PETALING JAYA: Several former ministers who were in the cabinet during Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s tenure as prime minister claim they do not remember if the 2002 purchase of Scorpene submarines was ever discussed.
The issue arose after Mahathir, who stepped down in 2003, told The Malaysian Insight earlier today that the decision to purchase the submarines was likely made when he was prime minister, although he had not been informed of it.
He said he only discovered that the defence minister at the time – Najib Razak – had made the order after his resignation.
Malaysia’s purchase of the Scorpene submarines has been mired in controversy following allegations of kickbacks, which triggered a French probe into firms involved in the deal.
Yesterday, AFP reported that Abdul Razak Baginda, a close associate of Najib, had been charged in France with “active and passive complicity in corruption” and “misappropriation of corporate assets” in the deal.
Razak had advised Najib during the latter’s tenure as defence minister between 2000 and 2008.
Speaking to FMT, former international trade and industry minister Rafidah Aziz, former de facto law minister Rais Yatim, and former foreign minister Syed Hamid Albar said they did not recall whether the deal was ever discussed in the cabinet.
Former works minister Samy Vellu and former housing and local government minister Ong Ka Ting meanwhile refused to comment.
Rafidah said perhaps Mahathir’s memory served him better than hers.
“I can’t remember, 2002 was too long ago,” she said.
“If Mahathir says so. I mean, he was the chairman then.
“Honestly, I switched my mind off of all these things.”
Rais said he could not remember any discussion that was particularly interesting during his time as de facto law minister.
“There was no discussion that I can recall that would be of interest to anybody. I didn’t have the opportunity in that respect,” he said.
Ong refused to comment on the matter, saying it would be “unwise” for him to comment on things he could no longer remember.
“I don’t think I would want to comment on something I could not remember,” he said.
Syed Hamid agreed that it was likely the decision was not discussed in cabinet but added that he could not confirm this.
“I don’t remember at all,” he said.
“Usually, before any kind of purchase or tender is made, it is not discussed in the cabinet. It’s always the decision of the tender board and finance ministry.”
Meanwhile, Samy Vellu said he would not comment as he was no longer in politics.
Rais pointed out that it was against the law to discuss such matters with the public as what was said in cabinet meetings was officially secret.
“They may have forgotten about the law but I haven’t forgotten the law. If the court orders us to say something about what happened in the cabinet, then we can say something.
“If it’s for the media, I would advise all ministers or former ministers to refrain from discussing these matters,” he said.
Rais said whatever happened in the cabinet would have been minuted but that authorisation was needed in order to obtain those minutes.
The Malaysian Insight report had quoted Mahathir as saying that there were no cabinet papers on the purchase.
Najib oversaw the deal worth nearly €1 billion (RM5 billion) to buy two Scorpene-class submarines and one Agosta-class submarine from French naval dockyards unit DCN, which is linked to French defence group Thales.
As part of the deal, DCN agreed to pay €30 million to Thales’ Asian unit, Thales International Asia (Thint Asia).
An investigation into the deal was launched in 2010 in response to a complaint from Malaysian rights group Suaram.
French investigators are also looking into allegations that €114 million was paid to a purported Malaysia-based shell company, Perimekar, as part of the deal. That company was controlled at the time by Razak’s wife.