Malaysia opposition warns against proposed tax investment panel

KUALA LUMPUR (REUTERS) - Malaysia's government has submitted a bill to parliament that would create an investment panel inside the country's tax revenue agency which could invest in a wide range of areas, including initial public offerings of companies.

The bill, scheduled for debate in parliament next week, has drawn stiff criticism from opposition politicians, who said it would allow the government to channel taxpayers' money into potentially risky investments.

The proposed investment panel comes as controversy dogs sovereign investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), chaired by Prime Minister and Finance Minister Najib Razak, which is struggling under US$11 billion (S$13.7 billion) in debt.

Under the proposed amendment to the Inland Revenue Board Act, the new panel would be made up of seven appointees, including the central bank governor, a finance ministry representative, and a chief executive officer. The chairman of the panel and at least three other members would be chosen by Mr Najib.

The panel can invest in stocks, corporate bonds, and in IPOs, and is entitled to establish companies to engage in "any scheme or enterprise" planned by the Board, according to a copy of the bill seen by Reuters.

"This bill will not involve the government in any extra financial expenditure," the bill says.

Legislation proposed by the government is usually approved by parliament, where the long-ruling National Front coalition has a working majority. An official at the Prime Minister's Office said he could not immediately respond to questions about the bill.

Mr Wong Chen, an opposition member of parliament, told Reuters the proposed panel lacked accountability and had no limit on the amount of funds it could invest. "Why are they hijacking money meant for public services? There's no limit how much the panel can take from the IRB to be used for investments."

The government could use the panel to support the planned IPO this year of 1MDB's power assets, Mr Wong said. The market debut, worth up to US$2 billion, is seen as crucial to 1MDB's fortunes, but has been delayed and is only expected to go ahead late this year.

Critics have questioned 1MDB's investment choices, the size of its debt, US$2.25 billion parked in a Cayman Island fund, hundreds of millions of dollars paid to Goldman Sachs for handling bond issues, delays in its accounts, changes of auditors, and a perceived lack of transparency.