New council to provide advice on economic matters, probe 1MDB

PETALING JAYA • Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has formed a council of elders to advise the government on economic and financial matters as it seeks to fulfil its campaign promises in its first 100 days.

This group of "eminent persons" will be led by former finance minister Daim Zainuddin, and comprise former central bank governor Zeti Akhtar Aziz, former Petronas chief Hassan Marican, billionaire Robert Kuok and renowned economist Jomo Kwame Sundaram.

"We realise many of us have no or little experience in running government. Of course, this expertise must come from those with experience in running previous governments," said Tun Dr Mahathir at a press conference yesterday.

Pakatan Harapan's campaign promises include abolishing the goods and services tax (GST), postponing student loan repayments for graduates earning below RM4,000 (S$1,350), eliminating unnecessary debts imposed on Felda settlers, introducing pension fund contributions for housewives and raising the minimum wage. The council will study how best to implement these.

It will also look into the dealings at embattled state fund 1MDB.

"They have some expertise and, if necessary, they can choose some other experts to work with them," Dr Mahathir added.

Former prime minister Najib Razak has been linked to money-laundering allegations surrounding 1MDB after RM2.6 billion was found in his personal accounts. He said the funds were a donation from the Saudi royal family, and the attorney-general has cleared him of any wrongdoing.

Ongoing probes in several countries, including the United States, flagged large sums of fund transfers. Among other things, the money was found to have been used for purchases of jewellery, a pink diamond, prime real estate in Los Angeles, New York and London, and the mega-yacht Equanimity.

Dr Mahathir admitted that the probe would take time due to its complex nature involving "a lot of people and decisions made".

The council secretariat will be headed by economist Muhammed Abdul Khalid, and its media and communications team will be led by former New Straits Times Press editor-in-chief Kadir Jasin.

Analysts lauded the decision to form the council as a pragmatic one, given that many lawmakers in the new administration will be involved in federal government for the first time.

"As advisers, they'll limit any criticism that some ministers may not be competent enough," said Dr Ooi Kee Beng, executive director of the Penang Institute.

Trinna Leong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 13, 2018, with the headline 'New council to provide advice on economic matters, probe 1MDB'. Print Edition | Subscribe