Malaysia minister Zahid Hamidi in deep water over letter to defend gambling kingpin

Malaysian Home Affairs Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi. -- ST PHOTO: THE STAR
Malaysian Home Affairs Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi. -- ST PHOTO: THE STAR

MALAYSIA'S Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is in a tight spot over a letter he wrote to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to help a gambling kingpin, raising questions over his links to the man.

Paul Phua Wei Seng, 50, said to be a former casino junket operator in Macau, was arrested in Las Vegas last year and subsequently charged with illegal bookmaking during the World Cup soccer tournament.

In the Dec 18 letter, said to have been written at the request of Phua's lawyers in the US, Mr Zahid said Phua is not a member of the Hong Kong-based 14K triad, an international crime syndicate. He also said Phua had, "on numerous occasions, assisted the government of Malaysia on projects affecting our national security".

Media reports on Monday said the letter was withdrawn after the Malaysia government objected to its use in court.

But the move failed to allay concerns over links between Malaysian leaders and underworld figures.

Mr Zahid has remained silent after news of the letter, which also expressed eagerness for Phua's return to Malaysia, surfaced last week.

"The time has come for Zahid to answer openly on this secret 'support letter' to end public speculation," said Mr Fahmi Fadzil, communications director for the opposition People's Justice Party (PKR), on Tuesday.

Reached by The Straits Times on Tuesday, Mr Zahid only referred to his refusal to comment earlier in the day to avoid swaying the court in Nevada.

"We must abide by the laws and jurisdiction of the country where an accused is charged," Bernama quoted him as saying.

Mr Fahmi, who also questioned the nature of "national security projects" mentioned in the letter, told The Straits Times that the opposition will pursue the matter in Parliament, which will sit in March.

On July 9 last year, FBI agents raided three luxury villas at the Caesar's Palace Hotel in Las Vegas where they allegedly found Phua, his son Darren, and six others surrounded by clusters of computers, monitors and televisions showing World Cup games and betting information, according to a Bloomberg report.

Phua, a familiar face at million-dollar-stakes poker clubs, was also arrested in Macau last June, together with more than 20 others, for operating an illegal sports gambling business that collected bets worth "hundreds of millions", according to US prosecutors. After he was released on bail, Phua flew off to Las Vegas on his US$48 million private jet.

shannont@sph.com.sg