arul does seem to fit the bill for a potential career in politics.

He is known for having a gift for communication, or "charm" as many have described, plus a background in law and investment banking, and years of experience in the corporate world.

Before being brought in to turn around a troubled 1MDB in 2015, he was executive vice-president and head of investment banking at Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank - a job that he said paid much more and did not carry the notoriety of the firm at that stage.

"People say you can't work in a sewer without some of that stink rubbing off on you. I've obviously covered myself in rubber overalls and sprayed myself in the nicest perfume," he said.

"But the reality is, there is some negativity associated with my taking on the role. But fortunately, people who are objective about it, those who know me, my friends, family, professional colleagues - they realise Arul is doing a difficult job, and he's doing a job to fix the company."

He said that if no one had stepped in at the time, "you can only imagine the consequences at 1MDB".

"For example, the company would probably be in default, then there could be knock-on consequences onto the government and politics and so on."

Arul Kanda Ceramah
1MDB President Arul Kanda talks at a "ceramah" ahead of the Malaysia general election. (Photo: 1MDB)

According to Mr Arul, most of these problems he was brought in to fix and more - including a high-profile dispute with Abu Dhabi's International Petroleum Investment Company - have since been resolved.

Nevertheless, he's been asked to stay on longer to see to a handover of his responsibilities, activating the optional one year extension to his three-year contract. An announcement may be made by shareholders in due course on the details of that extension, which can be terminated by either party at any time.

After his 1MDB chapter comes to a close, Mr Arul said he looks forward to taking time away from the stress of the last few years to spend time with his wife and two young daughters. Then, perhaps, responding to one of the many calls he said he's received from around the world, asking him to step in to help restructure other companies. High on his list, however, would still be staying on in Malaysia and serving the "government of the day" in some form.

"Here's a Malaysian, who wants to serve the government and has capabilities and it's up to them decide," he said.

But first - Mr Arul has to complete his ceramah circuit, with at least another dozen or so stops to go before polling day on May 9.

Source: CNA/ec

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