Malaysia lawmakers debate hot issue of 'direct negotiations', previously a byword for graft

Former Malaysian finance minister Lim Guan Eng said that the direct awards dished out were for projects "under special circumstances". PHOTO: REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - A leader of a small Malaysian political party made a report to the anti-graft agency on Tuesday (Aug 25) against the previous Pakatan Harapan (PH) government for awarding RM6.61 billion (S$2.2 billion) worth of projects through "direct negotiations", which caused a ruckus in Parliament on Monday.

Parti Cinta Malaysia vice-president R. Muralitharan urged the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission to investigate former finance minister Lim Guan Eng, who had awarded projects during his tenure.

The term "direct negotiations" in Malaysia usually involves a government ministry or department awarding a project directly to a pre-selected contractor or supplier, instead of calling for an open tender.

It became a byword for corruption in the Barisan Nasional (BN) administration, with billions of ringgit worth of projects allegedly awarded directly to cronies until BN was toppled in the May 2018 General Election.

The PH government that took over promised to issue tenders for government contracts.

But PH lost power in February this year to the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government, which included BN parties such as Umno.

Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Tengku Abdul Aziz said in Parliament on Monday that PH had awarded 101 projects totalling RM6.6 billion through direct negotiations, sparking a war of words in the House between PN and opposition PH lawmakers.

Answering a query from an MP, Datuk Seri Zafrul had said: "To answer your question, under the former administration, 101 projects worth a total of RM6.61 billion were approved through direct negotiations by the Finance Ministry."

He clarified that direct negotiations are allowed under certain conditions with approval from the Finance Ministry, such as when there is only one source for the required supply, or that the project cannot be delayed as it could cause damage to the country.

"In specific situations with the approval of the Finance Ministry, if (there are) urgent requirements in that it will affect government services and interest... procurement via direct negotiations can be implemented," he said.

His reply was quickly drowned out by PN MPs from Umno who said the previous government had said it would stop all direct negotiations. PH ministers also jumped up to defend Lim and the previous government.

Later, Transport Minister Wee Ka Siong wrote on Facebook: "What has happened? Hasn't Lim always said that Pakatan will only award (through) open tenders? This is something shocking for all Malaysians."

Lim, the finance minister under then Premier Mahathir Mohamad, said on Tuesday that the direct awards dished out were for projects "under special circumstances", which was allowed according to the guidelines set by the Finance Ministry.

Lim said he had nothing to hide as the Mahathir Cabinet had approved these projects and asked Mr Zafrul to list all the 101 projects.

"Be transparent, be brave. He made the accusation, back it up," Lim said, according to Free Malaysia Today news site.

Dr Mahathir on Tuesday issued a statement, and separately a video, asking Mr Zafrul to list all the projects together with the names of those who were awarded these, so that people can see for themselves whether PH did anything wrong.

Lim listed 12 projects that were awarded through direct negotiations under the BN government, saying these alone were worth RM139.3 billion. They included a RM1.25 billion solar project for schools in Sarawak, for which Rosmah Mansor, the wife of former premier Najib Razak, has been put on trial for corruption.

Lim then threw the issue back at PN's Finance Minister: "Can Zafrul also state the value of projects given through direct negotiation approved by himself under PN?"

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