The public spat between Felda Global Ventures Holdings Bhd’s (FGV) top guns – chairperson Isa Abdul Samad and chief executive officer Zakaria Arshad – has led some to believe that this could be a proxy war waged by key Umno chieftains.
Zakaria was suspended after he reportedly refused Isa’s request for him to resign over alleged wrongdoing in the credit arrangements between Delima Oil Products Sdn Bhd and Dubai-based Safitex Trading LLC.
Following his suspension, Zakaria went to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) on his own accord and submitted documents to assist investigations into the allegations concerning mismanagement in FGV.
His combative nature and initial willingness to speak to the press to offer his side of the story led some to think that he may have the support of certain powerful people.
So is anyone backing Zakaria, a non-politician? And what about Isa, who himself is an Umno heavyweight – is he acting alone or otherwise?
Malaysiakini spoke to a few individuals who have been keeping close tabs on the developments in both the Federal Land Development Authority (Felda) and FGV for their take on the matter.
A source who declined to be named told Malaysiakini that the crisis was an internal feud involving Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak’s advisers.
“Zakaria is on the side of Najib’s advisers, fighting against politicians like Isa. This is why Zakaria was strangely daring. If he didn’t have such backing, he wouldn’t have been like that.”
However, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) strategist Rais Hussin believes that Zakaria’s bold action was because he is a man with integrity.
“Credit goes to Zakaria that he didn’t go quietly, like any other corporate guy, because he knows what has happened. When he went to the MACC headquarters to surrender the documents, he knew what he was doing.”
Zakaria, Rais pointed out, is not a political appointee and knows Felda “inside out”, referring to his status as a Felda settler’s son.
“He has seen everything, (especially) what that has happened in the last few years. He doesn’t want to be the person to be blamed for something that was not his fault in the first place.”
Commenting on the reported late payments by Safitex to Delima Oil Products – the reason cited for Zakaria’s suspension – Rais believes that Isa was simply trying to find an excuse to “get rid” of Zakaria.
“When he first took over FGV, he (Zakaria) immediately said that FGV would exit from areas that were not part of FGV’s core business. He said he’s going to focus on Felda’s core business, which is the right thing to do.
“Obviously, this didn’t go well with all those warlords within Felda,” he added.
Asked whether Zakaria could have the support of Felda chairperson Shahrir Samad, Rais believes that the latter genuinely wants to “clean up Felda”.
“If he finds that Zakaria can do it, obviously he would like to use his skills, knowledge and abilities to do so.”
‘Zakaria the third casualty in FGV’
National Association of Felda Settlers’ Children (Anak) president Mazlan Aliman noted that Zakaria was the third “casualty” among the top FGV leadership in recent years.
“Remember, before FGV was listed, director-general Zulkifli Abdul Wahab was removed because he was not on the same page with Isa. He was sent overseas until he retired.
“After that was Faizoull Ahmad, who although initially trusted by Isa, became his victim ultimately. With Zakaria, I detected problems between the two from the start,” Mazlan said.
Therefore, he does not think that Zakaria is being backed by anyone in particular.
Like Rais, Mazlan cited Zakaria’s upbringing and his more than three decades of experience in Felda.
“Maybe he is in the right because he has integrity. I know how Isa is – if he doesn’t like someone, he will target him. This happened to Zulkifli.
“I think he (Zakaria) is a gentleman because he was willing to come forward. I salute him for that. I hope he will persevere.”
Former minister Zainuddin Maidin slammed the way Zakaria was put on forced suspension.
“When you suspended him, you put him guilty in the eye of the public. That’s why he ‘jumped’ and immediately sought to clear his name.
“The way they (FGV board) acted was not refined. They should have investigated properly before asking him to resign,” Zainuddin said.
He also opined that Zakaria would not have gone to the MACC if he was indeed guilty.
All in all, Zainuddin believes that the crisis is simply “a battle between a professional and a politician”.
“And, as always, politicians will win. Politicians from the government side would always win in such instances,” he argued, citing the country’s “history”.
However, he noted, there could also be a fight brewing among the politicians.
“I think it may be a proxy war. But both Isa and Shahrir are Najib’s men,” he pointed out.
Najib’s men they may be, but Zainuddin cited Shahrir’s call for representatives from Felda to be placed in FGV.
“Zakaria supports Shahrir in wanting three representatives from Felda to sit in FGV’s board of directors. So who is Shahrir representing and what about Isa?
“You cannot deny the existence of Isa in FGV is due to politics as he is Najib’s friend. Najib, I believe, is in a dilemma,” he said.
It would not be far-fetched, therefore, to state that Isa may have the backing of Najib.
On this, Rais pointed out that Isa was appointed by Najib to head Felda, despite having a history of graft.
But was there a possibility that Isa had become a liability to Najib following his premature decision to remove Zakaria, which had led to the public spat?
That could be the case but Rais has a slightly different take on the matter.
“On a greater scheme of things, I believe Najib is more of a liability to himself rather than Isa,” Rais quipped.
‘Isa doesn’t need enemies’
Asked whether there was a possibility that Isa’s opponents were capitalising on his poorly thought-out decision in making the first move against Zakaria, Rais said he believes Isa was more of an enemy to himself.
“He doesn’t need enemies. He did enough to harm Felda in many ways, so he doesn’t need anyone else (to do him harm).
“The many lawsuits that Felda and FGV have made over the years since he was appointed as chairperson – it’s testimony that he has failed his job. Any decent person would have resigned and left.
“People like Shahrir may want to make a difference. But he has to act in a restrained manner and is probably inhibited from doing what he can do.”
What about Special Affairs Department (Jasa) director-general Puad Zarkashi’s call for both Isa and Zakaria to resign? Does it mean anything?
Rais thinks that it was merely because Puad did not want both men to continue their spat in public.
“But Zakaria has a strong personality (and) very strong integrity. The only way to keep all these things under wraps is by telling both of them to resign.
“But this is uncalled for. If anyone is to resign it should be Isa, not Zakaria. Zakaria is doing a great job since he became the chief executive officer, we all know that.”
Mazlan, too, agrees with this.
“Why should Zakaria be removed? If Zakaria is removed and someone else replaces him and that someone does not see eye to eye with Isa … will the top management continue to go in and out of FGV?
“What’s going to happen to FGV? Even now, FGV’s shares are bad,” he said.
Mazlan also questioned the appointment of former minister Idris Jala as an “independent party” to look into the decision to suspend the FGV officials.
“The right person should be former Felda chairperson Raja (Muhammad) Alias (Raja Muhammad Ali), who left Felda with excellent services.
Rais, who also questioned Idris’ appointment, said the former minister was “nowhere close to being independent”.
“Idris has been a Najib loyalist. So now two parties are fighting; this guy is brought in to see how it can be moderated and find a way that will spill the beans in a minimum way.
“I don’t know how his appointment will help. Who knows, maybe they want to ‘transition’ Idris to take over Felda.”