FELDA’s former chairman and politician Mohd Isa Samad has survived one political trial after another to remain in favour with the powers that be.
But after a year of settlers complaining about heavy debts and investigations into dubious deals on his watch, Isa’s political future is no longer clear.
Isa has survived much controversy since he entered Malaysian politics in 1978.
He won the Linggi state seat in Negri Sembilan and served as a member of the state executive council until 1982, when he went on to become the menteri besar for 22 years.
The former teacher had his Umno membership suspended for three years from June 2005 until June 2008, after the party’s disciplinary board found him guilty of “money politics” – an Umno euphemism for corruption – in his bid to contest for the post of vice-president for the 2004-2007 term. He was caught buying votes.
He was initially slapped with a six-year suspension, which was reduced to three three.
He won the vice-presidency with 1,507 votes against competitors Malacca chief minister Mohd Ali Rustam (1,329) and international trade and industry minister at the time, Muhyiddin Yassin (1,234), but the win was nullified by his offence.
Now the popular Teluk Kemang Umno division leader finds himself in the thick of a fraud case in which the ownership of prime Felda land worth some RM270 million in Jalan Semarak in Kuala Lumpur has been transferred under dubious circumstances.
The Felda board of directors claimed that they did not know about the transaction, which took place while Isa was Felda chairman.
Investigations are ongoing into the Semarak land case.
Shahrir Samad replaced Isa as Felda chairman in January last year.
Felda, the agency established in 1956 to handle the resettlement of the rural poor into new developed areas and to organise smallholder farms growing cash crops, was supposed to have been the ideal platform for Isa to make a political comeback.
As Felda chairman from 2011 until 2017, Isa oversaw resettlement schemes in 54 parliamentary constituencies out of 222 in Malaysia.
This constitutes a vote bank of 1.2 million eligible voters, or 5% of the total electorate, who have proved to be faithful to the ruling coalition for the past six decades. Indeed, they are a “fixed deposit” for Umno.
Isa oversaw the listing of Felda Global Venture Holdings Bhd (FGV) as its chairman in June 2012. It was the world’s second-largest initial public offering (IPO) that year at US$3.1 billion (RM9.93 billion), after Facbook. Its shares have sunk since, trading at RM1.69 at the close of 2017 on Dec 29.
In June 2017, ISA resigned as FGV chairman
The 68-year-old politician appears to have squandered the opportunity to win the hearts of the Felda settlers and to bounce back politically.
Trouble sparked in the middle of last year with a public quarrel between Isa and FGV, Zakaria Arshad. There were claims of mismanagement that have now come under investigation by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC).
Calls for Isa’s removal as chairman of the FGV board gained momentum after Zakaria was asked to resign and then suspended when he refused.
Felda settlers, meanwhile, were crying for relief from heavy debts incurred via loans they had taken to buy FGV shares as well as from Felda’s replanting schemes.
Felda’s miserable performance and increasing complaints from the settlers led to Isa’s removal as chairman.
Isa subsequently came under investigation and was remanded for five days in August for MACC to question him over the suspicious purchase of a London hotel by Felda Investment Corporation (FIC), where he was non-executive director from 2013 until last year.
MACC is still investigating claims of discrepancies in the purchase of Park City Hotel in the upmarket Kensington area of London between 2013 and 2015.
FIC is reported to have bought the hotel for an inflated price of RM330 million against the market value of RM110 million at the time.
There’s also Felda’s questionable purchase of Merdeka Palace Hotel in Kuching, Sarawak.
Isa arrived at the Putrajaya court complex in a black MPV for the remand hearing, wearing the MACC orange remand garb but was not handcuffed “for health reasons”.
Tainted past, cloudy future
Isa has somehow always managed to ride the stormy waves of his political career.
After his suspension in Umno was lifted, he contested in the Jempol parliamentary constituency in the 2004 general election – and won.
He was appointed federal territories minister until 2005, when he had to vacate the post after being found guilty of money politics in the said party contest.
In 2009, Isa bounced back. He was picked to contest the Bagan Pinang by-election, which he won big against the PAS candidate with a majority of 5,435 votes.
Isa was credited with “regaining Umno’s dignity” because his by-election win was Barisan Nasional’s first after nine consecutive losses. BN was still nursing its wounds after losing the coveted two-thirds majority in Parliament in the 13th general election the year before.
Isa has a large following in Teluk Kemang in Negri Sembilan, a frontline state in the next general election. He is also well-liked by non-Malay voters in the state, who remember that he had helped Chinese villagers in Lukut obtain grants for the land they were occupying for years.
Against such a backdrop, Prime Minister Najib Razak’s appointment of Isa as the Felda chairman was regarded as a strategic move.
Isa still appears to have some political clout despite his dismal performance at Felda. After his removal, he was made acting chairman of the Land Public Transport Commission, which many considered to be a “reward” from Najib.
Now that the Jalan Semarak land scandal has come to light, however, it begs the question whether his political masters will write him off or attempt to salvage his political fortunes in the face of the 14th general election, where the stakes are higher than ever before for Umno and BN. This is not due to merely a stronger opposition but because Malays and Felda settlers may have just about had enough of controversy and problems.