Rethinking ECRL

In the wake of explosive testimony from Amhari Efendi Nazaruddin, a key aide to former prime minister Najib Razak, detailing how and why some of the troublesome infrastructure projects with China were conceived, Anwar Ibrahim has called for a review of the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) project. It will, no doubt, earn him the ire of many Pakatan Harapan (PH) leaders who, having exploited the issue to win votes prior to GE14, now prefer to let sleeping dogs lie.

We have known all along that the ECRL was part of a grand heist involving mega infrastructure projects conceived with the singular objective of diverting funds to cover the billions that were looted from 1MDB.

The spotlight is now back on China’s involvement in the whole affair. It was one thing to agree to participate in mega infrastructure projects in Malaysia, quite another for Beijing to go along with a scheme to defraud Malaysian taxpayers.

As I have noted in several previous articles, massive EXIM bank-funded projects like ECRL could not have been approved without senior Chinese government officials knowing about it. The way project costs were astronomically inflated, the absence of credible feasibility studies, the strange payments arrangement and the secretive nature of the negotiations must have raised alarm bells inside the Chinese bureaucracy.

That they went ahead anyway suggests that the normally cautious bureaucrats in Beijing saw a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to acquire a stranglehold over the leader of a key Southeast Asian nation and jumped at it despite the risks.

It was a high-stakes geopolitical gamble that, fortunately for us, ended in failure with Najib’s electoral defeat. If not for GE14, Malaysia could well have ended up forever subservient to China.

In the meantime, it is unlikely that Jho Low, who is thought to be hiding somewhere in China, will ever be extradited to face trial in Malaysia. He knows too much; his testimony, if forthcoming, would be even more embarrassing to China.

Domestically, of course, 1MDB/ECRL was the final nail in Najib’s coffin. Dr Mahathir and other PH leaders exploited it to the hilt as an election issue. Some would even say that Mahathir cynically used the fear of growing Chinese influence in the country to help swing Malay voters to his side. He warned, for example, of thousands of PRC nationals taking up residence in Forest City and that the country was slowly being pawned off to China. Kuantan’s “Great Wall of China” became a symbol of the unfettered power of Chinese companies under Najib.

Upon coming to power, however, Mahathir appears to have changed tack. Instead of cancelling the ECRL project, as many expected him to do, he persuaded Beijing to cut costs by some RM20 billion in exchange for reducing the scope of the project, called it a win-win outcome, and moved on.

As I said at the time, there was hardly anything to celebrate given that we ended up with a RM44 billion railway project we didn’t need, couldn’t afford and would have to subsidise for years to come. What is worse, we still don’t know the full details about the renegotiated project and neither have we seen any feasibility studies to justify going ahead with it.

Strangely, the DAP which once hammered the MCA mercilessly over their support for ECRL and other Belt and Road (BRI) infrastructure projects is now a BRI supporter. And, despite the party blasting Najib for appointing politicians as special envoys, DAP national chairman Tan Kok Wai was more than happy to replace MCA’s Ong Ka Ting as special envoy to China. Unbelievably, in a recent interview, he pushed the line that bilateral difficulties with China emerged because Mahathir “did not understand BRI” and that Mahathir’s views changed after he became “familiar” with it. In other words, it was all our fault!

It is, of course, understandable that, as special envoy, Tan would want to try to smooth ruffled feathers but surely his brief doesn’t include whitewashing one of the biggest scandals in Malaysia-China relations. In any case, he needs reminding that ECRL was not a ‘misunderstanding’ – it was a scheme to defraud the citizens of Malaysia.

Amazing how power and sinecure can affect perspective in such a short period of time.

It’ll also be interesting to see how Umno-PAS reacts. They are always quick to protest against imaginary slights by Malaysians of Chinese origin but have been silent in the face of real threats to our sovereignty perpetrated by their own leaders. Will Umno now reject Najib and all those who were complicit in these corrupt schemes?

I suppose it’s too much to expect the government to reopen the ECRL issue at this stage. Nevertheless, we must learn from it and make sure it never happens again. This is particularly urgent as several billion-ringgit infrastructure and defence procurement projects are once again being considered. The government should take heed of MACC chief Latheefa Koya’s recent warning that “a lot” of government bodies and GLCs are high-risk in terms of abuse and corruption, and quickly put in place a more transparent and accountable system of managing public tenders and projects.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.