Telekom impasse raises spectre of KL politicking

Telekom Malaysia has had two acting CEOs in the last 12 months, and the current chairman Rosli Man insists the government has yet to finalise its pick.
Telekom Malaysia has had two acting CEOs in the last 12 months, and the current chairman Rosli Man insists the government has yet to finalise its pick.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

One of Malaysia's biggest companies, Telekom Malaysia, has been without a permanent chief executive since last year's general election, raising concerns over political interference from the Prime Minister's Office in the running of the national telecoms provider.

It has had two acting CEOs in the last 12 months, and current chairman Rosli Man insists the government has yet to finalise its pick.

The Finance Ministry has a golden share in the state firm which controls the phone and Internet infrastructure nationwide, giving it the final say on key decisions such as the appointment of top office bearers.

The Telekom board of directors has said its nominee for the CEO position, current chief operating officer Imri Mokhtar, was accepted by the ministry in February.

But Mr Rosli shocked corporate and political watchers last week, when he said at the annual general meeting that he had been instructed by the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) to hold back the appointment.

It was only yesterday that Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad finally stepped in to say that Mr Imri would not be elevated despite Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng revealing as recently as last Saturday that he had not been informed of any change by the Premier.

"What I received was from the Prime Minister himself. I have to stress this, it must come from the PM," Mr Lim had said.

This has raised the ire of shareholders and surprised financial market watchers, who have remained cautious towards Malaysia due to a lack of policy clarity amid frequent interventions in government-linked companies (GLCs) by the Mahathir administration since he returned to power last year.

 

"Such concerns will be exacerbated when huge state enterprises like Telekom are operating without a CEO for 12 months and the blame game over the delay is played out in the open among key stakeholders," political risk consultancy KRA's strategy director Amir Fareed Rahim told The Straits Times.

The issue is being closely watched as Telekom is one of the country's largest GLCs, and the Pakatan Harapan administration had promised that it would appoint professionals, and not political appointees, to lead these state enterprises. This would have been a departure from the norm under the ousted Barisan Nasional government. The Telekom CEO vacancy arose in June last year, when former prime minister Najib Razak's media adviser Shazalli Ramly stepped down.

But populist policies adopted by the new administration and the imposition of stricter regulations have hit a number of GLCs including Telekom, which lost more than half its market value in the first six months of Pakatan's leadership.

In trying to lower the cost of living for voters, the government curtailed wholesale prices of Internet bandwidth provided by Telekom, shrinking its market value as worried investors shied away.

According to Institutional Investors Council of Malaysia adviser Lya Rahman, who was at the annual general meeting, Mr Rosli first told shareholders the Finance Ministry had not responded to its recommendation for Mr Imri to become CEO. However, he then backtracked and said the ministry had in fact given its approval in February, but that the PMO had stepped in to block the appointment.

"Either he (Rosli) was trying to cover up something or, having been caught in a quandary, he (said) something which he shouldn't. From a corporate governance standpoint, the different accounts are troublesome," she said.

She then posed the question: "Why is the PMO interfering with the decision made by the special shareholder... Are there people in PMO who are more powerful than the PM and Minister of Finance?"

Official sources and executives at Telekom told ST that Mr Rosli had strictly referred to the PMO and not the Premier himself. This was because Tun Dr Mahathir had been consulted and did not object to Mr Imri's appointment, as other stakeholders had approved the choice.

"Khazanah and KKMM were both agreeable," a top government official told ST, referring to the sovereign wealth fund Khazanah that owns 26 per cent of Telekom Malaysia, and the Communications and Multimedia Ministry (KKMM) that regulates the industry.

Mr Imri, who has guided Telekom to nearly double its profit in the first quarter of this year, was made acting CEO in November and the board then recommended to the Finance Ministry that he take up the position permanently. Mr Rosli became chairman on Dec 3.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 06, 2019, with the headline 'Telekom impasse raises spectre of KL politicking'. Print Edition | Subscribe