Sedition case: Arrests put spotlight on Malaysian media baron

Mr Tong Kooi Ong's links to former deputy prime minister- turned- opposition chief Anwar Ibrahim are seen as a bane.
Mr Tong Kooi Ong's links to former deputy prime minister- turned- opposition chief Anwar Ibrahim are seen as a bane.FILE PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

Equity analyst. Bank owner. Property tycoon. Media magnate. Mr Tong Kooi Ong has worn several hats in a high-flying career that has at times put him under the uncomfortable glare of the media.

It is a situation blamed in part on his past association with former deputy prime minister- turned-opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. In Singapore, the 55-year-old is a major shareholder of two listed firms - paper and packaging products firm UPP Holdings and real estate services company 3Cnergy.

His name surfaced in the Malaysian media this week when five executives of his The Edge Media Group were arrested for sedition.

The police said the arrests were necessary so that the five could help in investigations into a story published in The Malaysian Insider (TMI) news portal involving the country's Malay rulers. TMI is owned by The Edge group. The five men have since been released.

Mr Tong's The Edge group said it has "cooperated fully" and will continue to aid in police investigations. This case might well force him to wrestle with the authorities again.

In the 1990s, Mr Tong was a research manager at Morgan Grenfell Securities who was often tapped for advice by Anwar's close associates.

In 1993, he and his partners received approval from then Finance Minister Anwar to take over a troubled small bank, Cooperative Central Bank. He bought a one-branch bank owned by United Overseas Bank, merged it with Cooperative Central's seven branches and renamed them Phileo Allied Bank.

In Malaysia, the cosy nexus between businessmen and politicians is often a boon. In Mr Tong's case, it has been a bane since Anwar got kicked out of government.

Though a small bank, Phileo Allied was known for its innovative products. In 1995, it was the first in Malaysia to introduce online banking and online stock trading. Yet, following the 1998 Asian financial crisis, Mr Tong was forced to sell Phileo Allied to the country's biggest lender, Maybank. Some 50 commercial banks and finance houses were merged into 10 mega-banks in the consolidation.

Mr Tong wrote in his blog in October 2013: "In the name of consolidation of the banking sector, an innovative technologically superior and profitable bank was forced to be sold in 2001."

To some observers at the time, he was forced to sell because of his close links with Anwar, who was sacked in 1998.

He started The Edge weekly business magazine in 1994. The group started publishing The Edge Singapore in March 2002.

In 2003, he bought a stake in Sunrise, Malaysia's biggest developer of luxury condominiums. In 2010, Sunrise was sold to government-backed UEM Land. Pro-Umno blogs questioned the deal, which they saw as rewarding a businessman many consider to be pro-Anwar.

In 2013, Mr Tong got a licence to publish a daily newspaper, only to see it revoked a week later after rival media groups appealed to the government. Last year, he bought TMI, with its reputation for running "anti-government" stories.

In recent months, The Edge and TMI have been running stories on the financial mess created by state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), whose chief adviser is Prime Minister Najib Razak. The reports have entangled Mr Tong with tycoon Low Taek Jho, who helped Datuk Seri Najib set up 1MDB.

reme@sph.com.sg