Minister steps in to stop Mara defence leak more ‘own goals’

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The decision by Rural and Regional Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob to suspend with immediate effect the sponsorship of the Kelantan FA (Kafa) by Mara is no small matter by any account.

It all started out as a war of words between two state football leaders – one who owns his state football team, Johor Darul Takzim, and the other who until recently was his state FA president – and had quickly escalated into an expose of alleged abuse of power and possible conflict of interest.

The two football leaders, Johor crown prince Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim and former Kafa president Annuar Musa, had been going at each other in the past few months over the state of football at the national level as well as the state level, including the management of their respective clubs.

Ultimately, it was a matter of stirring the hornets nest that led to Tunku Ismail, better known as TMJ, hitting back with an allegation that a “Tan Sri” had forced Mara and its entities to sponsor the Kelantan team, otherwise known as the Red Warriors.

It did not need much guessing to figure out that the “Tan Sri” was none other than Annuar, who has also been Mara chairman since July 2013.

TMJ had alleged there could be a conflict of interest involved and that funds meant for students had been diverted to Kafa instead.

TMJ also provided photographs of documents showing a RM500,000 sponsorship by Mara subsidiaries, Universiti Kuala Lumpur (UniKL) from 2014, and an additional RM200,000 by Pelaburan Mara in 2016, to Kafa.

The allegation does suggest that the timing of Annuar taking the helm at Mara and the start of the sponsorship by UniKL the following year may not be entirely coincidental.

But what really grabbed the attention of the powers that be was most likely TMJ’s assertion that Annuar could be a political liability for Umno in Johor, if the former federal minister continued to escalate his attacks against TMJ and JDT too.

The move by Ismail Sabri on Sunday seems to suggest that there was some wrongdoing on the part of Mara, and Annuar’s meek acquiescence to his boss’ directive just proves TMJ’s “political liability” warning was not taken lightly.

After all, Annuar had just a few days earlier, denied the allegations of using Mara funds meant for students to sponsor Kafa.

To be fair to Annuar, the amounts don’t really bear testimony to such an allegation. Not when Mara had its scholarship fund cut by about half a billion ringgit last year.

But the negative implication from an allegation that a body meant to look after the interests of bumiputera students had instead made what could be seen as a frivolous “expense” to aid its chairman’s football association, was just not worth the risk.

As Umno information chief, Annuar also carried a greater weight of responsibility on his shoulders.

It was not worth risking the party at a time when Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) led by former deputy prime minister and Johor native, Muhyiddin Yassin was gaining some momentum, following their recent launch.

It is no surprise, therefore, that the minister had to intervene and put on his “good cop” hat to show that an investigation will be carried out to determine “how much was given (to Kafa) and when such sponsorship had started”.

When the results of such a probe will be made public, and whether Annuar would survive this controversy is left to be seen.

K Anand is executive editor at FMT.

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