POLITICS make strange bedfellows. In unveiling his council of eminent persons to help advise the Government during the first 100 days, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad will team up with some of his critics during his past tenure as Prime Minister.
Until yesterday, nobody would have imagined that Dr Mahathir and the likes of businessman Robert Kuok and prominent economist Prof Dr Jomo Kwame Sundaram sitting together discussing how best to shape the economy under Pakatan Harapan.
Kuok, who is from Johor, built a global commodities empire from Hong Kong. He is not known to be a fan of Dr Mahathir’s past policies.
However, his presence in the team assembled to help Dr Mahathir is a huge endorsement for the new Government.
“Kuok is a well-respected name in the international investment community. The support he drew three months ago when he came under criticism from some senior Umno leaders is a testament of the respect he commands,” said a fund manager.
In his memoirs, Kuok had said that he advised then prime minister Tun Hussein Onn to drop the affirmative policies that the Government adopted post-1969 and instead get the best brains to run the country.
However, Kuok said that Hussein told him it was too late and he could not change the track.
At that time, Dr Mahathir was Hussein’s deputy and one of the leading proponents in favour of the Government’s affirmative policies to help the bumiputra community improve their economic standards.
In Dr Mahathir’s 22 years as Prime Minister, Kuok did not participate in any government initiative.
He only came back to serve the Government for a short stint as a board member of Iskandar Regional Development Authority in 2007.
That was during the tenure of Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi as Prime Minister.
In February this year, the contents of his memoirs somewhat evolved into allegations of Kuok funding DAP to overthrow the Barisan Nasional Government.
He came under fire, especially from Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Aziz. The 94-year-old Kuok denied such allegations but Nazri refused to apologise.
Prof Jomo is known for his critical views of Dr Mahathir’s economic policies back then.
He was vocal about Dr Mahathir’s penchant for mega projects and his privatisation of government entities to people seen as close to Umno then.
Prof Jomo was also critical of Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s policies such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA).
However, Prof Jomo supported some of Najib’s policies such as BR1M and minimum wage.
Prof Jomo was a lecturer in Universiti Malaya and later went on to serve the United Nations as the assistant secretary-general for economic development.
The other members of the council are former Petronas president Tan Sri Hassan Marican and former Bank Negara governor Tan Sri Zeti Aziz. The team is headed by former Finance Minister Tun Daim Zainuddin.
They are to advise the Government on policies and programmes to help Pakatan achieve its election promises in the first 100 days.
Among the key challenges that the Government will face is replacing the Goods and Services Tax (GST) with the Sales and Service Tax and implementing a targeted fuel subsidy programme for petrol.
The fear is that Malaysia would incur a higher budget deficit, something that could cause it be downgraded by international rating agencies.
Hassan, an accountant by training, was a long-time CEO of Petronas and knows the oil and gas industry well.
After his stint in Malaysia ended in 2010, he went on to serve companies owned by Singapore’s investment arm, Temasek.
As for Zeti, she worked with Dr Mahathir to help consolidate the banking industry since the 1998 economic crisis.
She retired in 2016 as the longest-serving Bank Negara governor during the height of investigations into the alleged irregular financial transactions of 1MDB.
After she left, she kept a low profile but her views on 1MDB are well documented.
Among all the members, the selection of Kuok is indeed a surprise. It is a master-stroke by Dr Mahathir to garner investor confidence.
One of Kuok’s best-known trading mantra is that every single material thing that he has in life can be traded and is for sale.
“It is a question of when, where, to whom and price. The first three are more important. If you like the person, the price becomes unimportant,” Kuok once said.
By agreeing to join Dr Mahathir’s team, Kuok and Dr Mahathir have obviously made peace.
And going by Kuok’s trading mantra, he has probably agreed to trade his ideas on how to reform Malaysia’s economic policies for free.