IN THE THICK of election fever, there is no shortage of surprises and shocking news.
Last week, the local investing community was shocked by an open apology made by a prominent corporate player to caretaker premier Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, whom he criticised in the last general election (GE13).
Najib is leading the Barisan Nasional coalition into the May 9 general election (GE14) to seek another five-year mandate to rule the country.
Datuk Seri Stanley Thai, who founded and controls Supermax Corporation Bhd – one of the top four glove makers in the world – apologised to Najib on April 14 for having supported the Opposition in GE13.
Reading out a statement at a press conference accompanied by two Barisan politicians the previous Saturday, Thai said:
“I regretted getting involved in GEl3 – I believe I had been influenced by the Opposition. Being a businessman, I should not be involved in politics under any circumstances and I truly regretted it. I am now sincerely seeking forgiveness from Datuk Seri Najib for what I had done in the last election.”
Stating that he fully supported “the ruling government’s sound economic policies”, Thai thanked Najib for giving him an opportunity to explain the circumstances in which he had committed the political errors in 2013.
Before GE13, he reportedly said he would join most other Malaysian Chinese “in abandoning support for Najib” and vote for the Opposition for the first time in GE13.
In early 2013, he was introduced to then Opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and seen speaking during Opposition campaign rallies.
His open support for the Opposition was a refreshing and exciting news, given that few – if not none – among major corporate players would dare to take the risk to declare their real political stand and views.
Following Thai’s apology, the share price of Supermax jumped 7% on April 16 – the first trading day after his confession. For the rest of the week, it continued to charge.
Research analysts said Thai’s pro-government stance was “positive” for Supermax, which had hardly moved in the past despite exciting news that global demand for gloves is strong.
Although on April 16, the stock market was informed that former Trade Minister Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz had resigned as chairman of Supermax due to “personal reasons”, the company’s share price rose anyway.
According to China Press, Rafidah, who has spoken against Najib, said she disagreed with Thai’s decision to apologise.
Rafidah, appointed Supermax’s chairman in 2015, added she would stick to her principles and continue to air her political views against the authorities without fear.
Thai’s confession has irked the Opposition, particularly caretaker Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Azmin Ali of Selangor, where most of Supermax glove factories are located.
“Why only apologise now, why not last year? This is a very unfortunate political gimmick,” Azmin had said in response to Thai’s action.
Without a doubt, people generally see Thai’s confession as a case of backing the wrong horse and carelessly revealing his political stand during the last election.
And rightly or wrongly, businessmen read the apology as a reminder or warning to them not to back the Opposition.
Though most surveys show Najib’s Barisan as winning over opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition led by former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, there is no let up in Barisan efforts in this intense battle.
“This case reflects the type of political environment we are in. Businessmen are expected to support the government. Hence, whoever wants to back the Opposition will have to be very discreet about it,” says a political observer.
In fact, there is muted response from business groups over this high-profile case.
To some people who have followed developments in Supermax and the serious insider trading conviction Thai is battling against now, there is some sympathy for him.
To denounce his own previous acts that may not augur well for his credibility, Thai must have experienced tremendous pressure from some quarters. In another press conference last Wednesday, Thai denied he was under pressure to make the confession.
“It’s not easy for that man, who has been slapped with a five-year-jail sentence and a RM5mil fine for a case that happened 10 years ago. He just had to do what is best for himself, his family and the company. It’s not an easy decision,” said a post on i3Investor Supermax, an online forum for investors.
In fact, during the press conference, with Deputy Federal Territory Minister Datuk Dr Loga Bala Mohan Jaganathan sitting beside him on April 14, Thai was solemn-faced.
“Most people see this both as a reminder of the predicament of Malaysian businessmen who have to gingerly navigate their way in a highly politicised environment, as well as the manifestation of a will to survive – personally and business-wise,” says Dr Oh Ei Sun, senior adviser of think tank ASLI Malaysia.
Indeed, the once outspoken industry captain for the glove-making community has suffered one setback after another following the 2013 election, which saw Najib’s Barisan retaining control of the Federal Government.
Supermax’s share price plunged after the May 5 polling day in 2013. Even though the company has consistently made decent profits and paid dividends, its share price has been lacklustre compared to three other major glove players – Top Glove, Hartalega and Kossan.
In his press statement, Thai stated Supermax has faced various problems that have impeded its expansion plans. Infrastructure delay was cited as one of the problems.
“Our last two projects were delayed for two-and-a-half to three years due to the water supply issues in Selangor where most of our plants are located,” said the statement.
Whether by coincidence or not, Barisan has been hitting hard at Selangor for the state’s water woes.
At the personal level, the most devastating blow for Thai came late last year, when he was sentenced by the KL Sessions Court to five years in jail and a RM5mil fine for insider trading offences committed in October 2007 when he was CEO of APLI, a company delisted in 2009.
Thai is appealing against the decision in this case, initiated by the Securities Commission (SC) in Dec 2014 for communicating non-public information to another.
At the same time, Thai’s wife, as director of APLI, also faced a similar charge.
Thai had to quit as managing director of Supermax after the conviction.
“The investing public is linking Thai’s confession to his conviction. Will the SC agree to a reduced sentence for Thai?” asks a financial analyst.
In response to email questions from Sunday Star, an SC spokesman gives a brief reply: “Under the securities laws, all criminal prosecutions are initiated with the consent of the Public Prosecutor.””
Thai has denied his apology was linked to his court case.
While Thai’s apology has a positive impact on his Supermax shares, it remains to be seen whether it will have any impact on businessmen and investors in voting.
One question that begs pondering is: What will happen to Supermax and Thai if Pakatan Harapan takes over Putrajaya?