A SINGAPORE Straits Times report on the poor returns of Khazanah Nasional Bhd’s investment strategy and leadership made the headlines in Malaysian media, which have been surprisingly critical of the sovereign wealth fund of late.
The criticism can be traced to one issue – the top job at Khazanah, which has been held by Azman Mokhtar for the past 15 years. His contract is expiring in 2019 and a panel has been formed to select his successor from a list of candidates, among which is Arul Kanda Kandasamy of 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB).
With Arul Kanda’s time at 1MDB coming to an end next month, expect frenzied campaigning by his supporters to land him the plum opening at Khazanah.
The first salvo for a change in management was fired two months ago when Peter Bellew quit as managing director of flag carrier Malaysia Airlines Bhd (MAB). Two newspapers – the New Straits Times and The Malay Mail – carried similar reports quoting sources that the Khazanah management was behind Bellew’s shock resignation.
Khazanah denied it. So did Bellew.
Yesterday, the second salvo was fired when Singapore Straits Times and a Malaysian television station reported on the national sovereign wealth fund’s supposed sluggish performance and misfiring investment strategy.
Khazanah hit back, alleging that the reports were misleading but with the newly-created No. 2 position at Khazanah due to be filled soon, the media campaign is likely to get more intense.
Whoever becomes the deputy will be in pole position to take over when Azman leaves in 2019. Aside from Arul Kanda, another leading contender is Tengku Zafrul Aziz, who leads Malaysia’s second-biggest lender, CIMB Group, which is a unit of Khazanah.
The articulate Arul Kanda counts among his supporters several ministers and operatives in Prime Minister Najib Razak’s camp. They are grateful to him for explaining the 1MDB scandal to the Umno ground
But his critics say that his record at 1MDB is patchy, with the Bandar Malaysia imbroglio the biggest sticking point. There is also a concern that political considerations will weigh heavy on Khazanah’s investment decisions with him at the helm.
But Najib, who is Khazanah chairman, has not made clear whether he wants the No. 2 to come from within Khazanah or if he prefers Arul Kanda or even CIMB’s Tengku Zafrul.
It is also understood that Azman’s replacement is unlikely to come from within Khazanah itself. Azman himself stepped in from outside after leading his BinaFikir consultancy to work on Malaysia Airlines’ previous turnaround called the Wide Asset Unbundling.
Under then prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Azman was mandated to run Khazanah professionally, with focus on correct processes and good governance, apart from catalysing various economic corridors.
He put in a team with its share of successes and failures but always sticking to a prudent process brought comfortable returns to the sovereign wealth fund.
But in recent months, headlines have made clear that Najib’s No. 1 criterion for appointees to government-linked-companies is loyalty to him. Especially as he goes into campaign mode for the next general elections likely to be held in March or April.
That leaves him with several choices, including Arul Kanda and Tengku Zafrul. And the decision could come as early as the middle of next month when the Khazanah board meets after the Umno general assembly next week.
Hence the campaign via the media now to make the Khazanah management appear they have been less than able all these years.