Mahathir keen to offer information at Malaysia inquiry into forex losses

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad delivering his speech during a forum in Shah Alam, on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad delivering his speech during a forum in Shah Alam, on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.PHOTO: AFP

PUTRAJAYA - Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad says he is keen to offer information to the Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) that is probing foreign exchange losses suffered by Malaysia's central bank in the 1990s.

Making a surprise appearance at the proceedings on Thursday (Aug 24), Tun Mahathir told reporters on the sidelines, "I must admit I know quite a lot. Maybe this is of interest to the commission, to know what I know."

The inquiry, set up by the government, is probing the billions of dollars lost in forex trades over 20 years ago, during the leadership of Dr Mahathir.

Former central bank assistant governor Abdul Murad Khalid had alleged in a media interview in January that the actual losses were US$10 billion (S$13.6 billion), far higher than the RM9 billion (S$2.9 billion) that was disclosed then.

Dr Mahathir has not been called upon to testify yet, and was attending the proceedings as an observer. Those with knowledge of the matter say he is considered "a person of interest" to the inquiry and as such, has appointed a lawyer to represent him.

"I'm curious to know what is happening, whether the name royal given to it is reflected in the proceeding," he said on Thursday.

"The expectation is that they (the RCI) would not in any way blacken the image of the royalty," he added.

The former premier now leads opposition party Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, leaving ruling party Umno after clashing with its president Prime Minister Najib Razak over Datuk Seri Najib's alleged links to billions misappropriated from state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

Meanwhile former deputy prime minister and now jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim also expressed his interest in appearing as a witness in the hearing, since he was a finance minister at that time and his name was brought up in proceedings. 
“I would consider it quite unjust if other witnesses are allowed to make prejudicial allegations against me in front of the Commission  and I am not allowed to make my response to them in the same manner,” he said in a statement issued on Thursday. 
Mr Murad had said on Monday that Anwar told him  he would need to resign as finance minister if the actual amount of forex losses was revealed to the public. 
Anwar denied he said those words. "His malicious insinuation  is clear – that I had implied a cover-up was needed. That allegation is false. I never said that to him," Anwar said in his statement.
The jailed de facto leader of Parti Keadilan Rakyat also said that he had given replies on the forex losses in Parliament in 1993 and 1994, based on figures and briefings given to him by the central bank . 
Opposition stalwart from the Democratic Action Party, Mr Lim Kit Siang said the commission is “afraid to summon Anwar, although Anwar was Finance Minister during a major part of the relevant period” when the losses occurred. 
Dr Mahathir, Anwar and Mr Lim helm parties that form the opposition pact Pakatan Harapan. The fourth party in the pact is Parti Amanah Negara.

Dr Mahathir told reporters on Thursday he would not resign as a leader in opposition pact Pakatan Harapan, if the inquiry finds that he is implicated in the forex losses.

"I won't accept it. It has nothing to do with my politics," he said, referring to the possibility he could be forced to resign.

Responding to speculation that he was ill, Dr Mahathir, 92, said: "You look at me, do you think I just recovered from a serious illness? For lots of people it's wishful thinking on their part. They would wish I'm dead. Because I'm a nuisance, I'm a danger to the whole nation."

During Thursday's hearing, the commission called a former employee of Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM) as its first witness of the day. Wong Yew Sen, who used to work in the bank's internal audit department echoed Datuk Murad's earlier statement that there were no set limits on the amount of forex traded, allowing the bank's management-level dealers to take large positions in the market.

However Mr Wong said he could not confirm if there were attempts to conceal the US$10 billion losses claimed by Mr Murad.

"In my opinion, there's no benefit for Bank Negara to hide the forex losses," he told the commission.

The commission determined on Monday that the forex losses had amounted to roughly RM31.5 billion and the figure was concealed in BNM's reports.

The commission also heard on Thursday that an External Reserve Committee was in place to monitor forex trading but the committee took no punitive action after the bank lost billions.

Mr Wong and another two former employees of BNM told the panel that final trade decisions were made by former assistant governor Nor Mohamed Yakcop, who was then in charge of  the bank's forex trading. Tan Sri Nor, and then central bank governor Tan Sri Jaffar Hussein resigned in 1994 over the scandal.  

Dr Mahathir's lawyer, Haniff Khatri Abdulla also spoke to the media. He questioned Mr Murad's credibility, asking why he had waited over two decades before coming forward with "startling revelations".

"If this is so, then why did he do nothing for 25 years?" Mr Haniff asked.