PETALING JAYA: There were easily 80 Bank Negara senior officials and more than 100 journalists converging on the 16th floor of the central bank waiting to hear what governor Tan Sri Dr Zeti Akhtar Aziz had to say.
The officials, seated on rows of chairs neatly arranged along the side of and behind Zeti, watched as the seasoned central banker fielded questions ranging from the economy to Bank Negara’s probe into 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) and The Wall Street Journal’s (WSJ) report of US$700mil (RM2.6bil) going into the personal account of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak in March 2013.
In the 19 years of covering the central bank, of which the last 15 were with Zeti as the governor, never had the attention been more on the governor than yesterday.
Bank Negara press conferences are normally cut and dry. They are straightforward events leading right into the heart of the matter – which is the state of the economy. Typical of central bankers – there is no time for small talk.
Questions touching on investigations relating to individuals, companies or banks are deftly parried away under the guise of the Banking and Financial Institutions Act (Bafia). Under the Bafia, banking matters cannot be divulged in public.
Moreover, the cautious Bank Negara hardly talks about individuals or banks even on matters such as takeovers.
But then, the circumstances yesterday were extenuating. Never before has the integrity of the governor been questioned in blogs and taken up in public by at least one corporate personality. The allegations were that her husband and son had received Government contracts.
Also, never before has the professional conduct of central bank officials on maintaining secrecy on banking transactions been an issue.
The governor set the mood right when she walked into the room with a smile and remarked “we have never seen so many reporters here before”.
That broke the ice.
Halfway into her presentation on how the economy had fared in the second quarter of this year, she told the photographers to stop clicking away. The hall knew that the 68-year-old Zeti had come well-prepared from her closing remarks before opening the session to questions from reporters.
She told journalists that she would take questions in relation to the economy and financial markets first before dealing into other matters. That set the tempo for the agenda of the day.
In recent weeks, some blogs have alleged that three senior Bank Negara officials, including its deputy governor Datuk Nor Shamsiah Mohd Yunus, were being investigated by the authorities in relation to the leakage of information of accounts supposedly belonging to the Prime Minister.
This came about after WSJ reported in the first week of July that an amount of US$700mil (RM2.6bil) had gone into the accounts of Najib in March 2013, before the general election.
Following the report, a task force comprising the Attorney-General, Bank Negara, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and the Royal Malaysian Police was set up to investigate the transfer of funds.
In the first week of August, the Attorney-General was replaced and the task force disbanded. The investigations turned into how information on bank accounts, which is supposed to be highly confidential, was purportedly leaked instead.
At the two-hour press conference yesterday, Zeti flatly denied any truth in the allegations against her family and Bank Negara officials. She also clearly outlined what Bank Negara had investigated and what it cannot probe.
The central bank has concluded its investigations into the financial trails of 1MDB and presented the findings, together with its recommendations for the action to be taken, to the Attorney-General.
Zeti, who is normally at ease when handling questions to the point that she rarely refers matters to her senior officers or to a prepared text, weighed her answers carefully on questions with regards to the transfer of money allegedly into the accounts of the Prime Minister.
“This is what I can say ... I may contravene the law and be arrested for talking about an individual’s account when I leave this room,” said the governor in jest, drawing laughter with her remarks.
She later read from a prepared note that it was not a matter under the purview of Bank Negara because it does not have access to the accounts of individuals. The central bank, however, assists other enforcement agencies if it is approached.
Many had come to the press conference thinking that difficult questions would be addressed but without getting any answers.
But that was not the case.
They went back knowing that the central bank was fighting a courageous battle to keep the financial system intact.