The Nurul Izzah conundrum

Her appointment as the PM’s senior advisor on economics and finance has drawn much criticism from all sides 

THE Princess of Reformasi Nurul Izzah Anwar is in the eye of a storm. An intense debate ignited when she made it known that she is now a senior advisor to the prime minister (PM) on economics and finance. No surprise on the debate. She is, after all, the daughter of a reformist leader. 

“I believe she will ensure contract tenders are in order. That’s all. Not getting contracts,” PM Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim told reporters the day after he came back from his first maiden official visit to Singapore as PM. The topic was still being vigorously debated, with many calling the PM to roll back the decision. 

Of course, Nurul Izzah would be advising on more than contracts alone. But let’s stick to contracts. 

It is common knowledge that public procurement is a high-risk area for corruption. The government and state-owned enterprises pay huge sums of money to procure goods and services, and get the job done. The processes are complex and challenging. It involves a good spread of stakeholders, from public officials to private companies. It does not take a genius to see the potential for corruption. There is plenty of room for it. 

On matters of government contracts, there is something that the three-month-old PM can do. Do this and you will have a thousand princes and princesses of reformasi working for you.
But, first, a story. Let us take you, 

Dear PM, back to June 1998. We are now at the Umno general assembly. You’re the deputy president of the then mighty party, now wounded and trying to find back its shine. And you are also the deputy PM and finance minister. Much power in your stride. 

But your then boss, PM Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, is not happy with you. Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the then Umno Youth chief, had mounted an attack on him, claiming that nepotism and cronyism was the order of the day when it came to dishing out privatised projects. It was seen as a proxy war, with you providing the air cover. 

Dr Mahathir’s comeback was brutal. On the second day of the Umno assembly, party delegates found in their possession a list of 

people who have been awarded privatised projects. It was a long list. The Umno president had told delegates that the party would release another list consisting of those who received shares allocation, approved permits for the importation of vehicles and licences. 

“All will be revealed so that we will know who exactly benefited from policies formulated by the government,” Dr Mahathir said, as quoted by Bernama. 

The clinical exposure was part of a political battle. It led to your eventual sacking from the government and the party. 

The next year, Umno assembly was the venue for more such exposures. This time, they received a list headlined “Special Bumiput- era shares allocated by the Finance Ministry from 1993 to 1998”. One of the sub-lists was headlined “Privatisation projects awarded to supporters of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim through the Economic Planning Unit”. 

The list was weaponised for political ends. Why not make such information public from day one? 

In Mexico, for example, the Law of Acquisitions, Leasing and Services of the Public Sector makes publication of procurement information on Compranet mandatory for federal institutions. Compranet is the procurement information system for federal government procurement procedures for goods, services, leasing and public works funded with federal resources, according to a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. 

Transparency in public procurement not only promotes accountability and ensures access to information, it also serves an important role in levelling the playing field for businesses and allowing small and medium enterprises to participate on a more equal footing, adds the report by the intergovernmental organisation. 

There you have it. It is time to give flesh to the various rules and codes that are on our books, or should be there. The public has a right to know if someone is benefiting from the system simply because he has the right cables. 

Anwar wants his daughter to help to look into contracts. The best response is to inject accountability and transparency. Make the details available online. This will allow the rakyat to become the vanguard of your reform. They will become your eyes and ears. 

As for Nurul Izzah, she will better serve the Reformasi cause by staying out of the government, as long as her father is leading it. 

But why make her step aside now? Why was it alright for her to take on roles like being a MP in the past? 

Back when Anwar and political comrades like Lim Kit Siang were deep in the Opposition trenches, many would not have minded their children getting into active politics. Then, it was truly a struggle against various odds. The children were not about to make handsome money or secure lucrative deals. Kit Siang’s son, Lim Guan Eng, even had to endure jail time. 

But they have moved out of the deep end of the Opposition ditch. They have tasted power. Anwar is now PM X. Guan Eng has served as Penang chief minister for over a decade and later as finance minister. Moving forward, would you be fine if Guan Eng tries to push his children into positions of political power? Maybe not. 

  • Habhajan Singh is the corporate editor at The Malaysian Reserve.

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition