It is not illegal to have friends. It is not illegal to help a friend either. Every culture encourages that. Help can be transactional, where both sides simultaneously do things for each other. It can also be one-sided, with only one party doing the other a favour. That isn’t illegal and is common amongst friends.
Why then has the country come up in arms against Sharizat Abd Jalil? Why does it give people a sick-in-the-gut feeling when hearing about the National Feedlot Corporation’s RM250 million fiasco? Why are so many people angry over her family company buying luxury apartments, hotel stakes and land, offered as sweet deal from a friend called Pak Lah?
The Pakatan Rakyat has done a gutsy and commendable job in bringing these findings to the forefront. Sharizat’s husband Mohd Salleh Ismail shady dealings were common gossip in banking circles. The media knew it well too. However, it is the PKR strategy director Rafizi Ramli and Ampang MP Zuraida Kamaruddin that crystallized the outrage, presented some documents and made it a topic of household discussion.
PKR strategy director Rafizi Ramli’s move, led to an investigation by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) on Wanita Umno chief Shahrizat Abdul Jalil however, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) cleared her as it found “there was no case against her”. Demanding an independent investigation into Sharizat, is a disappointment. Firstly, a fair and independent investigation is nearly impossible in Malaysia against the Sharizat’s family, especially when they are in power and connected to UMNO. Second, and more important, even if a fair investigation is conducted, there may not be much illegality in what Sharizat’s husband did (ignoring the charges of criminal breach of trust and violations of the Companies Act, as alleged in some news reports). After all, Sharizat’s husband made a friend in business consultant Shamsulbahrin Ismail, and Shamsulbahrin Ismail was suppose to pay police officers at the Commercial Crimes Division in Bukit Perdana to close the case and help Sharizat’s husband out. That’s all the paper trail may reveal, despite exhaustive investigations. In fact, when powerful people help each other, they are smart enough to keep the paper trail sacrosanct. Expensive lawyers work hard to ensure the deals have a semblance of legality, whatever the intent.
In fact, proximity and access to UMNO are of huge value. If National Feedlot Corporation (NFCorp) seniors are seen hanging out with the Prime Minister then and his son-in-law, would not the Minister of Agriculture and the UMNO Menteri Besar of Negeri Sembilan view National Feedlot Corporation (NFCorp) many request, well, a little differently? Neither National Feedlot Corporation (NFCorp), nor the family, nor the Minister of Agriculture or the Negeri Sembilan government may ever sit down and spell out how each will help the other. They don’t need to, for they are friends. There’s nothing illegal about it, right?
In fact, this lack of, or hard to prove illegality is the cornerstone of the defence put forward by the UMNOs’ army of spokespersons and eager-beaver sycophants. ‘It’s a private matter’ or ‘prove give and take’ or ‘prove abuse of power’ are often the arguments given. It is hard to fault them completely, for the legal bases are probably well covered, or at least very difficult to prove otherwise.
And yet, what happened is ethically wrong. Politicians work for the benefit of common people, not for their family, not for their friends, business partners and relatives. At least that is the assumption people had about the Sharizat family. People also assumed that they believed in simplicity and were above personal greed, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. After all, what use is wearing simple baju kurung, implying simplicity, when your family members are accumulating hundreds of millions by exploiting political power?
There will be a huge price UMNO and Barisan Natinal will pay for this. Ethics may not matter in courts, but do matter in the hearts of people. A family that betrays trust will pay the price in the next election. It may even lose that trust forever.
However, the Sharizats are by no means alone in this. Nor is this just a UMNO issue. A large number of politicians have lost track of the idea that every profession in this world has ethics – it may not be illegal to break them but still is definitely wrong. A doctor must treat his patient as soon as possible, it is assumed, under ethical medical practice. But if he delays treatment, it would be hard to prove it illegal. A lecturer must try to teach his students well, though if he doesn’t, it won’t be illegal. Society needs ethics as much as laws to function well.
A politician should think a hundred times before forging business deals with people with whom there might be a future conflict of interest, and a million times before they accept any substantial favors. Favours usually oblige one to return them, and if that means hurting the interests of people that put you in that position, the effects can be devastating. Sharizat’s husband’s foolish greed, and the other family members’ tacit approval, has cost Sharizat her ministership. The cost will also be in terms of reputation and esteem. Wise people know these are priceless and far more valuable than anything quoted in ringgit.