There is no getting away from it. However you look at the Port Klang Free Zone debacle, all trails go back to former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who was also the finance minister.
A day after his shock arrest, the charges preferred against Ling Liong Sik, the former Transport Minister who had helped push through the huge project, seem to be deliberately crafted so that his lawyers can have them overturned with ease.
The 67-year old was charged under Section 418 of the Penal Code for misleading the Cabinet between Sept 25 and Nov 6, 2002, into agreeing to buy 999.5 acres of land on Pulau Indah at a price of RM25psf on a deferred payment method for a 15-year period, at a 7.5 percent interest rate.
The charge sheet went on to say the Finance Ministry had already valued the land at RM25psf - inclusive of compounded interest - and this fact was withheld from the Cabinet by the accused. The difference comes up RM720 million. Ling was therefore charged for cheating.
The PAC factor
Yet at last year’s high-profile inquiry conducted by the Public Accounts Committee, former secretary-general of the Transport Ministry Zaharah Shaari went on record to say that the land acquisition was done with the full knowledge of the Cabinet.
How can this be? Firstly, the PAC study showed the government would have spent RM442.13 million and saved RM645.87 million if the land for PKFZ was acquired in accordance with the Land Acquisition Act 1960.
Secondly, according to Zaharah, Ling knew about this and agreed with the Treasurer-General to buy the land in accordance with the Land Acquisition Act 1960.
Thirdly, the matter was then referred back to the Cabinet and Ling briefed Mahathir about it. Mahathir, who ruled Malaysia with a fist of iron for 22 years, has kept a conspicuous silence on Ling's arrest.
Ultimately, Ling's case will hinge on who is telling the truth and Zaharah's PAC testimony already casts enough reasonable doubt to have the case thrown out.
“Our job in Ministry of Transport is to only state the fact that we want the land. Costings, valuations and all that, it is not the function of the Ministry of Transport. We do not have a Valuation Department," was Ling's own testimony to PAC.
“Costings and valuations is a question for the Treasury to deal with. They have the Valuation Department and everything is there, not in Ministry of Transport. I think [it was] Tun Dr Mahathir who chaired it, and he was the finance minister also. He saw it very clearly. That was the fact of the case.”
But does that mean Ling was totally uninvolved in any PKFZ impropriety?
Does it also mean that if Ling passes the buck back to Mahathir, the Najib administration will seize on the opportunity to turn on the former premier. Highly unlikely. In fact, more likely than not, they will say there is not enough evidence.
Then what is this whole episode about? Why did the Najib administration go after Ling then? Why entangle themselves in such a dubious mess? What is the benefit to them? Already, the Pakatan Rakyat leaders are smelling blood and the public has begun blasting Najib for putting on another ‘show’.
Yet according to an Umno watcher, Ling is just the start of an aggressive move to weed out corruption. It marks a new beginning and also the ending of a 5-decades old culture of corruption, he added.
“It is the same question over and over. Where do we draw the line? Does it make you feel good to see Ling, who is 67, and Mahathir, who is 85, go to jail? Rafidah is already 71, Chan Kong Choy has a chronic illness. What do we do?” the Umno watcher asked Malaysia Chronicle.
“If we don’t do anything, Pakatan kills us at the ballot boxes. We are also sending the wrong message to our own people at a time when we really need to break this culture of corruption. The top leaders have agreed - once there is enough evidence, the MACC will act. Even the AG will not be spared if there is proof."
Reduce discretionary powers, pass better laws
But who will watch over the top guns? Apparently, they have also agreed to stop and no one will be exempt anymore, or so the Umno watcher said.
But surely, there are better solutions, solutions that are less arbitrary, less subjective and less dependent on the whim of one man and his advisers.
If Najib wants Malaysians to buy into his anti-corruption blitz, then firstly, he must voluntarily reduce his own discretionary powers and let the letter of the law play the dominant role.
Secondly, whether or not the people will still pay any attention to him will hinge on who he next arrests.
If he wants to spare people like Mahathir, Badawi, and Rafidah, then he had better make sure he compensates by really hunting down all the other Umno leaders who have been indulging. Not just those in MCA or other BN components, and not just Pakatan leaders either. In Malaysia's power equation, these are just small fry who can be easily bullied.
The clock is ticking down on Najib. If this turns out to be another charade, then he would really be slamming the door on himself.